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WHY THE OBSESSION WITH A-LEVELS?

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Cathryn Kozlowski focused on getting top music qualifications rather than top A-levels, but now she wants to be a lawyer and is finding that firms hold this against her

Almost every training contract and vac scheme application now begins with a filtering process, whereby you must state whether you achieved the usual minimum A-level requirement of AAB.

If you haven’t achieved this, you are typically asked whether you wish to continue with your application, bearing in mind that your application doesn’t meet the firm’s requirements.  So, my question is: why are A-levels still so important when it comes to legal applications? After all, most applicants completed their A-levels over half a decade ago.

It’s clear that with increasing numbers of applicants, firms need some sort of filter to manage the flow of applications. It is also understandable that A-levels can provide evidence that an applicant is able to consistently achieve highly, and is able to remain focussed throughout their education. However, not every individual wishing to pursue law, for whatever reason, has achieved the minimum of AAB.

The biggest concern for me personally is that A-levels are completed between the ages of 17 and 18 – not exactly the age when one is mature enough to know where to establish future careers. More and more students are completing a degree in another subject, and later converting to law. For me, music was my passion until mid-way through university, and my desire to pursue law didn’t become evident until the third year of university. For this reason, I focused on my music prior to university, and achieved a high number of music qualifications alongside my A-levels, as these were the qualifications my university had specified I must achieve. Unfortunately, I achieved these at the detriment of my A-levels and so now find myself in a difficult position. So what can be done to overcome this obstacle?

Some careers advisors and practising lawyers tell you that it may be possible to overcome an A-level “blip” with high levels of legal work experience. This is where the real problem lies. How is one supposed to gain work experience, whether it be a week’s work experience or a paralegal position, without the A-level grades? It appears to be a vicious circle. While there are firms that will endeavour to assist candidates get their foot on the legal ladder, it’s far more difficult to gain a position at the top tier firms with lower A-level grades. Surely a more realistic assessment on a candidate’s dedication to law would be to place more emphasis on what grade they got in their degree and/or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)?

Unfortunately, for the time being, while there are success stories out there, it is an undisputed fact that students with top A-level grades will continue to be more successful in the quest for a coveted training contract with a magic circle firm.

Cathryn Kozlowski is a law graduate who is interested in media and criminal law. She is currently working in wine investment, and blogs at Legally-London.

7 Comments

@Was_Lex

I am in exactly the same position and have run up exactly the same issue. I took my a-levels 15 years ago. Despite 7 years in the army and 6 working in blue-chip firms, including a magic cirlce law firm, I can’t get people to look past my shoddy results. I’ve spoken to grad recruiters who assure me they look at the bigger picture but it’s hard to believe. Armed with a good 2:1, a pain-stakenly crafted application, pro-bono experience and years of the supposedly elusive ‘commercial awareness’ I’d at least hope for a shot at the assessment day. No dice.

Sorry, rant over!

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Shan

Having worked in recruitment, I think a key component of this is competition. Competition is fierce at law firms and even more so given the effects of the credit crunch. Employers as a result can be even more pernickety about who they choose. Because a large proportion of candidates have good GCSEs, good A levels, 2:1s or 1sts at degree level, these then become standard requirements. From then on candidates need to differentiate themselves and that is why the A levels have become so important.

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APM

It is easy to understand why recruiters focus on filtering candidates by using A level grades as a measure – it’s quick and it suits them because they’re lazy. A levels are completely redundant the moment you graduate from university with a good degree and have decent, relevant work experience and demonstrable skills under your belt. A levels are fit for one purpose and that is university entry but even then they are a crude way of measuring the ability to pass an exam and do not necessarily represent an individual’s potential.

The focus on A level grades filters out many candidates who did not get the opportunity to go to the best schools, who did not get the 1 on 1 attention which students at other schools may have had, who did not get the careers advice which may have incentivised them to push harder. Being told your grades are a ‘blip’ when you didn’t get straight As and went to a poor school or had a hard time at home is an insult.

Diversity is a real issue in the legal profession and this is hardly a surprise when most TC places go to those who have had a stable, loving and privileged start to life. Of course there are the “success stories” – those who have overcome adversity to make it into the legal profession yet these are held up to demonstrate a firm’s commitment to diversity and used to benefit the firm rather than acknowledging the individual’s achievement. This is a sad state of affairs and I imagine it to be the same across all of the “professions”.

More of an effort needs to be made to consider candidates’ achievements in context. Until this happens, the legal profession is going to look exactly how it has always looked and something makes me think that it doesn’t actually mind too much. The legal profession’s measure of achievement doesn’t necessarily fit everyone and it is losing out as a result.

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anon.

I completely understand your frustration. I was educated in Ireland where for our A Levels we take 7 subjects. It is also terrible preparation for university as it is just an exercise in rote learning. For example, I got a not so great C3 in history but at university graduated with a 2:1 in history from a uni that often ranks higher than most of your red bricks. I also have a 2:1 in law on top of that an arbitration qualification and 4 years legal experience gained over all my years in university. I understand why firms do it but they a missing out on some great candidates.

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kris

focusing on A levels ensures they will not be troubled with *ahem* ‘mature’ applicants.

most want 24 year olds who will not question photocopying duties, killer hours and toilet cleaning duties.

There are a handful of City firms that look at the person rather than solely the A level result and would snap Mr Wuz Lex up in a heartbeat.

The majority however are know-nothing factories. They are uninterested in *you* for a reason.

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Anonymous

I struggled with this aspect of my CV in which, despite good EC’s and work experience, I didn’t achieve what I should have due to a lack of maturity on my part in AS levels. I only got BBB but still managed to achieve a high 2:1 in Political Science from a redbrick uni, something I believe put me at least in line with many people already with TC’s at large firms. It was hard initially trying to persuade law firms that I am not the same as my 16 year old self, however, when I finally got my training contract it was because the firm managed to look past it and focus on what I could provide them in the future, not fixating on mistakes I may have made in the past. Keep at it and try to distract them from any previous academic blemishes with strong overall applications!

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Lara

I have exactly the same problem; ABC at A level but a 2:1 in Law from a redbrick. The most irritating thing for me is that the only reason I have a C instead of ABA is that I was advised that Politics was a better choice, being an “academic” subject, than Art if I was to go on to do Law. If I had continued with Art I would have had an A. I now know that firms pay very little attention to the subjects and just look at the grades! I have considered retaking but many firms want to know the results achieved in a single sitting.

I am a rounded graduate with lots of extra-curricular responsibilities and examples of leadership, team-working, communication etc etc, under my belt. I work at a top 20 firm as a paralegal, having worked my way up from a secretary at a local firm after finishing my LPC and hope that this determination combined with the level of responsibility I have, will give me the opportunity to show I am more than capable to excel as a trainee in a larger firm. But then again I have received 20 rejections so far.

Good Luck to all struggling.

L

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