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‘I applied to every firm in my home town for a training contract and they all rejected me without interview’

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Rejection has proved a source of motivation for BPP chief Carl Lygo on his journey from a South Yorkshire comprehensive to the heights of legal education, via a stint at the Bar

I am lucky.

I was raised by a single parent mother, who one would now characterise as being “severely dyslexic” and who worked as a sewing machinist. I was brought up in the coal mining area of South Yorkshire, described at the time as a “European Poverty Zone”. I attended a local comprehensive school where less than 2% of students went on to university. I received free school meals (which statistics at the time suggested meant that I was in the “academically written-off” category). I also inherited dyslexia, although I didn’t realise.

My local careers service advised that I should go into a career in construction, possibly as a brick-layer. My mum taught me to make the best of my situation and maximise my potential, so I ignored the careers advice and decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. I took A levels at the local technical college because that enabled me to work while I studied. My grades were not exceptional, as I had not realised that one was supposed to revise for exams (I know this sounds silly but nobody in my family had taken an exam and nobody had explained to me about revising).

I was the first generation of my family to attend university and I quickly learnt that I had the capacity to work harder and longer than anybody in my year. I wasn’t the brightest or sharpest intellect but I was disciplined enough to throw all my efforts into study and revision. It paid off. I graduated with a first class honours degree, won scholarships to do a research masters degree and qualify at the Bar.

Along the way there were set-backs, and it is how you deal with those set-backs that marks out your character and your eventual success. So, for example, I wavered between wanting to become a solicitor or barrister, and in my second year at university I decided on becoming a solicitor. I applied to every firm in my home town for a training contract and every single one rejected me without interview. I am so pleased they did because the rejection made my mind up that I really wanted to be an advocate and go to the Bar. I completed pupillage, became a tenant and loved practice at the Bar. I would later go on to be included in The Lawyer’s list of “Hot 100 Lawyers”. I didn’t let initial rejection defeat me, instead I aimed higher and succeeded.

When I reached my goal I realised I could do more. I could help others in similar situations to achieve their goals. Coming from a humble background I found the entry to the Bar intimidating; it was an alien culture to dine in the Inns. So I decided to teach law and pass on what I had learned to new generations of young lawyers. Along the way I was able to join BPP and help build a major law school which eventually became a university.

The skills I learnt and developed as a lawyer have proved just as relevant to business. I became a FTSE 350 publicly listed director and chief executive of a multi-national company. I have been able to create scholarship funds that have helped 100s of students, in similar situations to those I experienced, to break into law and achieve their goals. I have been fortunate enough to be appointed to various public duties by the Lord Chief Justice, Secretary of State for Education and the Minister for Universities.

My advice? Stop trying to be like everyone else; you are unique. Concentrate on maximising your potential. There are some people who are well connected, naturally intelligent and seem to have every opportunity gifted to them. For the rest of us, work hard and be prepared to grab your opportunities when they come along. Successful careers and lives don’t just happen. Good preparation meets opportunity and success follows.

Carl Lygo is a barrister and chief executive of BPP Professional Education.