Newly qualified legal counsel Laiana Alleyne explains why City law isn’t the be-all and end-all
Throughout my academic life, my general understanding of the path to becoming a solicitor in the UK has been limited to attending a “good” university and then undertaking a training contract at a “good” City firm. Although I was lucky enough to be raised in a large academic family, those around me seemed to have the same understanding — there was one path to be followed in order to have a successful career in law.
With this in mind, I plunged into the rather brutal world of vacation schemes and training contract applications. One failed vacation scheme, numerous rejection emails and numerous blows to my confidence later, I began to ask myself why I had set out on this journey to begin with. It was this question that I reflected on for considerable time, finally concluding that I was in fact taking this path because it was the only path I could see. I had no real experience in the legal sector and no understanding of what I was hoping to achieve, other than making it onto the SRA website. I realised that for a long time I had been guided by other individuals’ preconceptions of what a successful lawyer looked like and had failed to consider the very real possibility that there were other means to achieve my goal outside this narrow path I was attempting to follow.
To give me some perspective and learn more about the field I intended to develop a career in, I chose to spend several months as a legal temp, doing work ranging from financial service contracts to GDPR and everything else in between. I realised that I thoroughly enjoyed the more commercial aspects of legal work. Understanding the granular detail of a business and applying the law to meet a common aim. I started to consider that in reality a city law firm, or more generally a training contract in private practice, may not align with such interests.
It was through my temp work that I discovered the Robert Walters Group. Joining as a paralegal supporting their recruitment agency division, I gained significant exposure to the functioning of a listed company and the in-house legal team that supports it. At the end of March 2020, as the world spiralled into chaos due to the global pandemic, I began my training contract. Throughout the next two years, I would spend my time training under the pupillage of the numerous experienced lawyers in the global in-house team, soaking up knowledge and gaining valuable experience from some of the best in the field.
Flash forward two years, with my name proudly featuring on the SRA website, I have had time to reflect on the events that have led me here. I can now say without a doubt that I am extremely grateful for the direction that life has taken me and believe I can now impart some knowledge that wasn’t accessible to me when I began on this journey. As I reflect on my time as an in-house trainee, I notice how different my training contract experience has been from my university friends who had secured a private practice training contract and while I recognise that an in-house training contract may not be for everyone, I want to share some of the benefits I have enjoyed.
One of the benefits of an in-house training contract that I have come to recognise is diversity. Not just gender and/or ethnic diversity (although as a mixed-race female this has also been a noted bonus for me), but diversity of thought and character. While private practice firms, particularly large City firms, tend to recruit in their own likeness, working in a wider corporation allows you to experience people from all walks of life with different approaches and priorities. From front office to HR, finance to technology, you have the opportunity to function as part of a wider team and can take skills from each of these divisions as you develop.
Within my team, we have lawyers who qualified in large City firms as well as those who qualified by different means and in different countries. Some members walked straight into the legal profession after education and those who were in a vast array of industries before they settled in the legal sector. Being able to work closely with so many different characters has truly allowed me to consider approaches and skills that I would not have had exposure to this early in my career in private practice. I have had the opportunity to work with our specialists in areas such as employment, technology and outsourcing as well as business leaders, providing invaluable opportunities to grow my knowledge and skillset. Being able to undertake a pick’n’mix exercise to model myself after so many high achievers in their respective fields has been invaluable.
Another benefit I have experienced is the flexibility that an in-house training contract has to offer. For those who require more structure, this may not be for you. However, for those who love to learn, enjoy project-based work and are happy to steer their own development, an in-house training contract is a comprehensive and entrepreneurial option. I am incredibly thankful that my team have always listened when I have asked to gain experience in a certain area of law or wider practice area. I have been able to get involved in a number of group projects from data strategy to new service delivery lines and corporate set-ups.
Everyone in the team takes the time to foster an environment where junior lawyers can grow, giving them exposure to work that they genuinely take an interest in. While your BAU work needs to get done there is always something else that you can get involved in to up-skill. Not only this, but there is also a much wider scope to take on responsibility and ownership as a junior lawyer in-house. On a number of occasions, I have been able to own a project / workstream. While there are of course senior lawyers supporting the workstreams and outcomes, it gives a key opportunity for junior lawyers to develop project management and case management skills and to gain confidence when interacting with senior stakeholders.
While I would never underestimate the technical skill and discipline that a private practice training contract can impart, the core distinguishing factor between a private practice training contract and in-house training is the level of commerciality that can be gained as a junior lawyer in-house. It is one thing to have to think about the aims of your client as a private practice lawyer. It is a very different thing to immerse oneself in the commercial environment, where every action that you take is to further the commercial standing of your company. The work of an in-house lawyer is not so black and white from a legal perspective. As a partner to the business, the question put to the legal team tends to be “how can we make this work?” rather than “what does the law say?”.
There is a lot more creativity in the role and a chance to really understand the motivations and aims of your client. As part of an in-house team, particularly a team supporting a PLC, you are encouraged to understand concepts that may not on the face of it be seen as “legal” for example financial risk and the priorities of the board. Understanding these concepts and how they affect the day to day running of a company can set a junior lawyer apart in how they process and advise on legal concepts.
The legal sector is changing — clients want diversity of thought and a partner in (hopefully not) crime rather than someone to act as the principle police. I hope that those considering a career in law can use this article as a reminder that there is more than one path into a career in law. If you have the confidence and the drive to steer your training progression and would also like to experience the more commercial aspects of a career in law, an in-house training contract is a path you should consider. What better way to understand the needs of a client than to become part of their lifeblood.
Laiana Alleyne graduated from the University of Nottingham with a degree in law. She qualified as a solicitor in March 2022 and is now legal counsel at Robert Walters Group.