An engineering graduate’s journey into law

Ahead of our ‘How to make it as a City Lawyer’ event on 6 July, Mayer Brown associate Emma Sturt considers the skills that science students bring to the legal profession

As the fourth industrial revolution begins to impact the legal profession, law firms are increasingly looking to target students with the skills to bridge the gap between high-level legal practice and cutting-edge technological innovation.

Set to be in particular demand over the years ahead are science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates who go on to convert to law. Mayer Brown associate Emma Sturt, who read civil engineering at Durham University before later completing the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), is well positioned to talk about what STEM students can bring to City law firms.

“STEM grads are used to following logical processes, which means we have a good appreciation of the machine learning developments that are being explored by the legal profession at the moment. Also a scientist is trained to find solutions based on a strict framework of rules and regulations, and that actually ties in very closely to work as a lawyer, plus, we like to take a practical, problem solving approach to matters,” she says, adding: “We’re also — unlike many lawyers — not scared of spread sheets!”

Sturt has a particularly thorough STEM grounding, having spent six years working as a civil engineer before deciding to switch careers to law. That experience has also proved invaluable and is helping her to develop a projects and mining specialism within Mayer Brown’s London finance team. She explains:

My previous career means that I have an understanding of groundwork designs and structures, and know what people are talking about on site. For example, speaking to local lawyers recently about plotting the coordinates of a mining concession area made total sense. I think the clients see that and find it helpful.

Sponsored through university by Halcrow, an international engineering consultancy, Sturt hit the ground running upon graduation and quickly found herself specialising in bridge and structural design, before later moving to another firm, Buro Happold. Projects on which she has worked include the 2012 Olympics and the Heathrow Terminal 4 redesign.

But while the commercial experience she gained was invaluable, something about the life of an engineer failed to ignite Sturt’s passion. “I’d see new graduates coming in, and notice how much they loved it, which made me conscious that I wasn’t perhaps enjoying the job as much as I should have been,” she recalls.

A conversation in the office with a colleague proved to be a turning point. “Like me, he wasn’t sure if this was the career for him in the long term, and he told me that he was doing a law conversion course,” says Sturt. “Legal issues often came up on engineering projects — dealing with issues on site like, whose fault was it that concrete was poured in the wrong place causing a critical path delay was an important part of the job — and I always enjoyed this sort of thing. So with my work at that stage fairly 9-5, I signed up to do the GDL part-time in my evenings over two years, and very soon realised that it was my thing.”

Her completion of the course coincided with mass layoffs at Buro Happold in 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis. So Sturt used her redundancy money to fund the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which she completed with a distinction. But securing a training contract proved difficult for Sturt, who was rowing at national level while at university to the slight detriment of her studies.

Not to be deterred, she took a job as a PA in the City and began working her contact list to help forge an opening. Ultimately, it was her old colleague from Buro Happold — by this stage a trainee at Mayer Brown himself — who came to her rescue and put her in contact with the firm’s graduate recruitment team.

“Mayer Brown is more open-minded than many firms, and looks to recruit students from a wide range of different backgrounds,” she says.

With her training contract not starting for two years, Sturt decided to have two children during that period before starting with the firm in 2014. She comments:

Suddenly I was a 33-year-old mother in amongst a bunch of 25-year-olds! Because I am so motivated by what I am doing, I believe I am a better employee and a better mother and I am so lucky: everything has just fallen into place.

Emma Sturt will be speaking at our ‘How to make it as a City Lawyer’ event in London on 6 July. Apply to attend.

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