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From a small town in one of India’s poorest states to Herbert Smith Freehills

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Ahead of ‘How to make it as a City lawyer — with the Black Solicitors Network’, Siddhartha Shukla charts his incredible route to becoming a solicitor in London

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I come from a small town in northern India, which is actually in one of the poorest states in India. After completing my A-level equivalent in India, I decided to join a young law school in Jodhpur. And when I say young — you literally have to compare it to old universities in the UK which have been here for over 100 years, I was the fourth batch of my law school. We had very little infrastructure back in the day and actually there were no roads or university accommodation on campus when we started! We used to struggle finding good law books and had a very limited subscription to Westlaw and LexisNexis.

So although we did not have the infrastructure, I think somewhere I did have the resolve to do well — and that got me to where I am today.

In my penultimate year at the university, I applied to various firms in the City for a job. To be frank, at that time, I had no idea about how the application process worked. So I read it all online — there weren’t many people around to guide (and actually I knew none!).

I was lucky and I got shortlisted by two very big law firms in the City and eventually decided to join Herbert Smith Freehills. I still don’t know what exactly worked in my favour but I think it was a mix of: the research based articles on the then contemporary legal topics that I wrote, good work experience at law firms, a couple of good international moots where my teams fared well and good grades. All of this put in my application form very succinctly got me to the shortlist, I believe.

The interview process, at first, was intimidating, but within five minutes into the interview it translated into a conversation which I thoroughly enjoyed.

However, it is not just about getting in, but also succeeding. When I started at the firm I was a little nervous and there were good reasons for it. First, I did not know many people in the firm or in the city and felt like an ‘outsider’.

Secondly, I was coming straight from India and was sceptical of the cultural dissimilarities and my transition into the firm.

Due to my pre-conceived notions, and I can say this now in hindsight, I used to be nervous and reserved in the beginning. I would see my contemporaries integrating quite well within the firm and getting to know more people, and they already knew a lot of others even before joining and were quite comfortable from day one. I, on the other hand, did not know many people and was hesitant in asking questions, even the unimportant ones, thinking I will get judged, and therefore it took me a longer time to integrate.

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Make that extra effort. My first six to nine months were slightly difficult — to integrate and be a part of the firm and be just like others. My biggest challenges were, and this might sound trivial, understanding the British humour or finding common grounds to talk about with others in the firm. For example, I had no idea about British TV series or what London postcodes meant.

Whilst knowing the law did help me to some extent in getting the work, I had to make that extra effort.

Mentoring is very important. One thing that kept me going in that period was the people in the firm! Everyone was empathetic and open to people coming from diverse or international backgrounds. And truly speaking, I was very lucky to find some great mentors in the firm in that period — and this was extremely crucial.

Mentoring does not mean being assigned a mentoring partner by the HR team, as it happens most of the time making the mentoring programme meaningless more often than not. It is more about trying to find and establish relationships with people around you, not just with partners or associates but also with more experienced trainees, who might be interested in you or your work.

One might ask, why would anyone be interested in one? The answer is simple, it is always a two-way stream, you offer your help and assistance and be ready to take on more work and share someone’s workload and in return you get their experience and guidance.

I followed this approach and, despite a challenging start, I strongly believe that in the last half a decade or so I have done better than many of my contemporaries.

Siddhartha Shukla is a corporate/M&A lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills in London and has been with the firm since 2010. He is the chair of HSF’s Multiculturalism Network. He is also the co-chair of an inter-law firm diversity network called NOTICED. Sid will be speaking at How to make it as a City lawyer — with the Black Solicitors Network on Wednesday 6 July. You can apply to attend here.