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From Edinburgh Uni civil engineering graduate to solicitor

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Ahead of ‘Why STEM students make great lawyers’, LexisNexis’ head of dispute resolution Virginia Jones looks back on her career journey to date

“Project management may sound like a strange skill to mention in the context of law but actually it is really key,” says Virginia Jones, who converted to law after completing a civil engineering degree at Edinburgh University.

She continues:

“If you think of a typical case or transaction, you as a lawyer really need to understand what is going to be involved. You need to work out at each stage what needs to be done — which order the tasks come in, which tasks depend on completion of another task, which tasks have a bit of slack…”

Following her four-year undergraduate degree, Jones made the leap to law in 1998 taking the conversion course route. Having secured a training contract with Pinsent Masons, Jones qualified in commercial dispute resolution.

“This forward planning is what most STEM graduates know how to do,” says Jones. “On my civil engineering course we were trained with tools such as the ‘Gantt’ chart — we learn how to organise tasks and plot them against a time schedule. Project management is particularly important when both clients and the courts are looking closely at resources and how law firms price the work.”

Once you know what is involved in a case or transaction, she adds, “all this planning feeds into resourcing each stage of that ‘project’ — for example, how many people are needed, what level of expertise is needed, how much can be spent on this stage, and so on.”

Jones is perhaps different from other STEM graduates in that she had secret ambitions to become a lawyer from day one, having initially considered studying an LLB. But having opted instead for engineering, naturally she was scientific and rigorous about the training contract application process: “I really did my research and picked only those firms which fit my criteria. I think if you don’t do the background work on this, you are going to waste a lot of time and energy chasing a firm which is not a realistic option,” she recalls.

Apply to attend Why STEM students make great lawyers

But no STEM grad should underestimate the hard work involved in a conversion to law, says Jones, who did what’s now the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) at the University of Law (though it was the College of Law then). “It’s an incredibly intense course,” she reflects. “The plus side is that we are used to the heavy classroom-based studying routine. Those law students who had converted from arts and humanities, perhaps struggled more with the demanding timetable.”

What’s more, at that stage in your life “your peers are moving on, they are not having to study anymore, they are getting jobs, they are getting paid”. Jones remembers her civil engineering friends with prospects of “exciting projects in very exciting locations”. She adds: “You have already done one degree, and you are kind of ‘done’ with studying as well, so it’s a real commitment to go on and study for the law.”

For Jones, the worst moment during the conversion year was the exam period; “The sheer volume was a real challenge.” Plus even with the LPC’s more practical outlook, “you don’t really know what being a lawyer is actually going to be like. You have to wait for real work for that learning curve.”

It all pays off in the end, as Jones believes that STEM graduates have much to offer law firms:

“We have a really good balance between the academic and the commercial. For instance, on the academic side, we have learnt to have a real appreciation that you have to be accurate in your thought processes: there is no room for error in construction calculations, just as, once you are a lawyer, there is no room for mistakes in your technical knowledge and application of the law.”

On a practical level, Jones believes, STEM graduates can do something which very few lawyers are trained to do: “We can visualise the outcome we want”. She explains: “In a STEM degree, you might have a project you are working on, such as to design a bridge. That is where you are heading. So as lawyers, we can stand back and ask ourselves where are we trying to get to? What does the client really want?”

After three years post-qualification at Pinsent Masons, Jones went on to work for boutique media firm Marriott Harrison for a further eight years, before switching to professional support and the more academic side of the law at LexisNexis.

For those STEM graduates who are considering following a similar path, Jones has these words of encouragement:

“Don’t underestimate yourself: there are many attributes which law firms want and which you may not even recognise in yourself: you have proven your strong academic abilities, you come with a certain level of maturity and a broader understanding of the world so you’ll have the ability to mix with different sorts of people.”

Last but not least: If you have learnt to talk about your STEM work in an interesting way, adds Jones, “then you know that you can talk in layman’s language about something quite complex.”

Virginia Jones will be speaking at ‘Why STEM students make great lawyers’, alongside lawyers from Allen & Overy, Bristows and Reed Smith, on Wednesday 8 November.

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