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How studying a language with a law degree can set you apart from the crowd

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By The Careers Team on

Cara Goldthorpe talks to Legal Cheek Careers about being crowned “Law Undergraduate of the Year”


UCL LLB Law with French law student Cara Goldthorpe (pictured above) came through a crowded field to scoop this year’s Law Undergraduate Student of the Year Award, organised by recruitment specialist TargetJobs. Legal Cheek Careers caught up with her during the vac scheme at Mayer Brown which was part of her prize.

Legal Cheek Careers: How did you become officially the best law student in the country?

Cara Goldthorpe: I entered the competition because it seemed a fun and interesting way to apply for a vac scheme. On firm application forms the questions focus on your personal achievements, whereas the questions for the Law Undergraduate Student of the Year were about wider issues affecting the profession, such as the Legal Services Act. In answering the questions I was able to reflect more about the career I wished to pursue and what is going on in the industry.

I was in France at the time, studying in Marseille as part of the French law module of my degree, and I had some spare time so I applied and sat some online tests. Then I was fortunate enough to be selected during an assessment day from 10 finalist candidates. We were required to do a presentation on a commercial awareness-themed topic, and I discussed various provisions of the Consumer Rights Act, which will come into force later this year.

Legal Cheek Careers: What do you think made you stand out?

Goldthorpe: I think the year abroad helped me in various respects. Firstly, as it is sponsored by Mayer Brown, the competition is quite slanted towards international law firms. Being able to show that you have lived in a different country, adapted to its culture, learnt its language and studied its legal system demonstrates your commitment to working in a multi-jurisdictional organisation.

Doing a language with your law degree also usually means the course takes four years rather than three — so you don’t have to start applying for training contracts until your third year. I really appreciated having the extra time to do a variety of work experience, spending time in chambers as well as at law firms and a bank, while getting more deeply involved in extra-curricular activities, such as mooting.

Legal Cheek Careers: Don’t firms want Mandarin speakers these days rather than French speakers?

Goldthorpe: I know Mandarin and other languages spoken in emerging markets are highly valued, but studying a language isn’t just about being able to use it in a direct way. It’s the wider benefits you get from having learnt to adapt to living in a different environment, and gaining a perspective on the issues in other parts of the world, that I think appeals to employers.

There are of course practical benefits in speaking other European languages too. During a mini-pupillage I did at 7KBW one of the barristers had an issue regarding a term used in French law which I was able to help her with. And my language skills obviously came in handy during the trip to Mayer Brown’s Paris office that we made last week, even if most of the lawyers there spoke English very well!

Legal Cheek Careers: What else do you think has benefitted you as a law student?

Goldthorpe: Studying in London. Everything is here: the international law firms, the Inns of Court, some amazing events where you get to hear very well known lawyers and members of the judiciary speak. As a student in London you can easily attend open evenings at the best firms and there are other exciting opportunities, like mooting in the Royal Courts of Justice as part of the UCL mooting team, that I wouldn’t have experienced if I wasn’t here.

Of course, there are also some pretty major downsides. I haven’t been able to afford to live in central London, so I have to travel an hour into uni from my parents’ house in Kingston. That means you can’t be spontaneous and just go out when you want to like students who live in the centre can. But the year in France gave me the opportunity to do that, and I think that I have saved enough to live in a London flat-share for my final year commencing this autumn.

Legal Cheek Careers: Other than studying a language and choosing a London uni, what piece of advice would you give to law students?

Goldthorpe: To get good grades in your first year. While these grades do not count towards your degree, you have to put them on every single vac scheme application — so, in practical terms, they do count.

Also, it’s worth doing some commercial work experience to bring alive the business topics that law firms expect you to know about. I must have been one of the least commercially aware students until I did a summer job paralegalling at Lloyds at the end of my first year. There, I worked in a team dealing with complaints arising from the miss-selling of interest rate hedging products, and the experience helped me get my head around a lot of the industry jargon. From that point on I found it easier to read business news and, with the help of Chris Stoakes’ book, ‘All you need to know about the City’, gain a solid grounding in how the commercial world works.

Legal Cheek Careers: What are your future plans?

Goldthorpe: To secure a training contract and then become a lawyer specialising in contentious work. My experiences of mooting at UCL have helped me discover that I really enjoy advocacy, so one day I’d like to be a solicitor-advocate or even a barrister. I’m fairly open-minded as to where I’ll end up at present — from my work experience I’ve discovered that there are so many interesting fields of work out there in the legal sector, that you’ll never find out about until you try!

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