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How to choose the right law firm for you

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By The Careers Team on

Campus dean at ULaw London Bloomsbury, Sandie Gaines discusses her experience in employment law and how students can prepare for upcoming applications

Sandie Gaines, campus dean at The University of Law (ULaw)’s London Bloomsbury campus, began her education journey in the sciences before switching to law.

Having spent 15 years practicing as an employment solicitor before climbing the education ladder at ULaw, she spoke to Legal Cheek Careers about the realities of life in legal practice, and everything students need to know about networking, commercial awareness, and overcoming rejection.

To start off, can you tell me a little bit about your career thus far?

I’ve worked in higher education at ULaw for 15 years, and prior to that I was a solicitor in private practice for 15 years specialising in employment law. When I joined ULaw in 2009 as a lecturer, I taught a number of business-related subjects including business law and practice, acquisitions and mergers, and public companies on the Legal Practice Course (LPC). I’ve also held a number of managerial roles at ULaw prior to becoming a Dean eight years ago; I’m also an associate professor, holding post-graduate qualifications in teaching, education management, business psychology, psychology as well as law.

What did you enjoy most about your time in practice and what prompted you to make the move into legal education?

I enjoyed practicing employment law as it’s a constantly changing area of law and it’s very muti-dimensional, which makes it an interesting and engaging subject matter. For example, a typical employment problem faced by a business includes elements of unfair dismissal, possibly equality issues, and contract law. So, it’s a very interesting and varied practice area which I felt like I could really sink my teeth into.

THIS THURSDAY: Secrets to Success London — with Travers Smith, Reed Smith, Farrer & Co, Radcliffe Chambers and ULaw on 4 July

Employment solicitors also need to have a good understanding of their client’s business, to ensure that the advice given is realistic and commercially feasible. I acted for a number of different types of clients ranging from smaller enterprises and charities to educational establishments and larger businesses, often visiting their premises to take instructions which was very insightful.

Following my move into Higher Education in 2009, an interesting opportunity presented itself to work at ULaw (or the College of Law as it was then), but upon reflection, had this opportunity not presented itself, I probably would have remained in legal practice.

What has been the most memorable moment of your career to date?

I’m struggling to narrow it down to one! Following my training contract, I started my legal career as a solicitor specialising in criminal law with some family law work, conducting my own advocacy to trial level. I remember representing clients in court on a number of criminal matters in the Magistrates’ Court such as an affray, a dangerous dog case and theft allegations.

Sandie Gaines, campus dean at ULaw Bloomsbury, London

Employment tribunal final hearings were memorable too, I remember winning an unfair dismissal case despite the fact that my client’s main witness knocked a water bottle on the floor of the tribunal whilst giving evidence and acted out a tussle they had with the claimant in the style of what appeared to be a pantomime!

SQE Prep: Prepare to take the plunge with these revision tips and assessment advice

Can you tell us a bit about life on campus at ULaw London Bloomsbury — what sorts of spaces and facilities do students have access to?

Life on campus at ULaw Bloomsbury is very dynamic and engaging; I love it here! The environment can be high pressured at times as we have over 3,000 students across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and it’s imperative that we deliver a high level of service to everyone.

The culture and atmosphere on campus is friendly, supportive, and full of energy and excitement. The Bloomsbury campus location is particularly exceptional, situated in central London and very close to iconic attractions such as the Royal Courts of Justice, the Law Society on Chancery Lane, barristers’ chambers, and numerous wellbeing-enhancing green spaces. The Bloomsbury campus itself is well-resourced with facilities such as a café area, a newly created bio-diversity garden in our courtyard area, plenty of library study spaces for students, and a lecture theatre where we also hold events. Store Street, where we’re situated, is full of interesting cafes and restaurants: there’s plenty for students to explore.

What factors should students be considering when they are shortlisting firms that they want to apply to?

In my view, when shortlisting firms, students should consider factors such as the size of the firm and impact on lifestyle choice; firm location and likely opportunities for secondment; and very importantly, the areas of practice covered by the firm. It can help if students ask themselves – are these practice areas of interest to you? Would you be motivated by the work or the rewards at this firm? And what are the implications for work/life balance, and is this important to me?

The size of the firm, the structure of the training and the opportunities available to junior at the firm are also important factors to consider when embarking on a career in a chosen firm. The opportunity to gain experience of different areas of practice and go on secondment can shape the direction of a legal career.

Lastly, I believe that students’ perception of general “fit” with the firm is an important consideration — is this an organisation where you think you would be able to flourish?

When attending virtual and in-person networking events, what sorts of questions should students be asking to get the most out of the experience?

Firstly, don’t waste the opportunity by asking questions you can already find the answers to yourself, rather, try to find out who you are likely to network with (e.g. trainees, newly qualified or perhaps partners at a firm) and modify your questions as a result.

Example questions you can consider directing towards lawyers include:

  • What practice area do you work in?
  • What do you like about that practice area?
  • What do you think is the biggest challenge facing firms such as yours, at the moment or in the near future?

What are your top three commercial awareness topics that you think students should be tracking closely ahead of application season?

All commercial awareness research should be ideally tailored to the type of firm that a student is interested in, but here are some key current affairs topic that students should keep in mind:

  • The current position of UK economy
  • The potential impact of a change in government
  • Technology and in particular AI; its impact on law firms and its use by firm clients
  • The law firm as a business

What is your advice for those who are currently, or soon to be, on vacation schemes this summer?

It’s important for students to be aware that as soon as you arrive at the door, you are being ‘assessed’ either informally or formally. To that end, make sure you’re being yourself whilst also maintaining professionalism; be courteous to other vac-schemers and staff; and be organised and intellectually curious throughout the experience. Key to all of this is good communication through both talking and actively listening to others.

Lastly, do you have any tips on how to learn from rejections?

Rejections are of course disappointing, and they can feel like impossible setbacks at the time. My advice is to appreciate that you will feel distracted by a rejection to begin with, and that this is only natural. However, after you have given yourself some time to recover and reflect, try to understand the reasons behind the rejection through seeking feedback from the organisation if need be. You may be able to learn and grow from that information and put it to good use in your future endeavours, drawing strength and resilience from your new knowledge.

Don’t give up– it’s inevitable that you will experience setbacks when you are pursuing significant goals such as securing professional employment. Maintaining your sense of presence and persistence throughout is key.

Find out more about studying for the SQE at ULaw

Sandie Gaines will be speaking at “Secrets to Success London — with Travers Smith, Reed Smith, Farrer & Co, Radcliffe Chambers and ULaw”, an in-person student event taking place this Thursday (4 July).  Apply now to attend.

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