Legal Cheek Careers sits down with US law firm trainee Ellen Swarbrick to talk SQE, career change and TCs
Vinson & Elkins trainee Ellen Swarbrick decided to pursue a career in law after having worked in energy consulting for a few years post-university. She completed the SQE1&2 with BARBRI and has recently joined the student voice advisory committee for the Board of BARBRI, alongside starting her training contract this September.
Legal Cheek Careers sat down with Swarbrick ahead of her appearance at this month’s virtual student event with BARBRI discussing diverse journeys to qualification through the SQE.
You’ve only just recently started your training contract, so you completed the Solicitors Qualifying Exams (SQE) not too long ago. Can you tell us about your experience of studying for the SQE with BARBRI, especially as someone with a non-law background?
I studied international business with German at university, so aside from a business law module in my second year, I had never studied law before. Because of this, the thought of doing it all online was quite daunting. Now that I have finished, I can honestly say I would prefer it to completing a law course at a university.
You don’t have to worry about missing any content because it’s all online. Not only do you have lectures that are filmed for the purpose of being online (no microphone or video issues), you also have huge banks of practice questions. The personal study plan tells you exactly what you need to do each day and you can even input days you do not wish to study and it will arrange the workload around this. You are also assigned a personal tutor, so there is definitely support there.
You previously worked in energy consulting — what prompted you to explore a legal career?
It’s a funny story, but I first considered a career in law during university after having a tenancy deposit dispute with my landlord. Researching my rights and collecting evidence, I was able to reduce the deductions by 80%. Really quite excited about this result, I started to look into doing a law conversion, but I didn’t want to commit to the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) and study for another two years (both financially and time-wise).
After a few years as an energy consultant, my passion for the energy sector grew, but I knew my skills were better suited to a career in law. This prompted me to finally make the career change and luckily, I could do this much quicker with the SQE.
Building on that, what drew you to Vinson & Elkins?
There were three main reasons I wanted to work for V&E. Firstly, I knew I loved working with energy companies. Because of this, my training contract applications targeted law firms which were strong in this sector, so applying for V&E was a no-brainer. Secondly, V&E has a relatively smaller London office. Lean team sizes meant I would get more responsibility earlier on and that I would get the opportunity to work closely with associates and partners.
Finally, V&E offer a non-rotational training contract structure in your second year. This means that you can start specialising early on and see cases and transactions through to completion. This flexibility and the opportunity to create your own unique training contract experience drew me to the firm.
What skills do you find transferrable to a legal career from your consulting experience, and what skills have you had to focus on developing further?
Consulting allowed me to develop really good commercial awareness. Not only did I have to keep up to date with industry news daily, but I also gained an insight into how businesses run and what their key strategic drivers are. This is important when you are advising a company on a multi-million-dollar acquisition for example, as these key strategic drivers can influence how you conduct due diligence or even how you draft the Sale & Purchase Agreement.
Because I am currently working with the Energy Transactions and Projects team, I would say the main skill I am focused on developing at the moment is understanding transaction and financing structures. These can be quite complex and technically challenging. You definitely aren’t expected to know everything from day one, and I have had a good deal of support so far.
What advice do you have for those looking to make a career change into law and needing to get back into studying to complete the SQE?
It can be quite daunting going back to studying after working full-time. My main piece of advice would be not to worry! The BARBRI personal study plan sets out exactly what you have to do and even how to revise the content (they call it the BARBRI method). I actually didn’t create any revision notes while studying, so the method definitely worked for me.
You are now over a month into your training contract! How are you finding it so far?
I’m really enjoying it so far. I’ve already had the opportunity to do substantive work, participate in client calls, and learn more about the transactions and cases V&E is working on. What I enjoy about V&E is that you are given as much responsibility and work as you are willing to take on, while also receiving good support and feedback from your supervisor and other associates and partners and the firm.
I have also participated in activities outside of the office, going for lunch with the Energy Transactions and Projects team and even playing in a tag rugby tournament!
Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) under the SQE introduces a lot of flexibility into the training process, as aspiring lawyers can now complete their training at up to four different organisations. What prompted you to want to train under the more traditional training contract route?
Coming from a non-law background, I decided a more structured period of training would be the best option for me. However, I have friends who have gone down different routes and are doing really well, so I definitely would recommend looking into all options.
Ellen Swarbrick will be speaking at ‘Making QWE work for you — with BARBRI’, a virtual student event taking place on 25 October. Apply now to attend.
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