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‘Lawyers are like translators — your client must be able to understand and apply your advice’

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ULaw Bloomsbury campus dean Sandie Gaines reflects on her time as an employment lawyer, the skills future lawyers need to succeed and why London is a great place to train

Ahead of next month’s in-person workshops and networking evening in London, Legal Cheek Careers sits down with former solicitor turned ULaw Bloomsbury campus dean and associate professor, Sandie Gaines, to find out about her time in practice as an employment lawyer, her move into legal education and how the law school supports the next generation of lawyers.

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is the new pathway to qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales. How is ULaw helping prepare students to sit this new exam?

ULaw has been delivering its SQE courses since May 2021 so they are already well-established. It prepares students to sit SQE1 by providing learning that has been specifically designed for the needs of a single best answer question (SBAQ) exam. The resources available to students include the ULaw SQE Revision app providing access to thousands of SBAQs with detailed feedback. ULaw makes use of its many years of experience in delivering legal skills training to prepare students thoroughly for the SQE2 assessments. As many employers regret that the SQE assessment regime retains no elective element, ULaw gives students the opportunity to study its LLM Legal Practice Course comprising SQE Plus in addition to SQE1 and SQE2 Preparation Courses. SQE Plus allows students to study specialist areas of law and develop wider professional skills better to prepare them for practice.

ULaw Bloomsbury campus dean and associate professor, Sandie Gaines

How does ULaw support students who are looking for a training contract?

There is personalised support. No two students are the same in terms of personal circumstances, background, aspirations or relative strengths so the starting point is to help them find their individual path. There is then support for every stage of a recruitment process, from guidance on the CV or application form, to provision of practice aptitude tests, to mock assessment centres and interviews. We are also very conscious that students will have a long career ahead of them and employers like to differentiate candidates so we sow seeds for the future in workshops — such as management skills, dealing with conflict, navigating office politics and developing business.

Securing a training contract is a highly competitive process. How can aspiring lawyers remain motivated when encountering rejection?

The ULaw Employability Service is vastly experienced and it is comforting to know from day one that the team has supported so many students who have navigated the journey in so many different, complex and challenging ways. The team has a hugely important pastoral role in helping students take the positives from experiences and keep persevering even when they have to deal with knocks and ongoing competition. Support continues after completion of the course for as long as is required — students do generally reach their goals even if it takes longer than they might originally have hoped. Our Employment Promise has paid out every year since its creation in 2015/16 — so the offer of money back if qualifying employment is not obtained is genuine and honoured. For all parties’ sakes, it is good that the numbers involved tend to be small, thus emphasising that with the right attitude and consistent support the opportunity does materialise.

Find out more about studying for the SQE at ULaw

Can you briefly tell us about your background and your role at ULaw?

I qualified as a solicitor in 1997. I practised criminal law for two years in a small firm in Kent following qualification and I soon discovered that this was not the right area of law for me. I then moved into employment law, working mostly for medium-sized businesses for 11 years and I thoroughly enjoyed that as employment law is a dynamic and multi-layered area of legal practice where the law can quite literally change on a weekly basis! I joined the College of Law (as it was then) Manchester in 2009 as a tutor teaching contract law, and a variety of business law subjects. After holding two middle management positions at the Manchester campus I was promoted to the role of campus dean seven years ago working in Manchester in the first year and after that at London Bloomsbury. I love my role as campus dean as, like employment law, it is fast-paced and very varied. I have a wide range of duties in my role with student and staff experience and development being the most important.

You practised as an employment lawyer at several leading law firms including Hammonds (now Squire Patton Boggs) and DMH Stallard. What did you enjoy about working as a lawyer?

I enjoyed practising employment law as I found the subject matter intellectually stimulating — it included aspects of employment law, anti-discrimination law, restrictive covenants, TUPE transfers, unfair dismissal, redundancy and whistleblowing. Quite often cases are multi-dimensional in that they involve various aspects of employment law at once, which can be challenging but also very interesting. I also enjoy problem-solving and building up a business; and working as an employment solicitor enabled me to develop those talents.

What skills are valuable for a career as a lawyer?

Anyone thinking of pursuing a career in law will need to develop a wide range of skills, which is partly why the profession is so popular and engaging. Anyone who wants to be a lawyer will find that studying does not end with the BPC, LPC or SQE, rather, in order to keep up to date with changes in law and best practice you will need to be a perpetual student, making sure that you are appraised of key cases and legislation. Lawyers need to be well-organised with the ability to manage their time well, quite often a planned day’s work is interrupted by emergencies and unanticipated events — you will need to cope with that and know when the remainder of your work will be completed. People and communication skills are also very important as your role as a lawyer is rather like that of a translator, i.e. you need to make sure that your client can understand and apply your advice, often under stressful circumstances.

Why is London a great place to study and work as a lawyer?

London is an exciting place to work and study, there is lots going on in terms of social, networking and general recreational opportunities. Before I moved to London I didn’t believe the story that there is a “buzz” about London, but there really is, you just have to take the time occasionally to appreciate that and explore what it has on offer.

Legal Cheek is hosting an in-person workshops and networking evening in London — with Bird & Bird, Forsters, Mayer Brown and ULaw on the evening of Thursday 1 December. The event, which is free and takes place from 5pm to 8pm at ULaw’s Bloomsbury campus, is now fully booked but you can meet all the law firms from this event at our November UK Virtual Law Fair. Secure your place now.

Find out more about studying for the SQE at ULaw

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