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John Watkins, Director of Employability at The University of Law, discusses AI in TC applications and the importance of adaptability, ahead of next week’s Legal Cheek-ULaw Summer Virtual Vacation Scheme

“I didn’t achieve particularly strong scores at school,” says John Watkins, Director of Employability at The University of Law (ULaw). “So, I reached a point when I turned 18 where I really had to consider trying something different and proving myself. I entered into the BBC’s sports commentator of the year award, and I found myself as the runner up!” Watkins reveals. “It was quite transformational in terms of my self-belief, so I always advise the students I work with: you probably have talents that you don’t know exist yet, so just throw yourself into it.”

After spending a few years as a sports journalist for the BBC, Watkins turned his hand to accountancy before finding his way into employability. Having coined the phrase ‘employagility’ back in 2020 as an amalgamation of ‘employability’ and ‘agility’, Watkins seems a great example of the ability to be flexible and adaptable when it comes to a career. “Looking back, the talent I discovered at the age of 18 has been invaluable over the past 30-plus years, especially in speaking to large audiences during my accountancy work. The confidence I developed laid the foundation for a career that I truly enjoy,” he reveals. “Having thrown myself into sport commentating, and discovering I was quite good at it, my attitude from then on was: ‘I might be good at the next thing, too, so I’ll give it a go!”

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Legal Cheek Careers explores why ’employagility’ is crucial for aspiring lawyers by asking Watkins about the importance of building resilience and adaptability in the modern legal world. “If you can turn your hands to lots of different things, do things in different ways with different people, this is a great way of conducting life,” he begins. “It’s very important for employability in general but it can also help you to build resilience over the course of your career, because you have so many tools in your kit.”

A keen advocate for resilience and ‘climbing mountains’, Watkins also reveals his “admiration” for this generation. “They have a real willingness to try embrace new ways of doing things, and they’re going to be a real asset in the workplace. This is because I believe that students nowadays have access to an incredible amount of employability content – more than previous generations did. But they’ve also had real life experiences,” he says. “I don’t think anybody can look back and say that the pandemic was ‘good’, but there were positives that came out of it.” For example, Watkins says that this generation has had to overcome setbacks and difficulties, and as a result, they’ve developed strong skills in resilience and adaptability along the way.

STARTS MONDAY: The Legal Cheek Summer Virtual Vacation Scheme and Law Fair 2024

Given that this generation of aspiring lawyers are naturally adept at ’employagility,’ we are eager to hear Watkins’ thoughts on whether advances in generative AI are beneficial or detrimental. He warns against the risk of over-reliance on tech: “Some firms are rejecting applications that use AI, while others encourage applicants to demonstrate their ability to utilise generative AI technology. So, students need to be alive to the expectations of each firm,” he advises.

Another factor students should consider is that overusing AI technology early on may have negative consequences later in the application process. “Recruitment processes will also assess candidates in person on how they react and behave in an assessment centre, for example, and if applicants have been disingenuous in their application, this could be exposed later on down the line,” says Watkins. “So, AI can be helpful to applicants if purely complimentary, but it’s you — the real person — who has to be able to show why you’re the ideal candidate.”

With AI being a hot topic for students to understand before interviews, we ask Watkins how ULaw is uniquely preparing its students on important commercial awareness topics. “We run a commercial awareness competition at the University which gives students free access to a daily ‘commercial awareness’ bulletin. This fills them in on what’s going on in the world from global politics to advancements in technology,” he tells us. Emphasising that commercial awareness is often hard to pin down, it appears that Watkins prefers students to create a daily habit over a longer period of time. “The idea with this approach is that students slowly build up a practice of keeping abreast of current affairs to stay in the competition, and what we tend to find is that our students really start to enjoy it. It becomes knowledge that they have on tap, and students can begin to apply this ‘commercial awareness’ in a client-focused way over time – which is exactly what firms are looking for,” he reveals.

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But what are the current hot topics? “Aside from AI, at the moment we’re in the middle of an election cycle, which will have economic repercussions, and also in the UK legal industry there’s a lot of discussion around apprenticeships – so I think these topics are important for applicants to bear in mind ahead of applications,” he says. “But it’s so important for students to take this knowledge one step further by interpreting current affairs and considering how this will impact industry.”

Ahead of Legal Cheek’s Summer Virtual Vacation Scheme and Law Fair from June 10-14, we ask Watkins how students can find ‘application gold’ during the programme. “Students need to think ahead – what do I want to get out of it? What do I want to put on my CV or my applications forms that I can’t put in today?” he advises. “This might be expanding their network by finding every opportunity to connect with people. I’ve personally created some amazing connections from the Legal Cheek vacation scheme events!” he enthuses. But he notes that employers aren’t simply interested in whether or not you attended the scheme –- they want to see what you got out of it. “How much more confident are you? What can you bring to the table that you couldn’t before?”

On his top tips for approaching virtual events, he advises: “Make sure you follow up! And take action off the back of the scheme, by either building relationships with connections you’ve made or further researching topics you found interesting. Finally, while it’s fresh in the mind – update your CV to reflect what you’ve learned from the process.”

Find out more about studying for the SQE at ULaw

John Watkins will be speaking at ‘The Legal Cheek Summer Virtual Vacation Scheme and Law Fair 2024, in partnership with The University of Law’, which runs from Monday 10 June until Friday 14 June. Apply now to attend.

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