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Why students don’t need to have it all figured out at law school

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Amid the competing attractions of different areas of law, it’s important to keep an open mind, writes BPP University’s Kandice Horsey ahead of ‘How to make it as a City lawyer’

As a student, you have more time than you think. If you haven’t figured out what you want to do by age 50, then I might be a bit worried. But at 22…? Try different things. See what is going on. If you want to be a legal aid lawyer but get offered a training contract at a City firm, try it and see what happens. Remember that a career can be comprised of many chapters.

Young people by definition of being young, lack perspective on life and understandably can get so wound up. I tell them to think about their career backwards from retirement, partly to remind them how long careers are. Very few people end up in the same place that they start.

That has indeed been the case for me. I began my career as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia. It was a baptism of fire. Straight out of law school I was conducting trials for misdemeanours (the US category for less serious crime). Having developed a specialism in asset forfeiture, which in Philly usually derived from the sale of drugs, I then moved on to handling major — or felony — trials, before switching to prosecute gun-related cases near Washington DC. Around that time I met my partner — he is English — at a friend’s wedding.

That is how I came to be in London. Here my professional world has changed. I always wanted to be a prosecutor from the age of 13. But having ploughed that path in the States, I found that I didn’t want to continue doing it over here. The systems are very different, and I don’t necessarily agree with the English regime. Certain things, like the adverse inference that can be drawn if a defendant remains silent, are just so alien to me as an American lawyer that I thought, “Maybe I’m not meant to be a prosecutor here”, and so decided to defend instead.

I became a duty solicitor, got my higher rights — and had a baby — while also doing some law lecturing on the side. Now that lecturing has become my main thing, I lead the research and writing module for the LPC at BPP University in London, preparing students for practice.

Many of those students have City law firm training contracts or are seeking to obtain one. I can relate to that path because I very nearly took it myself, doing two summer internships (the US equivalent of a vac scheme) at Reed Smith and Howrey, two large corporate firms. There was a lot of glitz and glamour but I think more than anything else you are drawn by the fact that these firms pay the most. The fact that someone like me who was extremely committed to becoming a prosecutor even did these internships shows you how strong the pull of corporate law can be. But looking back, I’m grateful for those summers because they enabled me to try out an area of law without committing to it, and then to never look back when I chose to follow an alternative path.

One thing that I am struck with in the UK is how hard it is for students who didn’t attend one of the top universities to make it into law firms and chambers. That is a form of indirect discrimination that disproportionately affects ethnic minority students. The result is that a high proportion of very homogenous graduates from the top schools get a lot of the training contracts. Another factor is the cost of legal education and, in legal aid, the time that it takes to do your training while earning very little. That counts against students without financial resources. In that sense, the US is perhaps more progressive in that once you graduate from law school and pass the bar you can start practising immediately.

Still, with the growing popularity of contextual recruitment and other diversity initiatives, there are encouraging signs over here that some of the law firms which provide Legal Practice Course (LPC) sponsorship are beginning to recruit more widely. For students who keep an open mind and have the courage to keep putting themselves forward, the opportunities are out there.

Kandice Horsey is the module leader for practical legal research and writing at BPP University Law School, and a dual-qualified trial lawyer. She will be speaking at ‘How to make it as a City lawyer — with the Black Solicitors Network’ on Wednesday 6 July.