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  • Writer's pictureNadia Cook

A Solicitor's Real Life Story: Moving on from a Traumatic Traineeship Experience

Caitlin is a Senior Associate and Accredited Family Law Specialist at high street firm Freelands Solicitors. She graduated from the University of Stirling with a 2:1 LLB Scots Law degree and attended the University of Strathclyde for the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice. In this blog she shares her journey from struggling school pupil to now Senior Associate with an emphasis on the various challenges she faced pursuing a legal career and how she sought help and support from others.

My name is Caitlin and I am a Senior Associate and Accredited Specialist in Family Law with Freelands Solicitors in Lanarkshire.

I grew up in a small town in North Ayrshire called Beith. My family was very much working class with my dad’s family having their roots in farming. I grew up on the family farm although by this point it was no longer a working farm. My grandpa was an avid gardener and so my summers were always spent outside or abroad often with my maternal grandparents, aunts and cousins too.  

School life

I remember in Primary School being moved into an additional support class because I was struggling with numeracy and learning how to tell the time. My mum spent a lot of time with me working on this, she spent a lot of time with me and my older brother throughout the early stages of our childhoods as she was a full time mum. My Dad really did work hard to keep us going and so there were periods of time when we wouldn’t see him as much. Having hard working parents most definitely instilled a good work ethic in me that I would need later in life.

My paternal Aunt was and still is a family solicitor. I think she was very much contributed towards my decision to study Law. I kept my head down in school, always focusing on exams. I had a Saturday job (at one point two part time jobs) whilst at school to put money away. Sometimes I’d come home from school and head straight to my part time job. I’d also work every Saturday 8am – 2pm but I really loved that particular job. It was in a local bakers and all the staff were very supportive of me and whenever I post any career update on my social media now they always take the time to congratulate me. My maternal gran would pick me up from school if I’d stayed later for study sessions and always after exams accompanied by rolls and sausage. I was surrounded by good people, especially women, all of whom wanted me to do well.

Unfortunately however, the encouragement I had stopped with my family. The careers advisor in school told me to “reconsider” my decision to study the LLB. I was struggling with some subjects. I was really struggling with maths and wasn’t given the support by my teacher that I needed. I always felt because other family members hadn’t been the most well behaved pupils that my teacher just assumed I was the same. I was trying my best and still couldn’t get it. My parents managed to pay for a tutor for me who I saw every week in the lead up to the prelims and final exam. Despite which I still failed. I was devastated and the careers advisor was clear to me without higher maths I would not get into the LLB.  I went onto do Advanced Higher Art and was discouraged in doing so, being told the LLB wanted “traditional” subjects. My back up plan was always to be an art teacher if I didn’t get into the LLB. I had one particular art teacher who was very encouraging. I nearly always had art straight after maths so perhaps that added to my enjoyment of the subject.

My aunt allowed me to undertake some work experience with her and accompany her to Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, I think I was in fourth year at the time. I found it all very daunting and as someone who hated public speaking, seeing how much Court solicitors had to do confirmed to me then I definitely did not want to be a court solicitor. (Boy did that change!) My cousin helped me source the  Unis that offered the LLB to know where to apply to. My paternal gran (who had become an English teacher later in life) helped me with my personal statement.

Studying the LLB at University

I got into Uni and studied the LLB. It was a difficult time. I wasn’t able to go to student nights or out much at all really because of how much I had to work to support myself. My parents contributed towards costs as much as they could however books and general living costs were expensive. The year I started the Diploma the funding was withdrawn and I could only get a student loan for half of the costs. I worked in a supermarket doing shifts between 6pm and 1am a minimum of four times per week although I often took on overtime to help. This was where I met my partner. Despite this I still had to take out student loans throughout the LLB. I graduated with a 2:1 and couldn’t quite believe I had managed to do it. I was the first person in my maternal family to graduate from Uni. My maternal grandfather, my beloved Papa had passed away in my fourth year. He could not read nor write (which I never knew until years later) and even though he never got to know I graduated, I knew he would have been so proud of me and no doubt still is.

The Diploma

I continued working throughout the Diploma and in fact had to work even more to pay for this because of the funding issues. One day per week my classes would be spread between 9am and 6pm. I would go straight into work straight after, often having an hours nap in the staff room before starting. I lived back with my parents at this time and the bus into Glasgow for Uni/work took around 50 minutes each way so my days were very long. I moved in with my partner during the Diploma and he took on a lot of the financial responsibility so I could reduce the amount of hours I was working and focus on finishing the course.

During the Diploma began the traineeship hunt. I think we can all remember the stress and worry that time came with. I was particularly worried about the Diploma “expiring” if I didn’t find a traineeship within two years.  I knew I couldn’t afford to do it again and really by this point I was burnt out. I had undertaken unpaid work experience every summer whilst on the LLB and so I did have experience to include on my CV. I think that coupled with the fact I had worked throughout Uni was appealing to firms as I had quite a few interviews before the end of the Diploma. It’s something I’m quite keen on and have had summer students doing work experience to add to their CVs. One particular Tutor on the Diploma really stood out for me and my mind was set on family law.  I was still terrified of public speaking but the subject just seemed to come naturally to me.  

Traineeship experience

When I was offered my Traineeship I was over the moon. It was a small firm who undertook predominantly family law and my supervising solicitor was an Accredited Specialist in the subject. I felt I could finally concentrate on one thing instead of trying to juggle employment and education as I had done so far. However, my traineeship experience was horrendous. I suffered with work place bullying from my supervising solicitor and my mental health was poor. I struggled with certain aspects and when I tried to ask for help I was often made to feel stupid. I would be sent on personal errands and everything I did was criticised even down to what I ate for lunch. I was off sick for a week at one point as my mental health had gotten so bad I was afraid of going into work. I had phoned the trainee helpline ran by the Law Society multiple times. Katie Wood ran it at the time and she was incredibly supportive, often shocked by what was happening and made clear this was not what the Law Society expected. I paid for half of my TCPD costs and at this time there was no set salary amounts so I was paid minimum wage. I was set on walking away from law as much as that was very hard to come to terms with. I began binge eating at night when I got home and cut myself away from friends and family completely. I had been prescribed anti depressants and referred to counselling but I knew deep down I would improve if I left the firm I was in. I was approached by a recruitment consultant and offered to assign the remainder of my traineeship to a firm in Glasgow. My first firm wouldn’t pay for my restricted practising certificate to let me go to court and I couldn’t afford to pay for it myself. The firm I assigned to made clear they would obtain that and I felt I’d been given a way out. Handing in my notice was terrifying, I had taken a panic attack on the bus to work that day. My friend had gone into employment law and helped me draft my resignation letter. I was really anxious about working my notice period. After I left, issues arose as the first supervising solicitor would not confirm to the Law Society when my last working day was and there was a risk I was not going to be credited for the 18 months I had completed there. The Law Society, particularly Katie Wood supported me 100% and I never lost the months I had completed. The supervisor also sought to retract the forms she had signed that were necessary for me to apply for my restricted practising certificate at my new firm. I have to say I felt the Law Society completely had my back in that situation and I cannot fault them. It was made clear to me that this was not what a career in law should look like.  I was granted the restricted practising certificate and appeared in court for the first time before the completion of my traineeship. As someone who always hated public speaking I can remember how anxious I was about that – which given I conduct proofs several times per year now does make me laugh a little. It is definitely true that you do get over the “court phobia”.

I qualified and was so proud of myself. I stayed in the firm I had moved to for quite a few years. I experienced Court appearances, and the dreaded first Proof. However the work load was varied and I had set my sights on becoming an Accredited Specialist in Family Law.  I wanted to practice exclusively in that area and take on more complex work. The firm I was in just wasn’t able to give me that and so I decided to look for a move.

New beginnings

I moved to my current firm 5 years ago and haven’t looked back. I went from a big city centre firm to a two office local firm and haven’t regretted my decision at all. In my experience I’d say a smaller firm is definitely more hands on. You are, I would say anyway, given a higher degree of responsibility. I did, like a lot of us, have my sights set on the bright lights of the city centre but honestly, small and local is where I’m just meant to be. I am incredibly lucky to have such supportive Partners where I am now.  I hadn’t properly addressed my mental health issues and in 2022 the issues I had pushed down got too much and I had a breakdown. Looking back I can say that pushing things to the back of my mind didn’t solve the problem it just saved them up for another day. My personal life took a difficult turn in 2022 as well. I told certain staff who I had grown very close too and opened up to the Partners. All of whom could not have shown me more support. My paternal grandfather passed away as had my cousin in 2023 and I felt that gave me the shove I needed to apply for Accreditation. I guess prior to that point I had the fear of failure and whilst that previously might not have bothered me as much, my first traineeship experience left me with crippling anxiety around failure, even just the thought of doing something less than 100% correct.  The firm paid for my Accredited Specialist application and when it was granted staff arranged for a balloon and gifts in my room when I came into the office the day after it was granted.  I’ve been with my current firm now for five years and have never looked back.

My path to qualification may not be the worst anyone’s ever heard but it was my path. Looking back I am incredibly proud that I did not give in. Yes there are still times when things get tough with workloads, difficult cases and even sometimes difficult opponents however, having a supportive work environment and a good work life balance really makes the difference.  I encourage anyone struggling to reach out for help and remember just because you might not be in the best situation now, it won’t always be that way.

By Caitlin Gilbert

Senior Associate and Accredited Family Law Specialist at Freelands Solicitors

You can connect with Caitlin via Linkedin here.


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