How a 7am Sunday Interview Kickstarted My Legal Career
Starting a legal career without family connections may seem daunting, but it is by no means impossible. In this article, Neil Hay, Solicitor Advocate and Partner in the law firm Levy and McRae, provides a personal account of his experience building a thriving legal career from scratch, focusing on the importance of determination, education, and strategic networking to overcome any barriers to entry you might face.
A few years ago, a work experience law student at my firm asked what private school I went to, and the name of the law firm where my parents worked. It was obvious to her that a partner in a legal practice must have had parents (or at least an uncle or aunt) working in the legal profession. Someone to help them with the law degree at university and who (with a wink to their chums) would arrange a traineeship. There was no other way to ‘make it’ as a lawyer. Who was it, she wondered, who had ‘opened doors’ for me? The facts surprised her - there was no fairy godmother or godfather to ease my path into the legal profession.
I was brought up in a pretty typical working-class home in Edinburgh; my dad was a policeman, and my mum worked in an office (neither went to university).
The car was always second-hand, and holidays were at the homes of relatives in Cumbria or at a caravan. We didn’t know any lawyers and didn’t move in the kind of circles where you might find lawyers (although my dad had come across a few when he had arrested their clients).
School was the local primary and a nearby secondary. I managed to get a few Highers, and that was enough to get me into university (the first in my family to go). I had a terrific four years at Dundee University, achieving a 2.1 in History & Politics and supported by a maintenance grant and various state benefits that students were allowed to claim back in the day. I met a few lawyers along the way and (at some point) decided that a career in law would be a good idea. So, I signed up for the two-year accelerated law degree for graduates at Glasgow University. To pay my way, I picked up jobs in bars, hotels, summer schools, and at the university, tutoring undergraduates in politics. I thought I had cracked it with a summer placement at a law firm, but this turned out to be a particular low point in my legal journey. My six-week summer placement at a highly regarded commercial legal firm was largely a waste of time. Proofreading documents and cleaning out stationery cupboards wasn’t high on my list of legal interests. I passed the time hiding in the office library and reading old copies of the only interesting books in its collection - Scottish Criminal Court Reports. At first, I found the study of law quite challenging - it was very different from an Arts degree – but after a couple of resits and some generous help from cleverer pals in my class (you know who you are!), I eventually got the hang of it and picked up a second degree.
Having exhausted all forms of funding and the patience of my parents (and about to start my seventh year as a student), I moved home for a year and took the Diploma in Legal Practice at Edinburgh University. I found the Diploma considerably more engaging than the degree, especially the civil and criminal court practice but the scramble for a traineeship was unsettling. It seemed that everyone else had a traineeship lined up. Some had parents who helped arrange a traineeship for them. Others had older pals from private school who could tell them the secrets necessary to obtain a training contract. I had little idea of what to do, but by this time had settled on a career in criminal law. By a process of elimination, it was clear this was the only area of law that interested me.
Fortunately, the law department at Edinburgh University is just across the road from Edinburgh Sheriff Court, so I spent a bit of time there, watching criminal trials. That’s where I watched my future first boss, plying his trade. One day I plucked up the courage to speak to him in the corridor and sometime later persuaded him to give me an interview for a traineeship. He was (and probably still is) a wily old fox, and he set me a test. He said he would be in his office at 7am on the following Sunday morning, and that I should meet him there for an interview if I could get myself out of bed early enough. I did and passed the first test. I then did well enough in the interview to be offered a job.
*Editors Comment* - Sensitive content warning: skip the below paragraph if you are at all squeamish (not for the faint-hearted!)
So, I was on my way. I had a traineeship and was to become a proper lawyer (albeit only a baby one). My most memorable day was probably day one. As a newbie trainee, I obviously couldn’t represent clients in court yet. I was therefore volunteered by the other lawyers (all quietly chuckling) for an as-yet-unnamed assignment. To my horror, I was dispatched to the city mortuary to attend a post-mortem of a stabbing victim and record the findings of the pathologist. I was standing not six feet away when the body was cut from throat to groin, the vital organs carefully removed, measured, weighed, and thoroughly examined. Apparently, I was expected to make polite conversation with the good Pathologist (between incisions) but the smell was awful, and the whole thing made me ill. I lasted about five minutes before I ran to the bathroom to be sick, never to return. This presented a problem. My boss was expecting clear, handwritten notes of the proceedings, but I had been absent. It would be a humiliatingly bad start to my traineeship if I returned to the office with an empty notebook on my very first day. If I ever had a fairy godfather, his name is DC Kenny Ritchie of Lothian & Borders Police. I haven’t forgotten his name, and his kindness. Watching my discomfort and hearing my retching in the bathroom, he offered to take notes for me (this wasn’t his first PM). I duly later presented his notes to my boss as evidence of my diligent attendance at the post-mortem and because it was my first day, he didn’t know it wasn’t my handwriting.
I had a terrific training. I wasn’t just thrown in at the deep end, I was thrown in with all the hungry sharks. Edinburgh Sheriff Court in the nineties was like that. I was lucky to be given cases well beyond my ability, in a court-school where hard knocks were expected and celebrated. A typical day started the night before with prep for my court cases. First thing in the morning there was the (in)famous 8:30 am office meeting when my colleagues and I were cross-examined by the boss on our knowledge of our cases and the relevant law. Woe betides the lawyer who hadn’t prepared properly. By lunchtime, I had been kicked up and down several courts by tough Sheriffs (Lothian, Scott, Horsburgh, Farrell) and grilled on my tentative knowledge of the law of evidence by the academic/clever ones (Macphail, Stoddart, Bell). Then there was the 5pm office evening meeting to look forward to, and further in-house cross-examination to establish how the day's cases had concluded, and how I had performed. The learning curve was very steep and very wonderful.
From then on, I worked my way up the legal career ladder in a few different firms, picked up the solicitor-advocate qualification along the way, and I’m now a Partner at Levy & McRae, still specialising in criminal law.
I suppose the work experience student would say that I had ‘made it’ as a lawyer, although it doesn’t always feel that way. There is always the worry about being ‘found out’ (only a few years ago I had a nightmare in which I was disbarred as a lawyer because there had been a terrible administrative mistake, and I had failed all my Uni exams) and I still sometimes get nervous before I appear in court. Silver hair and an ageing appearance seem to make other people think I know what I’m doing, and that’s okay with me.
So, what advice do I have for the work experience student, hoping to ‘make it’ as a lawyer?
First, the law is for everyone. It might take you longer, or it might be a bit harder for you than for others, but it is for you, and don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t make it.
Second, find your own pathway in your legal career. Only you know what interests you in the legal world, and no two career paths are the same. Try to get a traineeship in a firm that offers you the best training and most responsibility in your fields of interest. Follow your interests, and not the crowd.
Third, don’t be boring. Have hobbies, interests, and opinions, and be ready to speak about them at interviews or other events. People like to work with interesting people.
Lastly, if you don’t like hard work, then do something else. The legal profession doesn’t owe you a living, so work hard, take every opportunity, network like hell, and make your own luck.
By Neil Hay
Solicitor Advocate and Partner at Levy and McRae.
You can connect with Neil via Linkedin here.
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