My experiences and insight as a first generation, working-class “lawyer”
Daniel is currently a first year Trainee Solicitor at a full-service commercial law firm. He graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a first-class LLB Scots Law degree and attended the University of Glasgow for the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice. In this blog he discusses his journey from school to Trainee Solicitor with an emphasis on the various challenges facing those from less privileged backgrounds pursuing a legal career.
Whilst it is trite to say that studying law or pursuing a legal career is challenging for every single person who goes through the process, there are also enormous hurdles which those from less privileged backgrounds must contend with.
Social mobility is quite rightly higher up the agenda in the legal profession today. Coming from a working-class background and being the first person in my family to go to university, I know too well the various challenges that crop up at the various stages of pursuing a legal career (and actually starting a full-time position in the legal profession).
Despite this increased emphasis I do still believe there is a long way to go. I did not have the benefit of reading the experiences of someone who had gone through a similar journey when I was at school or university. I hope this blog about my experiences is useful for anyone who is looking for insight from someone who has been in their shoes and, more importantly, is something that they can relate to and take heed of.
I am not even going to pretend I was anything other than a “swot” at school. My subject interests were rooted in humanities and modern languages, which definitely directed me towards studying Law at university.
But that in itself did not mean it was plain sailing. I will always remember the look on some of my teachers’ faces when I said I wanted to become a lawyer. I am not sure whether this was to do with my background or the perception of my surname by some teacher (let’s just say my brother had been a bit of a class clown). I recall coming back from a higher education fair with various prospectuses and I felt determined and optimistic about my future. A pastoral teacher made sure to remind me that “you do realise how high the entry requirements are?... it’s a hard course by the way”. This was a recurring theme right up until I finished my school studies.
I remember being told that I simply was not capable of sitting the National 5 English exam by the Head of English and by my head teacher. This was despite all my reports at school showing I was clearly a capable student that took my studies seriously. My parents had to battle with my school to let me sit the exam. In the end I passed both National 5 and Higher English with an A grade. The lesson here is to trust your gut instinct and not let others dissuade you.
I was fortunate that my school signed up for the Bar National Mock Trial competition during S5 and I was able to gain some insight of the law in practice (albeit from a criminal law perspective). I successfully auditioned to represent my school as an Advocate. I had to prepare a cross-examination based on fictional evidence and witness testimonies. Although my school did not fair very well, it was a fantastic experience being able to present at the High Court of Judiciary in front of Donald Findlay KC (who assumed the role of judge for my case).
Despite this being an excellent learning experience, the social class divide, even at a school level, was very apparent. My school was one of very few state schools represented at the competition. I could tell from the other schools’ contributions that they had the benefit of extra funding and coaching (or even a functioning debating society to get their skills up to scratch). I spent more time worrying about whether turning up in a basic white shirt from Asda and my school trousers was acceptable (there was no way I could afford a suit), rather than worrying about the actual case I was meant to be presenting. Worrying about what to wear may seem trivial, but this is definitely something which I think goes unnoticed not just at school level, but the various competitions and social events at university and work which require formal attire.
Although some of my school experiences were disheartening, I did not let it deter me. I left school with 6 As at Higher and unconditional offers to study Law at five universities. Thankfully my parents always encouraged me and believed in me. Although I do not look back on school particularly fondly, I do believe it made me resilient and even more determined to do well and prove the doubters wrong.
My experience of the LLB at Strathclyde University was superb. I cannot think of a single criticism from my time studying there. It was refreshing to start a course where everybody was starting from scratch. Some might have briefly read books about how to study law or made a start on the prescribed textbooks for the first term, but the reality is (if you studied at a Scottish school) that everyone has learn the law from scratch. I got used to the knack of studying Law and started to develop an interest in the more commercially-oriented subjects. I got stuck in with my usual dogged work ethic and it culminated in me finishing my undergraduate degree with several academic awards under my belt and a first-class Law degree to my name. It was such a great feeling seeing how proud my parents were of me when they watched me go on stage to collect my degree certificate.
Although the actual academic experience and process was nothing but enjoyable and rewarding, the financial barriers of studying law at university cannot be understated. Whilst others jetted the globe during the long summer breaks, I spent every single holiday working as many hours as I could just to have enough money to get through university.
For me, the biggest hurdle was the eye watering fees for the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (the Diploma). The course itself cost a whopping £9,500 I was studying it. Although a tuition loan was available (this totalled £5500) and a living cost loan had been made available (this totalled £4,500), the fees far exceeded the amount of money I had coming in. I had to move out when I started University and I had always used the entirety of my living cost loan during my undergraduate studies on rent and bills. The stereotypical notion that students spend their student loan in pubs and coffee shops could not have been further from the truth when it came to me – 100% of my loan income went towards rent and bills.
As I still had these bills to pay when I was going to be studying the Diploma, there was inevitably a massive shortfall between the £5,500 tuition fee loan and the £9,500 tuition fees. This is undoubtedly the biggest barrier for any working class student pursuing a legal career. I was fortunate to have secured a training contract and my firm were able to loan me some of the fees. The rest was made up from working long hours and sacrificing in other areas of my life.
I do not mention this to put people from similar backgrounds off pursuing a legal career, but merely to emphasise that forward planning is the only way to offset some of the barriers. As I previously mentioned, I was fortunate to have secured a training contract where some funding was made available. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of starting thinking about your legal career from day one. Whilst the attitude that the early years of your degree do not count for anything seems to prevail, the reality is if you are from a working-class background you are going to have to work that bit harder just to get to the same places as more privileged people.
With my school experiences always at the forefront of my mind, I made sure to apply for and attend as many insight events (that full-service commercial law firms were putting on for first and second year students) as possible. This helped me show in application forms that I was interested in a career in a full-service commercial law firm. These experiences were all free and accessible to anyone. The combination of attending these events with my academic interests and varied working experience helped me to be successful in getting a traineeship (though the hunt for a summer placement and/or traineeship merits its own blog post). I was lucky that the firm I now work for has values rooted in social diversity and an appreciation that not everyone could access the sort of informal work experience opportunities those with family/family friends in the profession may have.
Being a Trainee Solicitor is the first job in my life where I have not dreaded going to work. Instead, I actually look forward to going into work and finishing the working day with various new learning experiences.
I am lucky that the firm I work at has an active Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing forum which champions all things equality. This notion of equality is also firmly rooted in the firm’s culture and I have never experienced anything other than a constructive, friendly and supportive environment.
The only obstacle at this stage has been my own head and the inevitable imposter syndrome that ensues when you are a first generation lawyer. Many nights and days were spent questioning how on earth I had ended up convincing a firm to offer me a traineeship. For the first three months (before the first formal quarterly review that every Trainee Solicitor must carry out every three months to satisfy Law Society of Scotland requirements) I was far too hard on myself.
The biggest adjustment from academic study compared to the workplace is learning that you will make mistakes and that you will not know everything. Looking back now my thoughts were simply just a product of my negative school experience and thankfully (following my first review with my supervising solicitor) I have managed to build up my confidence and self-belief.
I am very much looking forward to building my knowledge and experience as a trainee right up until I qualify as a Solicitor in September 2024. I hope to play my (small) part in widening access to the legal profession by mentoring students who have followed similar paths and experienced similar struggles. I am always happy to help those who may find themselves in a similar position and I hope this blog has helped someone looking for the experiences and insight of someone who has been in their shoes and made it to a full-time position in the legal profession.
By Daniel Cormack
Trainee Solicitor at MacRoberts LLP
You can connect with Daniel via Linkedin here.
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