Establishing a career in law is difficult enough, but what about those who decide to do so later in life? Marialuisa Taddia reports.

Embarking on a legal career is tough. There are sky-high tuition fees, fierce competition for a training contract, and the commitment needed to qualify and establish yourself as a solicitor. Add caring responsibilities, the demands of full-time work and a few grey hairs to the mix, and it can look like an unachievable feat.

But hundreds of older people succeed every year.

‘It’s a scary process and you need to develop a pretty thick skin and quite a lot of resilience,’ warns Thomas Eggar associate Daniel Hedley. ‘You are older, the stakes are higher and you probably haven’t got the “bank of mum and dad” to fall back on like many fresh graduates.’

‘It’s an incredibly rewarding career,’ says Latham & Watkins senior graduate recruitment coordinator Puneet Tahim, ‘but it is also tough and demanding. If you want to be home every day at 5.30pm, then maybe it isn’t the right career move.’

Training is currently a two-stage process, of course. There is the ‘academic stage’, which is either an undergraduate qualifying law degree or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), a one-year law conversion course. This is then followed by a ‘vocational stage’ – the one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC) – and a two-year period of recognised training with a firm of solicitors or other organisation authorised to take trainees (until recently known as a training contract).

Knocking on doors

Vicky Hosking qualified at Ipswich-based Michael Smith & Co Solicitors when she was 46 and was made equity partner a year later in August 2015. Hosking, a single mother of three, had previously run her own business, but when the recession hit she decided to pursue a long-held desire to become a solicitor. She enrolled at London Metropolitan University, completing a GDL full-time and a part-time LPC. She kept her business ticking over to fund her tuition fees.

In her final LPC year Hosking ‘literally knocked on the door’ of her local high street firm, offering to volunteer six hours a week. She then harnessed her well-honed entrepreneurial skills: ‘I prepared a proposal and identified areas in the business where I felt I could make a contribution, and also the hours and how much it was going to cost them [to train me].’ She began on the basis of two-and-a-half hours a week, a commitment she was able to increase as and when more work came in. ‘The timing was really important,’ she says (one of the firm’s family law solicitors was looking to retire). But, she adds: ‘Because of my background I was able to look at all the business aspects and identify where I could fit into their needs.’

Hosking briefly tried the more traditional route of sending applications for training contracts, but felt that she was ‘selling herself short’ among applicants half her age: ‘You may have to consider more original alternative options, going into a firm from a slightly different angle. Sometimes they springboard you into the same place.’

With savings from his six-year job as an IT engineer and financial help from his spouse, Daniel Hedley embarked on four years of full-time study, obtaining a qualifying law degree from London South Bank University and an LPC from the University of Law. Hedley trained as a solicitor at Clifford Chance, qualifying in 2013 at 35.  

What made him want to become an IT lawyer? ‘Just being a manager wasn’t very interesting to me,’ he says. ‘I have always enjoyed intellectual challenges, puzzles and language, and the to-ing and fro-ing of the commercial world. Being a lawyer seemed to cover all those bases.’

In January 2014 Hedley switched to Thomas Eggar in West Sussex, where ‘everyone still does client work’ notwithstanding their seniority.  

How did his previous experience and skills help him get into the law? ‘I had something to bring to the party that wasn’t just the usual “I was captain of the netball team and have a first from Oxford”. I was able to pitch myself as someone who knew what they were doing commercially, capable of standing on my own two feet as well as being quite a decent technical lawyer.’  

Top tip? ‘Most of the big firms publish all the competencies they are looking for in their trainees on their graduate recruitment websites. I made a spreadsheet of all the competencies and how I could fulfil each of them with specific evidence.’  

The most typical study route for mature students is the GDL (also known as Common Professional Examination) because they are more likely to have a non-law undergraduate degree, followed by the LPC, notes Diane Goodier, national programme director, key accounts, at the University of Law. According to Goodier, the number of students aged 33-54 accepting places at the university has increased in recent years (and by 10.2% on 2014), particularly in Guildford and London Bloomsbury centres that offer part-time study options.

‘There is a greater awareness of law as a potential second or even third career,’ Goodier says. The Law Society, for example, organises events for mature students and career changers: ‘Recruitment in the law is up to pre-2008 levels. It is a good time to be joining the profession.’

The total cost of GDL and LPC fees at the University of Law is £24,950 in London and about £20,000 outside the capital. It is worth checking other providers authorised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for cheaper options, although fees may reflect career support services that can vary considerably.

Financial support is available, and not only through law firm sponsorship. The University of Law, for example, offers scholarships and law bursaries (totalling £400k in 2015/16) and payment by instalments. Some banks, notably Metro Bank, offer professional studies loans.

Goodier says 97% of LPC graduates were in employment nine months after completing the course in 2014, and 91% of these were in ‘legal-related work,’ although the university was unable to disclose how many had secured a training contract.

Getting good grades is really important, Goodier adds: ‘If you are able to do well in the qualifications that are most relevant to that second career choice, then that is going to stand you in good stead.’

Aspiring mature entrants also need to be aware of recent and forthcoming changes to legal training. One is the ‘equivalent means’ route to qualification. For example, LPC graduates who have worked as paralegals can ‘compile a portfolio of evidence demonstrating that the work they have done is equivalent to a formal training contract’, says Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA. So far, 18 people have qualified through this route, which was introduced in July 2014.

Furthermore, by Christmas the SRA will consult on a new assessment framework focusing on the skills and competencies a new solicitor must possess rather than prescribing pathways to achieve them. This may, for some, remove the requirement to do an LPC and two years on-the-job training. ‘The reality is that some people learn more quickly than others, and to have one standard period of time may not be appropriate for everybody,’ Brannan says. Although the new system will not be introduced before 2018/19, aspiring solicitors are advised to check with the SRA how these changes may affect them.

‘It is important for us to ensure that our regulatory framework doesn’t have any unjustifiable barriers, but there is only so much that we can do in terms of encouraging qualification into the profession for a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds,’ Brannan says. ‘The other element is who law firms decide to appoint, and it is very important for us all to recognise that we have a part to play in ensuring that we have a diverse and representative profession.’

Climbing a different ladder

Polly Sprenger was 39 when she completed a pupillage at specialist criminal set Red Lion Chambers, and in less than a year she was of counsel at a City law firm.

US-born Sprenger left her role as head of strategic intelligence at the Serious Fraud Office in September 2010 to start a full-time GDL at the University of Law in London’s Moorgate, continuing to work as an external adviser for the law enforcement agency. Sprenger then completed a full-time Bar Professional Training Course at City Law School, while serving as technical adviser to the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into illegality by private investigators.

Why did she decide to become a lawyer? ‘At the SFO, I found I was increasingly having to consider the legal framework within which I worked in order to streamline and make more efficient my investigations,’ says Sprenger, who during her seven-year career as a professional investigator worked ‘extensively’ with legal teams.

How did she clinch a pupillage? ‘In every interview, I was asked how I would cope with being “bottom of the tree” when I was used to being relatively senior. I made noises that I was not afraid to start over, that there was always something new to learn, that hierarchy wasn’t important to me and that I wouldn’t have come this far without figuring out that I might have to take a few bumps along the way.’

Then Sprenger switched to a law firm. ‘My weird background and the shifting sands of the criminal bar meant that I had to think quickly how my career as an investigative lawyer was going to pan out,’ she says. ‘A number of City firms were enhancing their corporate crime teams, and I spoke to many in 2014.’ She joined Eversheds in August 2014 as of counsel.

There was some resistance to her ‘unconventional background’, but more so in the solicitor profession than the bar. ‘I’ve faced a bit of prejudice: about being American, about working mothers, about late qualifiers. In the main, I ignore it. They always come round in the end.’

Top tips? ‘Be humble but confident. Make everything about yourself an advantage. The legal profession, like any profession, is full of people who are there by luck, accident or inertia. If you want to be there, you can be there.’

New Zealand-born Kathy Meade was a few months shy of 50 when she qualified as a solicitor. She completed a Common Professional Examination, part-time while working four days a week, then took a year off to do an LPC from her full-time role in the equalities office of the London Borough of Hounslow. It took Meade six months to find a paralegal role in a legal aid firm in Camden. This was converted into a full-time training contract six months later.

Meade is professional support lawyer at housing and homeless charity Shelter. In her previous role as solicitor at Tower Hamlets Law Centre, she won a social and welfare accolade at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards in 2010.

What made her want to be a solicitor? ‘My father was a lawyer with a strong sense of social justice, and this was instilled in both my sister and me. However, late 1960s’ New Zealand had not quite woken up to the women’s movement and law was very much a male profession,’ says Meade, who faced ‘active discouragement’ at home and school in her desire to study law.

But the idea persisted: ‘It dawned on me that it was now or never. I grabbed the opportunity. Starting at the bottom of another career ladder was a real risk, psychologically as well as financially, but living with regrets would be worse.’  

By then Meade had developed skills that prepared her for a law career, including ‘a determination to achieve change and not give up my sense of outrage when people are badly or unfairly treated’.

How did she do it? Being back in education after 20 years was ‘a shock’, but Meade formed a study group of ‘kindred souls’ who were interested in legal aid work, meeting at weekends to discuss lectures and work on assignments. Meade also ‘knew where I wanted to end up – in legal aid doing social welfare law – so I volunteered in different places every summer’.

But getting a training contract was the toughest part of the process, and Meade’s advice is to find ways to keep motivated as there will be ‘many rebuffs along the way’. After sending about 15 training contract applications and having no luck, Meade decided to take her date of birth off her CV, ‘because from all my work around age discrimination in employment I knew how biased employers could be’. She also restricted her work history to the last 10 years. A law firm rang her home when she was out but changed their mind upon discovering her date of birth from her partner.

‘Being at the beginning of a career after many years as a senior can be tough,’ she says. ‘Having one’s letters corrected can be rather galling and not having the knowledge at your fingertips can be very uncomfortable. So one needs resilience and to be humble.’

Greater awareness has not translated into an increase of mature entrants however: 10.5% of the 6,077 solicitors admitted to the roll in 2014/15 were aged 35-54 and 0.2% were 55 or over, according to the Law Society’s latest statistics. This compares with 13.7% and 0.5% respectively in 2005/06. The average age of admission – 29.5 – is the same as a decade ago. There is also a greater proportion of male than female entrants aged 35 or over, suggesting that barriers are greater for women the older they get (13% male over-35s versus 9.3% female, of all admissions).

Moreover, not all mature applicants are new graduates. For example, of the 900 solicitors aged 35 or over admitted in 2013/14, more than half (52%) were overseas lawyers, barristers and legal executives.

So are law firms doing their bit? And what is their advice?

A number of City law firms welcome mature applicants, according to their websites, but before applying it is worth finding out what they mean by ‘mature’. It can often be someone not fresh out of university but under 35 – which is reflected in the increase over the past decade in the number of solicitors entering the profession aged 30-34 (23% of all new admissions in 2014/15). Trainee recruitment brochures with photographs of trainees can provide a useful starting point.  

Most people who apply for a training contract at Lewis Silkin are aged 16-24, but over the last five years the firm has received 15% fewer applications from this age group and 8% more from applicants aged 24-34, according to trainee recruitment principal and partner Judith Damerell. But the City law firm does not attract people of 35 or over: ‘I don’t think we are necessarily different to most of the other practices.’

Trainee recruitment forms typically include questions such as ‘provide details of your activities and interests at secondary school’; ‘what activities have you participated in and what responsibilities have you taken on at university’; and ‘how have you spent your vacations’. Mature applicants should not be deterred, though.

‘We are looking for a broad spread of experience and I would not want to think there is anything in our application form which puts people off,’ Damerell says. ‘It is a matter of always balancing these things.’  

Law firms need a return on the large investment they made on training solicitors and will want to see that ‘extra spark’ in mature candidates.

‘We look at trainees as the future of the practice,’ Damerell says. ‘There are all sorts of attributes we look for that can be demonstrated by mature students as well, if not better, than someone who is not mature. But you also have the inherent challenge that people are looking for long-term commitment. You have to balance that against someone who is bright and breezy and 22.’

So what attributes make mature applicants attractive to law firms? For Tahim, it is the ‘soft’ or ‘transferrable’ skills acquired in previous careers – leadership, organisation and communication.

‘It is really thinking about the skills they have developed and how they are going to be relevant to their career in law,’ Tahim explains. Candidates also need to look beyond the two years of training: ‘How is the fact that you have been a teacher for 10 years transferrable to being a solicitor?’ At the same time, it is important to ‘show that you still want to learn and have got a lot of potential to develop further’, she says.  

Tahim recognises the difficulty of getting legal work experience for those in full-time work or with caring responsibilities, but says: ‘Every candidate needs to demonstrate that they have done something proactively to research the career. Recruiters will look for evidence that candidates have done more research than just reading about it on the internet.’ This may be attending law firm open days and evenings, and law fairs, where one can make ‘a positive impression’ by directly approaching the head of HR or one of the partners, Goodier says.

It is also worth considering a variety of employers, including charities and local authorities, as well as smaller firms. About 70% of newly admitted solicitors work in private practice, and the older they are, the smaller the size of the practice tends to be, according to Law Society data.

Marialuisa Taddia is a freelance journalist