The Insider – Q&As with Lucy Gray, Hay and Kilner

Lucy Gray is a qualified solicitor at Hay and Kilner Solicitors in Newcastle upon Tyne. Lucy specialises in commercial disputes.

Why did you decide to go into law?

To be perfectly honest I chose law because I did not know what else to do!  I knew I wanted to do something reasonably academic and law seemed to be a secure and respected profession.

At what stage in your academic career did you manage to secure a training contract?

I completed my LPC in June 2007 and was offered my training contract in August 2007.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were applying for training contracts?

Contrary to what a lot of people will say my biggest challenge was my own motivation.  I loved my whole university experience and spent very little time considering what I would do afterwards!  So I really needed to apply myself and focus on applications during the LPC.

Did you face a lot of rejection before you managed to get a training contract?

Not really but I know that I was incredibly lucky. I was turned down for 2 training contracts before being offered mine but I knew myself that (a) my applications for the 2 firms which rejected me had not been as good as they could have been and (b) the firms which turned me down really would not have suited me anyway.

What seats did you do during your training contract at Hay & Kilner?

I did Private Capital (Wills, probate and trusts); Company Commercial; Commercial Disputes; and Employment.  Private Capital was an excellent seat to start in, it usually does not have the same time pressure as is often present in commercial seats but the client contact and drafting experience is invaluable.

How has your job role changed from trainee solicitor to a qualified solicitor?

As you might expect I have to do a lot more of my own volition, including business development.  As a trainee you are usually someone’s ‘assistant’ on big commercial transactions but as your PQE increases you become more independent and need to build careful relationships with clients.

What is the best and worst aspect of your job?

The best aspect has to be ‘winning’ in Court – the adrenaline and gratitude of the client makes all of the hard work leading up to trial well worth it!

The worst aspect is probably the administrative side of things.  As regulation of the legal sector grows so do the number of forms we have to fill in for new clients, it is time consuming and can be more than a bit boring!

What advice would you give to people looking for a training contract at the moment?

My advice would be:

  1. First of all, make sure it is really what you want – I know lots of people who have been carried into law by friends/family and their own expectations of themselves but if you think you’ll be happier doing something other than law, do it!
  2. If you are sure it’s what you want then the only possible advice is to stick at it.  The legal market is undoubtedly going through some significant changes and I know that it is not an easy time to secure training contracts.  However, in situations such as that perseverance will pay off.  People from my LPC (4 years ago now) are still getting training contracts now so you need to be prepared for a potentially long haul.
  3. Having said all of that you also need to keep reassessing your situation.  Don’t continue blindly applying if it’s still not working 2 years after law school.  Maybe you need to change your style of application or the type/location of firms you’re applying to.
  4. In relation to actual applications, I know it’s a cliché repeated by many a careers advisor but the main thing you have to do is to make yourself stand out.  By that I don’t mean fancy paper or numerous follow-up emails; I mean that there has to be something on your form which makes someone think ‘ah, that’s interesting, I’d really like a conversation with him/her about that’.  You need to be identifiable to the HR teams or partners discussing your application as ‘the guy who volunteered in the charity shop‘ or  ‘that girl who did the conservation project’.  I’m not suggesting they’re great examples but you need to be able to show you’re passionate about something, anything!  You can make shopping or rugby sound different and interesting if you address it in the right way.  Above all it gives you something to have a meaningful conversation about in the interview.
  5. Finally, I am a firm believer that a training contract is a meeting of personalities – you have to be right for the firm but the firm has to be right for you too.  There is a suitable firm for every law student; it’s just a case of finding it!

How do you think students can demonstrate that they have commercial awareness?

I know this is a requirement which a lot of people struggle with but actually it’s one of the easiest to comply with if you put some thought into it.  Commercial considerations are all around you, all the time – you just have to take notice of them, remember them and work out a way to work them into conversations at interviews or careers talks.  You can be commercially aware on many different levels:

  1. Locally commercially aware – has something significant happened in your local area which may mean e.g. more building work going on or more tourists will be attracted?
  2. Geographically commercially aware – is your region heavily dependant on certain sectors e.g. the public sector?  What are the advantages/disadvantages of that?  Is there scope for growth in other areas?
  3. Nationally/globally commercially aware – read all the news you can!  Know what is happening in the financial and legal markets (not necessarily in great detail but in overview) and think about how that may affect clients.  Before an interview make a note of interesting stories in the news and think about how they may be linked to the firm you’re interviewing for.

First and foremost, commercial awareness is about money.  It is about bearing in mind what may have a positive or negative affect on a client’s business.  That can be anything from good/bad publicity to legislative changes in tax or health & safety laws.  Businesses are concerned with making money and anything which may affect that ability to make money is a commercial consideration.  The scope for commercial awareness is huge and it’s an area where you can really make your views unique and memorable.

How can a law student network and make contacts?

I appreciate that it is difficult as a law student to speak to people who you think have influence in law firms.  However, you would be surprised how many firms ask their trainees and NQs for suggestions and opinions on new trainees.  Therefore, whoever you meet at law fairs/careers talks/networking events, keep a note of their name and be pleasant to them!  Making contact with a trainee is much easier than contacting a partner and can still be a good foot in the door.  Try to stand out by appearing confident, happy and polite but avoid being overbearing or arrogant at all costs.

And finally, what do you think are the most important skills to have to become a successful solicitor?

You need to have a thick skin.  As a trainee you are going to receive criticism and you need to build on that criticism (and indeed criticise yourself) to become a successful solicitor.

Lastly just smile.  It sounds like ridiculous advice but you can be instantly discounted by a firm if you come across as sullen or unsociable.  A smile is the easiest way to connect with people you’re speaking to and makes you much more memorable.

People think that the really successful solicitors are hard faced and ruthless but in truth the best solicitors are only like that when they absolutely have to be, such as in certain negotiations.  The rest of the time they’re considerate, approachable people who are well-liked by colleagues and clients!

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