My journey from ‘care leaver’ to trainee solicitor at a top city law firm26 October 2015
Having grown up in local authority care, I was aware that very few ‘care leavers’ progress into higher education, but I was always very ambitious and determined to break the mould.
I wanted a challenge and I knew that a law degree would be just that. Living in care, I found that so many important decisions concerning my life were being made on my behalf and I often found myself debating, questioning or challenging authority, something I was surprisingly good at. I felt that a law degree might be a much more positive way to express myself.
I chose to study my degree at the University of Greenwich mainly because it offered mentoring and a yearly £1,000 bursary for ‘care leavers’. Also, if I had gone to university outside of London and moved into student halls, I probably would have had to surrender my tenancy with the council, leaving myself homeless after I graduated. So this was something else I had to consider.
As soon as I started university I involved myself in every extracurricular activity on offer (clubs, workshops, voluntary placements, etc.), and each opportunity led onto another.
During my first year I applied for a place on a legal summer scheme. The scheme was competitive, but it was run by the City Solicitors Education Trust (CSET), an organisation seeking applicants from so called ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’. Having grown up in care and being the first in my family to attend university I met the eligibility criteria to apply.
I secured a place at the CSET summer school where I then met a lawyer from GlaxoSmithKline leading to a one month legal internship with them. This was again through GlaxoSmithKline ‘s own Diversity Access Scheme, which as a care leaver, I was eligible to apply for.
By the end of my second year at university, I had solid legal and commercial work experience on my C.V and this meant that I could relax a little by the start of my final year and concentrate fully on my studies. In doing so I was able to obtain a first class honours.
In order to train as a solicitor, law graduates are also required to take a one year postgraduate Legal Practice Course (LPC) before starting a job as a trainee solicitor. A huge obstacle for me was that the course is extremely expensive (currently up to £17,000 in London) and there were no government student loans available for postgraduate students.
After doing some research into funding options, I applied to the Law Society for a scholarship through their Diversity Access Scheme (DAS), which aims to improve social mobility in the legal profession by supporting promising entrants who have also faced exceptional social, educational, financial or personal obstacles.
After submitting an academic essay with my application I was invited to a panel interview. I was questioned on my motivation to become a solicitor and asked to describe a time in my life when I had overcome exceptional obstacles.
I spoke about the difficulties of growing up in a children’s home and how hard I had found it to stay in education and achieve exam results that were truly reflective of my capabilities.
Being awarded a full LPC scholarship came as a massive confidence boost. The fact that the Law Society was willing to support me by investing such a huge amount of money into my legal career made me really believe in myself and my ability to succeed.
The Law Society also arranged for me to complete a work placement with the legal team of an international property development company. I was also given a mentor (a qualified lawyer) to help me with my job applications.
Applying For Jobs
Despite obtaining a first in my university degree and successfully completing the LPC, my earlier A-level grades were not particularly good (CCDD). This was because halfway through my A levels I was moved out of my children’s home and into independent living.
The pressure and responsibility of living independently at such a young age was overwhelming and had a negative impact on my learning. It was a constant struggle to stay in education, but by the time I started university, I had settled in to my new flat and got on top of my finances and looking after myself. I found it much easier to concentrate at university partly because I had left behind all of the distractions that come with living in a children’s home.
However, you need to have strong A-level grades to be able to apply for most graduate roles, especially in law. Even with my 1st class degree and all of my legal work experience behind me, I still had this obstacle to overcome.
Thankfully, the law firm that I am now working for run a Legal Access Scheme which the firm put in place to offer work experience placements to students from ‘less conventional backgrounds’, who are able to demonstrate strong potential.
Under the scheme, the firm was willing to waive its normal academic A-level criteria, due to my university and work experience achievements, as well as my determination to stay in education despite an extremely difficult time in my life.
Thankfully, my work placement performance impressed everyone at the firm, so I was offered my current role as a trainee solicitor. At the same time I was also considering another offer for a similar position.
When I had left my children’s home to begin living independently, I never thought that I would complete a law degree and a postgraduate degree. I also never imagined being in a position to choose between two amazing job offers from international law firms.
I have had a lot of good luck, but I have also worked extremely hard to get to where I am, and will have to continue working hard for years to come. I have never let an opportunity pass me by, because I know that each opportunity might then lead to the next.
One thing that was key to my success was being able to turn a negative into a positive. Instead of letting the fact that I had grown up in care hold me back, I used it to my advantage by applying for opportunities that were specifically aimed at candidates from ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘less conventional backgrounds’. I was never embarrassed to tell recruiters that I had grown up in care and their reaction was always positive.
Although my employer is aware of my background, it is all kept confidential from my colleagues.
My firm is not alone in promoting diversity and social inclusion in the working world, many law firms and other businesses run similar schemes. Some of the well known banks offer work placements and apprenticeships for students from more diverse backgrounds as well. Most universities also offer support to students who have spent time in care.
My advice for anyone leaving care is to do your research. You will find that there are many resources in place to help people that have grown up in care to fulfil their potential.
To mark National Care Leavers’ Week (21 – 28 October), NIACE has launched a brand new app to inspire and help young adult care leavers into learning and work.