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Becoming a lawyer the hard way: how to succeed in law despite an unconventional education

Law students have come to understand that the expected educational and training pathway to become a lawyer is firmly established, and often extremely regimented. As such, falling away from this traditional pathway can feel like a devastating blow to a legal student’s ambitions.

After all, law is well-known as a highly competitive sector, where candidates can nevertheless struggle to secure training contract opportunities even after securing top university grades. So what happens when circumstances make it impossible to follow the expected six-year route of study and training? In a field where a 2:1 degree is often seen as the minimum requirement for entry, is it still possible for talented candidates succeed even without these qualifications?

For any legal students asking these questions, the experiences of Hannah Bottomley, a clinical negligence solicitor here at Potter Rees Dolan, should provide plenty of cause for encouragement. Hannah has been able to build a hugely successful career with the firm an unconventional route into law, and has chosen to share her experiences in order to highlight the full range of options and opportunities that may be available to students in the same position.

Hannah’s story

Like most other lawyers, Hannah’s journey began at a young age, developing a keen interest in law that she was keen to pursue as far as possible…

“I came from a background where nobody in my family or close circle were lawyers, so when it came to Hannah Bottomley - Solicitor - Clinical Negligencework experience, I didn’t know where to start! I was, however, interested in the law from a young age, and as soon as work experience was mentioned at school I started to ask friends and their parents to see if I could find someone who might be able to offer me even a day of work experience.

“That turned into a week of experience in one of the leading firms in Manchester through a friend of my mum’s. I continued to be quite cheeky, and whenever I met someone and found out that they worked in law, I made sure to ask if I could do work experience with them. I was therefore able to get a wide range of work experience from a large Manchester commercial firm to the crown court in Salford!

“Someone also told me that you could sit in on court cases that were open to the public, something I hadn’t realised, so I took myself off to our local magistrates’ court every day for two weeks one summer and watched and learned how the court system worked. I didn’t need to know anyone to get this experience, and it didn’t cost me anything, but I learned so much.”

A severe setback

This early interest led Hannah to study for a law degree at university, but her progress was severely disrupted when her father became seriously ill during her third year of study. As a consequence, she ended up falling short of expectations on her course with a 2:2 grade, and took a year off to focus on looking after him. During this period, Hannah considered abandoning her legal ambitions, working as a care assistant with a view to going into nursing instead of law.

Happily, her dad eventually got better, giving Hannah the opportunity to give law a second chance. She went back and completed her vocational Legal Practice Course (LPC) - but did so without a training contract in place. It was at this stage that her renewed ambitions were seriously tested, as her 2:2 grade proved a real hindrance…

“The most difficult part of my journey was dealing with the rejections, and convincing myself to keep going and keep pursuing the career I wanted. I was told repeatedly during my law degree that if I didn’t get a 2:1, I would have no chance of securing a training contract and qualifying as a solicitor.

“I must have applied for over 70 training contracts during my university career and only got two interviews, neither of which resulted in me securing a training contract. The temptation was therefore very strong to think it would never happen, and that I should think about doing something else, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do.

“At one point I was working in four different jobs and seriously contemplated going into nursing, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had applied for and secured a place on the LPC just before I left university and had deferred that placement for a year. I didn’t really commit to the LPC course until the month before it started, and it took a big leap of faith to make that commitment. I knew I would not be able to qualify as a solicitor without doing the LPC, but going into that course with no training contract or job of any description lined up was scary financially and personally.”

Finding an alternative pathway

This process proved extremely challenging for Hannah on a personal level, requiring significant dedication on her part - as well as an openness to considering alternative ways into the legal field...Canva - A Horizon and Roads (1).jpg

“I kept on believing in myself, and knew that if I could find an area of the law that matched my skills, then I would get there. But there were times when it was tough, especially when course friends would be talking about the firms they would be starting with. I had to tell myself not to panic and trust that things would work out as long as I kept on putting myself out there - that was also tough. I continued to apply for training contracts during my LPC year, but also starting looking at paralegal jobs.”

This tenacity was eventually rewarded, as Hannah was able to secure her first job as a paralegal with the disability rights division of a leading Manchester law firm during the final week of her LPC. It had taken her almost four years to get this job - and the fact she was able to obtain it was a result of her focus on building experience, as well as her personal dedication…

“I believe that I secured that particular role because I had worked in areas outside of the law, most notably with children and adults with disabilities, for several years. Jobs which I had seen as summer jobs that would never help me achieve my dream of becoming a solicitor were the reason I got my first foot on the legal career ladder.

“The most valuable thing I learnt was that my own personality, my own interests outside the law and life experiences, were all far more instrumental in securing my first paralegal position than my law degree or LPC. That was amazing to realise - that I could do a job better than someone else, not because of my degree, but because of what I had done with my life in general.”

Finding her place

Ultimately, Hannah ended up working as a paralegal for three years before finally securing her long sought-after training contract with the firm she was working for. During this time, she was exposed to other areas of law, giving her a first experience of clinical negligence law - which she had never considered before, but soon became her passion...

“The light bulb moment came for me when I did a seat in clinical negligence and realised it was where I really wanted to be. Having worked with children and adults with a variety of disabilities, I realised early on that I wanted to work in the catastrophic side of clinical negligence.

“I know first-hand how difficult life can be for those with severe disabilities and their families, being reliant on social care, and that securing compensation could be genuinely life-changing.”

Since qualifying as a clinical negligence solicitor, Hannah has moved only twice to end up in her current position with Potter Rees Dolan, which she considers to be her “perfect role”...

“When I left that first firm, I initially felt nervous about moving into a new job, as my CV would inevitably reflect my degree result and the length of time it took me to qualify. However, it has never seemed to prove a problem, and certainly from the first moment I spoke with the partners here at Potter Rees Dolan, I was made to feel that my work history, personality and dedication were far more important to the firm.

“I have now worked at Potter Rees Dolan for longer than I have at any other firm, and feel I have found where I belong - a fantastic firm that believes in its people and strives at every opportunity to achieve the best for its clients.

“My ambition used to be to move up the career ladder, but since joining Potter Rees Dolan, that ambition has changed: it is now to focus on achieving the best I can for our clients, working in a collaborative manner and watching the firm go from strength to strength. I feel very proud to work for Potter Rees Dolan, and my ambition is that as a firm we continue to maintain our strong reputation and help the most vulnerable in our society, both as lawyers and as members of our local communities.”

Hannah’s advice - how can students succeed in law despite educational setbacks?

Hannah’s career success demonstrates that it is possible to come to the legal profession through a roundabout route and thrive nevertheless. To any students with similar concerns about how their educational or vocational credentials will affect their chances of getting hired, Hannah has the following advice…

Build up a variety of work experiences

“The best advice I can give someone without links to the law, and perhaps looking at the law from a non-traditional route, is to put yourself out there and look for experiences. Ask everyone - the worst thing that can happen is they say no, but if you keep on pushing, you can end up with a much greater variety of experience.

“The law is so varied and there are some really niche areas, but all too often I think young people - myself included, at the time - can have a narrow and fixed view of what lawyers do. We see TV dramas focusing on criminal law and hear about the big commercial law firms, but there is so much more to the law than that. Law impacts on almost every aspect of daily life and all work experience, despite not seeming legal, can be relevant.”

Stay determined

“When approaching the law from an unconventional route, you need to be determined and resilient. It would have been so easy for me to have given up on a career in law at many stages through the years, having been knocked back and rejected, but a belief that you can make it and you will do a good job can get you there, as long as you work hard at it.”

Focus on your personal qualities - while remaining flexible

“I also think you need to be creative in your approach to the law - what can you do by yourself that will get you some experience? Where do your interests lie? Have you got a unique life or work experience that would fit with a particular area of law?

“Being determined to get there means you have to do the work - you have to know what is out there and what will suit you, but also keep an open mind to any opportunities that come your way, and grabbing them is vital!”

Undoubtedly, succeeding in the competitive world of law can be difficult at the best of times - and educational setbacks can make a challenging task feel even more daunting. However, stories like Hannah’s show that, with the right combination of persistence, adaptability and lateral thinking, it’s still possible to reach your intended destination via the road less travelled.