If they are surrounded by people who are very much younger than themselves it can be all too easy for older students to feel that their non-standard entry age puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for training contracts. Application forms often appear to be directed towards recent graduates and any intelligent application sifter could make a rough estimate of applicants’ ages by examining their academic and work credentials carefully.
But in reality age should not be a bar to entering the legal profession, provided that you apply the appropriate marketing techniques.
The balance sheet
There are pluses and minuses in most situations and preparing a personal “balance sheet” will help you not only to produce a persuasive application but will help you at the interview stage by prompting you beforehand to establish sound answers to awkward questions. Your balance sheet should list your assets on one side of the page and your liabilities on the other. Talk up your assets in your application but also prepare explanations for anything that could be considered as a liability just in case this comes up at interview. Try to look at your balance sheet through the eyes of your potential employer and ask yourself what he might be able to deduce from your CV. It might go something
A degree and/or some professional expertise that is relevant to one or more practice areas in the firm you are applying to. Read the firm’s brochures carefully to ascertain and expand on any qualifications that could be useful to them.
Work experience in certain areas such as the police (useful for criminal law), Government departments (especially related to business or Revenue & Customs), PR, or in specific industries such as oil and gas, music or retail – the firm might see this as useful back-up for marketing as well as for technical expertise. There is sometimes an inferred assumption that your connections could help them to gain new business, although you should not lead them to expect this if you cannot deliver.
Work experience in other countries, especially where the firm has clients or arrangements with other firms – if you acquired any knowledge of the Law in other jurisdictions or fluency in other languages you should make this clear.
General “experience of life” shows that you know, or could quickly learn how to, operate in a business environment and will know how to manage support staff.
“Office skills” enable you to understand work patterns and flows, the importance of keeping to deadlines and being personally organised. Don’t underestimate your experience in being able to write reports and being able to tailor letters to the recipient.
Personal skills will enable you to converse with clients, make sure that they are comfortable and work out what they really want. Firms know that clients will take you more seriously because of your mature appearance, which could enable them to give you client responsibility more quickly.
Negotiation skills which you have honed through previous work experience or voluntary work (for example if you have been involved in union negotiations or have chaired local committees such as Parent Teacher Organisations or been a local councillor) could be helpful.
Personal stability and integrity – firms appreciate people who have already been trained into punctuality and team work and who are unlikely to want to continue a student partying life style which might interfere with work commitments.
A considerable degree of personal autonomy and responsibility in your previous career might make you difficult to manage. You need to make it clear in your interview that you expect to be treated like other trainees and that you won’t mind taking your turn with menial tasks.
Fitting easily into the traditional trainee cohort might be difficult. In reality trainees may value you because of your general life experience provided that you don’t use the age difference as an excuse for throwing your weight around.
Age may have blunted your ability to absorb information quickly. Practising law is more about knowing what information is needed, how to find it and applying it to the facts than acquiring knowledge for its own sake.
Clients may take you too seriously and may assume that appearance equals competence. Don’t be misled into thinking that their trust means that you do not need to report back to or consult your principal.
The firm may find it difficult to work out how to treat you. You might get more responsibility which is flattering, but equally your supervising partner may not make the same allowances for you that he would for a younger person. Most people find it difficult to reprimand someone who is the same age or even older and may be irritated by your deficiencies rather than supportive of your desire to learn simply because of their own discomfort. Don’t be overly submissive, but don’t be overly argumentative either. Take the criticism, learn from it even if at times it seems unjust and move on.
All firms will want team players and one unvoiced concern might be that you would not “fit in” with the other trainees because your interests and outlook will be different. Consider what you can put on your application form and talk about at interview that demonstrates that you can work alongside and socialise with people of all ages.
Accentuate the positives
The trick is to find a way to accentuate the positives while minimising the negatives. On the whole the positives are relevant work experience and skills and the negatives are anything that might suggest to a prospective employer that you are not fully committed or do not really know what you are taking on. Do not allow them to think that you are not used to hard work and long hours; Law does not have a monopoly on late hours working.
Remember that it is no longer required or expected that you will list your age, your marital status or whether you have children on your application form. These things may well come up in the course of the interview, whether directly or conversationally. If you are clever these apparently intrusive questions can give you an opportunity to demonstrate your negotiation skills rather than your touchiness.
If the question of age does arise, ask why this is important to the firm. Gracefully conceding the point after a discussion may put you in a good position to negotiate something else later. Apparently innocent questions about children can usually be turned to suggest responsibility and maturity on your part if you have prepared possible answers in advance.
Be ready to explain that you are making a considered decision about your career change and more importantly, what benefits your previous knowledge can bring to your potential employer. Make sure that this information is positive; don’t say that you are jettisoning accountancy because you can’t stand auditing but that you have learned the importance of accuracy and organisation and that you have become fascinated by the regulatory rather than the taxation aspects of corporate transactions. This suggests that you already have marketable skills and also a desire to learn even more. Some former careers are obvious fits for certain areas of the law. Social work suggests family law just as nursing or medicine suggest medical negligence and science degrees might point to intellectual property and patents. If it is a total antipathy to the subject matter of your previous profession that has caused you to flee to the Law, don’t ever admit it; just make sure that the firm that you are applying to offers other specialisms. You want your previous career to act as a key to open the door to a training contract, not lock you out of the possibility of other areas of the Law that you might enjoy more.
Elizabeth Cruickshank and Professor Penny Cooper of The City Law School are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) and together with Boma Ozobia of “Survival Manual for New Wigs” (Odade 2010).