‘Are you a lawyer yet?’: two graduates on their pathways into law

<span>Photograph: Ziga Plahutar/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ziga Plahutar/Getty Images

Rhia Abukhalil, 27, a barrister at St John’s Buildings chambers in Manchester, is on her way to appeal against a sentence. “My client got sent to prison for eight weeks when he should’ve got a community sentence. It’s been a really stressful case. He’s never been to prison before and it was for a motoring offence. It’s intense,” she says.

Abukhalil didn’t always want to be a lawyer. At 21, having studied English at university, she wasn’t sure what to do next. “Around that time, my mum did jury service and she said it was something I’d be interested in.” Abukhalil went on to do the law conversion (GDL) and bar professional training (BPTC) full-time at The University of Law (ULaw) in Birmingham and at the Bloomsbury campus in London, and she hasn’t looked back.

Morgan Wolfe, an assistant solicitor at Leigh Day, is equally happy with how her legal career has panned out. She says she was always driven by a strong sense of justice. Interested in foreign languages, and having studied anthropology at university, she took a job with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Russia, interviewing asylum seekers and resettling refugees. While working for the UNHCR, she attended a human rights law summer course at Oxford University where those taking part were taught by leading lights in that discipline. “I thought to myself: ‘How do I get from here to actually being one of them?’”

First, she needed to become a lawyer. Wolfe went back to studying at the age of 40, with a two-year-old in tow. For her, ULaw was the ideal choice. It offers a variety of course lengths and study methods, designed to suit students in any situation. With full-time three-year degrees, part-time courses, two-year accelerated courses, and online study options, it offered the flexibility she needed and she did the GDL and legal practice course (LPC) on a part-time weekend basis. “It took four years of study. It was four years of my life with everyone saying: ‘Are you a lawyer yet?’”

But the most challenging part was trying to get a training contract. This is a feat at the best of times, but Wolfe was 20 years older than most applicants and a lot of firms were unwilling to take what they thought was a risk. “I didn’t fit into a box and certainly there was a degree of age discrimination. Being at a human rights firm was the dream, but there were so few training contracts, I had to cast my net more widely and I was fortunate to secure one at a midsize City firm where I fell in love with litigation.”

Whether students need to rethink their original plans, or simply want help getting an interview, ULaw has a wide range of support on offer. It has career experts available to help and they can be consulted face-to-face, online, via email or on the telephone. For Abukhalil, this was invaluable. “I got pupillage the first time I applied. I did a lot of practice interviews and prep on my applications. I had a bar specialist career adviser at the Bloomsbury campus and we went through what a good application looked like and did one-on-one practice interviews. It really helped me.”

Midsection of working mother examining documents with baby girl at home office
Studying at The University of Law provides the space and flexibility to accommodate each student’s individual needs and circumstances. Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

Hands-on opportunities are also available and ULaw has pro bono initiatives providing real-life experience. In addition to this, careers workshops run throughout the year – both face-to-face, on campus and online, and there is a job vacancy database for students to use. There is also the opportunity to be mentored by a practising solicitor or barrister, as well as an extensive range of employer talks, workshops and careers fairs that run throughout the year.

In addition to getting you work-ready, ULaw is also a place to make friends and contacts. “I’ve a good network of people who went into the same area of law and I made really close friends on the GDL because it’s so intense. It really brings people together,” says Abukhalil.

For Wolfe, being a lawyer has required her to be flexible. Although she was doing intellectually challenging and interesting litigation work after qualifying, she felt something was missing and knew she needed a change. “I realised I would be much happier fighting against companies than fighting for them.” At the time, UK law firm Leigh Day was looking for someone to assist on its emissions “dieselgate” claim against Nissan and Renault, so she applied and was offered the role. “Everything just clicked into place and I have not looked back,” she says.

Related: Should I be a solicitor or a barrister? How to decide on the right pathway for your career in law

What does Wolfe enjoy most? “It’s simply the satisfaction of doing work that makes a real difference to people’s lives,” she says. “At Leigh Day I work with some of the most incredibly brave and clever lawyers at the forefront of groundbreaking human rights cases. We’re representing NHS patients infected with the hepatitis C virus following contaminated blood transfusions in the 1970s, thousands of TalkTalk customers whose personal information was hacked, and we have clients who are challenging the Home Office’s deportation of refugees to Rwanda.”

For Wolfe, it’s everything she wanted and more. “Our firm’s co-founder Martyn Day says you get to bring both your brain and your heart to work and that really resonates with me. It feels amazing.”

Abukhalil agrees. Despite the stresses of work, she says she couldn’t ask for a more varied career. “Every day is different, you get to see your hard work and prep pay off and I’m constantly seeing myself improve,” she says. “It’s also really fun to win.”

To find out more about The University of Law and the courses on offer, visit the website or go to an open day.