Changing career to the law- is it doable?
Trainee solicitor Paola Cuffolo has recently embarked on a training contract at Royds Withy King in our Oxford office. This isn’t Paola’s first career so lets find out more about her change of direction.
So what was your background before this?
You know how it is when you start a new job. You start chatting to people in the office, and as you’re getting to know each other the question inevitably arises: ‘so what was your background before this?’. I think people expect you to list other firms you’ve worked at, or to tell them that you’ve just graduated from a Law degree. So I tend to find that people’s first reaction when I say ‘opera’ is more bewilderment than anything else.
I can understand this. It seems like an enormous leap from the outside – after all, what do the two worlds have in common? On the surface, not a lot (though you might be surprised at the number of musicians who make this transition). But the point is that any work experience you have can be used to your advantage when applying for training contracts, vacation schemes, or anything else. If I can do it from seemingly the most ‘out-there’ job you can think of then so can you!
An unusual route
I studied a Music degree that focused on the history of music, from which I graduated in 2010. I then spent six years until I started the GDL working as a freelance opera singer, teaching singing, and setting up my own opera company which ran as a charity, putting on several operatic productions a year which I directed. Because I was freelancing, I also picked up other bits of work wherever I could, so I gained experience lecturing on opera, as well as proofreading for a few big organisations. When I started the GDL I had no legal experience whatsoever, so I quickly realised I was going to have to find the relevance of the experience I did have to a career in law; once I started looking it wasn’t that difficult to find.
Firstly, training as an opera singer requires dedication, thoroughness and precision, all of which are qualities firms are looking for. I had also started my own business from scratch, which showed initiative, and in so doing learned a lot about how the charity sector functions. Running the company and directing the productions meant that I was good at time management, prioritising and organising myself and others. My teaching also meant that I was good at dealing with the public, and communicating effectively and efficiently. And my degree proved invaluable in the sense that two to three essays a week meant that I had learned to absorb information very quickly and summarise it clearly. Suddenly, when I broke it down like this, I found that I had a lot of transferable skills that I had thought were only useful in classical music.
However, aside from the actual skills necessary to become a lawyer, I think one of the hardest but most useful exercises in career changing is leaving your old career behind entirely. By this I mean that I found it extremely helpful, both professionally and psychologically, to start defining myself as a lawyer very early on in the conversion process, so that I was never tempted to look at my old career as something I’d lost, but rather at my new career as something I’d gained. Many people like to define themselves by what they do for a living, and especially in a career that was as vocational as mine. Redefining myself in this way was therefore very important to me, and it helped me enormously in terms of moving forward in a whole new career path.
By throwing yourself into the change in this way, not only will you feel more confident in yourself when it comes to interviews, assessment centres and vacation schemes, but prospective employers can see that you have proved your commitment to the law, because you’ve been willing to redefine your entire life in order to pursue it. This means that although, unlike many Law students, you can’t say that you’ve wanted to be a lawyer since you were five, you can nonetheless demonstrate that you have given up everything you’ve known for something you are passionate about.
It’s not easy
I remember reading blogs like these when I was applying for training contracts, in the vain hope that someone would make career changing seem easier than it felt at the time and that I would not be at a disadvantage when competing for contracts. Having done it, I cannot say that it was easy, but I can definitely say that I was not disadvantaged, especially by choosing firms carefully that I felt would appreciate the experience I did have. It is not always easy to tell which these are, but looking at trainee profiles certainly helps, to see if they have older trainees or trainees who have made a career change. I am certainly not the only one at Royds Withy King, and immediately felt at ease at interview that what I had done was valid and relevant experience.
But it’s worth it
In the end it’s about being able to show your passion for your new career, and part of that is recognising how your old career contributed to you getting to this point. If you can make the most of whatever experience you have, you can quickly become a useful member of any team.