Solicitor – Julie West Solicitors

Tell us about your journey to becoming a lawyer and what you do now.

I had not really considered becoming a lawyer until after I had completed my English undergraduate degree. It was not until I learned my best friend Sarah Wilson was pursuing a GDL that I started to give it serious thought.

At the time, I was doing odd jobs on zero-hours contracts, including washing dishes at primary schools. Entering a profession with improved job security and expanding on my love of land made a lot of sense. It’s Sarah I have to thank for getting me into law.

I remember when I was looking for jobs where I could work my way up to a training contract, the adverts for such roles went along the lines of: 'This is an entry-level job with full training provided. We'd love to have someone with your skills and qualifications, but if you could just have 6-12 months' work experience in a law firm - not any other work experience - that's right, 6-12 months' for an 'entry-level' job.'

Not having such legal work experience I found myself despairing of ever getting into the legal profession. During and after my LPC studies I had been working for the Civil Service at a probation hostel, where high-risk offenders approaching the end of their prison sentences lived to help them assimilate back into society while monitoring their risk of reoffending. Time and again I was struck by how the residents would not limit themselves to looking for jobs online but by talking to the people they met during the course of their day as to any job opportunities they were aware of. I used this ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ attitude to inform my own job applications.

I found my firm Julie West Solicitors not via any specialist legal jobs website but on Indeed, advertising the position of Office Assistant. Looking at the job specification I saw it was not particularly legally relevant, but reasoned that if there was one opening then there may be another for which I was more suited.

I therefore contacted Julie West Solicitors saying I had noticed the Office Assistant vacancy and wondered if they had a job relevant to an LPC LLM graduate like me who was seeking a training contract. The reply was yes, a Legal Assistant role was due to be advertised and would I like to interview for that position? I did and I got the job.

In my employment contract it specified that if I was still with Julie West Solicitors after a certain number of months I would start my training contract there. In short, I was still there that many months later as a valued member of the team and started my training contract. I qualified as a solicitor in July 2020 and could not imagine a more supportive environment.

At the moment my days predominantly involve helping people move home before the end of the stamp duty land tax holiday of 30 June 2021, which I encourage any aspiring lawyers interested in boosting their commercial awareness on property to look up, with The Law Society Gazette’s “Feeling the Heat” being a good place to start. However, this is not all I do, with my current work involving declarations of trust, a lease extension and most recently, assisting a victim of financial crime with conveyancing in connection with her claim over the proceeds of sale of a property partially bought using stolen money.

Has a learning disability affected your studies/ career in any way?

My autism makes me a perfectionist in my work. While it is the nature of a lawyer to be a perfectionist, it can be hard for me to know how much information is too much for my clients. Surprise telephone calls can be off-putting, along with open questions, increasing the time it takes me to answer them.

I include below a paragraph I have developed to overcome these challenges and help communication with my clients during our early talks. This was partially inspired by a Westminster & Holborn Law Society JLD webinar featuring Laura Uberoi and Olivia Longrigg, which can be found on the JLD Westminster and Holborn Law Society Youtube channel.

“Incidentally, for future reference, how do you prefer to communicate? I ask as I am autistic and when I receive emails, depending on the questions raised, my perfectionist nature prompts me to send longer replies than are necessary for my clients, so sometimes returning an email with a telephone call to provide an answer, with a short follow-up email to confirm what was discussed, is easier and quicker for me and my clients. Also, when I receive a call without warning this can be off-putting for me and, depending on the conversation, increase the time it takes for me to process in my mind what is being discussed.”

Being vulnerable allows others to be open with you too. I have been very pleased with the consistently positive responses from my clients to this paragraph.

What would you say to people who have a learning disability and are unsure about whether or not to pursue a law degree/legal career?

I believe many neurodiverse students still mistakenly presume that their neurodiversity will be considered a disadvantage. They should know that thinking differently than others does not mean you think less well than others. It often coincides with heightened focus, creativity, diligence, sociability, communication skills and other strengths.

Each neurodiverse person is unique. I know a dyslexic lawyer who corrects her colleagues’ typos when drafting documents, an epileptic lawyer whose skillset makes her indispensable to her employer, and a lawyer with depression and anxiety who networks more effectively due to being open about her mental health.

Similarly, I cannot emphasise the extent to which it is important that disabled students, whether neurodiverse or otherwise, be open about their disabilities with prospective employers. The Legally Disabled? reports highlighted some legal recruiters encouraging practising and aspiring lawyers not to disclose their disabilities to employers until after they had obtained the job. This is the wrong approach to take.

As tempting as it may be, particularly for those with invisible disabilities like me, not to be open about being disabled, this strategy deprives candidates the opportunity to explain the skills they have enhanced due to their disability. I recommend students read Julie Jaggins’ excellent article “The need for different minds” for inspiration on this point.

Consider how your disability drives certain skills and strengths, whether that be diligence, attention to detail or persuasiveness, and seize the chance to highlight your accomplishments. Employers won’t know that you are putting in more effort than your non-disabled peers unless you tell them.

Furthermore, it is only through being open about being disabled that candidates will know whether prospective employers support disabled employees and that they will provide the reasonable adjustments necessary to empower them to do their best work. Whether the reasonable adjustments involve being able to work from home, text-to-speech software or disability leave – although, like me, you may not yet know which reasonable adjustments would be best suited to you - at least knowing that your employer is ready and willing to put them in place can help reassure you that you would enter a supportive work environment where you and your development matter.

In short, there is no point in wasting your time on an employer that is unwilling to support you in doing a job to the best of your ability. There is no reason to make life any harder for you than it has to be and there is no need to act against your own best interests.

What advice would you give yourself 5 years ago/ beginning of your journey?

• Look up the Junior Lawyers Division. It provides events and resources vital to anyone looking to become a solicitor.

• Jobs are like mentor schemes. You can wait until you see one advertised and compete with several others for just one spot… or you can meet people working in law – for example via your local Junior Lawyers Division – where you can find a mentor and learn of relevant opportunities firsthand.

• Use your university’s careers department.

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