Case study

Head of law — Alicia Virtue

Alicia studied law and criminology at London South Bank University and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at BPP Law School. After gaining experience in various roles she's now the head of law at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)

Why did you decide on a career in law?

I was attracted to law because it affects and shapes so many aspects of our world. I decided to study law and criminology at London South Bank University. I was the first in my family to get a degree.

After graduation I was unsure whether a career in law was right for me, so instead I took a job working in property. I found I enjoyed working with the public, negotiating contracts and advising landlords on property development plans. This encouraged me to go for it and pursue a legal career, so I enrolled on the evening Legal Practice Course (LPC) at BPP Law School in London.

Tell us a bit about your route into the profession.

I had to self-fund the LPC, which meant balancing studying with working - something I see a lot of my students doing.

I moved back home to Cambridge and got a full-time job as a legal secretary in a construction law firm in London. It was tough. I would board the 6am coach from Cambridge to London every day, work all day and study in the evening before getting on the 11pm coach home.

After sending out speculative CVs, I secured a training contract at a regional Hertfordshire firm. This led to stints as an employment and dispute resolution solicitor, a self-employed contractor handling disputes against large financial organisations, and a HR advisor at the Bank of New York Mellon.

Six years ago, I joined ARU in a role that put my varied experience to good use, leading the teaching on the foundation law course and volunteering at ARU's nationally-recognised law clinic. Since then, I have gone on to become the lead on ARU's professional LPC course for aspiring lawyers, as well as head of law for ARU's School of Economics, Finance and Law.

What's a typical working day like for you?

As I make the kids breakfast, I check my works emails. I like to see what the day has in store for me before the working day begins.

Ideally the period between 9am-10am goes as planned but beyond that scheduled activities are mixed with unplanned meetings with students, staff and colleagues and all manner of things from organising events and planning resources, to strategic planning, being someone's sounding board or just giving someone confidence and support.

I prefer to spend most of my time on the main floor of the campus so that students can stop, have a chat with me or get a coffee. I get to know them, talk to them about their studies and also about their aspirations and the realities of entering law.

Describe your job in 3 words.

  • fun
  • dynamic
  • rewarding.

What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

Working with my team and being around the students, whether it's teaching them, having a chat or giving support and guidance. I also really enjoy thinking about different ways we can be better.

What are the challenges?

Some of the hardest aspects of the job are keeping up with emerging technology and minimising the effects of global challenges. What happens around us is one of the reasons I love law. The pandemic accelerated the rate at which we use technology in our daily lives, and this includes how students learn, how we teach and how we interact with each other. We need to be innovative in how we adapt to these changes but also how our courses reflect the evolving knowledge and skills of our students as future graduates.

What are your thoughts on diversity in the legal profession?

At present the profession still has a long way to go before it is truly representative. Over half of Anglia Ruskin's students are from households where their parents did not attend university and many come from groups traditionally underrepresented in the legal profession. As such we are very aware of the obstacles many of our students will face.

I'm a strong advocate for ARU's vision of transforming lives through innovative, inclusive, and entrepreneurial education and research.  Like many law lecturers at ARU, I bring my industry background into the classroom and we also have the support of our partner firms. This helps us to fully prepare our students for the prospect of entering a profession that is yet to fully recognise the benefits diversity can bring.

What type of person would a career in law most suit?

Law suits those with an enquiring mind. It is ideal for someone who is interested in the world around them and wants to find answers, understand the different perspectives and find solutions to problems. Studying law teaches you to be a professional problem-solver and critical thinker.

Can you debunk a myth about the legal profession?

Many people think that working in law is boring and static and it is anything but. The world is changing so much and it is an exciting time to be part of how we create new laws and interpret existing laws to reflect these rapid changes, ensuring we maintain some sort of order in a world that, at times, feels a bit chaotic. 

Talk us through some issues currently affecting the legal sector.

The change to the route to qualification moves us away from a one-year law school to an exam method (the SQE). The SQE is based on multiple choice exams so it is about developing courses that still prepare our students for life in industry.

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) cannot be ignored. While it is likely to replace many of the repetitive jobs in the legal sector, such as some due diligence tasks, the profession will need to identify its strengths and where AI cannot compete. This will be in areas such as emotional intelligence. Lawyers will need to be able to offer the human touch but also have the ability to review the data and performance of AI technology to ensure that it is doing what it is supposed to be.

What advice can you give to students and graduates aspiring to a legal career?

Despite bringing their own character and powerful experiences to the workplace, I want my students to be aware of the social norms, or 'social capital', that is still part of working in the legal or other professional industries.

Many of our students have had a similar start to their journey as I did to mine and, unlike their peers, they will have to learn to navigate the social norms that others take for granted. It can start with little things like dress code or small talk. Some of our students have never had to own a suit until it is required for assessments or they may struggle to fit in when it comes to small talk, such as the language used, mannerisms and even down to discussing extra-curricular activities they may never have engaged with such as tennis, rugby, skiing or running.

It is important that students realise that their backgrounds and the obstacles they face should not be a barrier to them reaching their goals. My role is to build students up to believe that they can succeed in a profession.

I'd also recommend gaining real-life experiences. This is the best way to understand what is going on around you. By gaining experience, you are able to identify trends and patterns and be in a better position to always identify ways of adding value. I would say always being on the lookout for how you can add value has been a key factor in my success.

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