Case study

Katie Watson — Solicitor apprentice

Womble Bond Dickinson

Katie is currently on a higher apprenticeship with Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) and Northumbria University working towards qualifying as a solicitor

What course did you study and where?

I studied at Emmanuel College prior to starting my apprenticeship and I joined WBD straight after completing my A-levels. I achieved three A-levels in mathematics, Latin and politics. I was concerned that I would be at a disadvantage having not studied law but this definitely isn’t the case - the whole idea is that you are learning as you work.

The practical nature of the course has proven to be hugely beneficial, not only in terms of my own personal development but it has also massively aided me with my university work. At university you study various different modules and while the usual classroom or online teaching process is important for providing you with the knowledge you need to pass exams etc. the opportunity to then put this into practice in the office means that you acquire such a broader and better understanding of things.

Why did you decide on a career in law?

It wasn't until after I had finished my GCSEs that I was sure on pursuing a career in law. When I attended the open evening for sixth form, I spent a bit of time in the politics session and the legal side of things really intrigued me. After this, I did a bit more research on what being a solicitor involved, the differences between a barrister and a solicitor and I signed up for some law summer schools with Durham University, University of Oxford and SOAS. These were so interesting and gave a good insight to what law would be like. However, they definitely didn’t show what life would be like after university, nor what it would be like to actually work in an office as a solicitor. To confirm whether law was for me, I knew I had to try to get some practical work experience in a law firm. Having managed to secure a week placement at a firm, I knew that I wanted to be a solicitor.

It can be quite difficult to secure work placements and work experience with law firms but there are so many other ways you can demonstrate your passion for law, such as entering law essay competitions, completing law-related MOOCs, joining a debate club and reading around the subject whether that is articles or books.

What attracted you to the firm?

WBD had already enrolled a lot of apprentices and I liked the idea of having a network of others who had been through the same experiences that I would be embarking on. The culture at WBD really appealed to me too - it was clear that the firm had this set of shared values, goals and attitudes towards staff, clients and others in the business and it was definitely the type of culture which I could see myself fitting into.

The quality of training at WBD is also exceptional. From my first day I was getting training sessions that were directed at the level I was working at and I was being shown the various websites and tools available to me for research. At WBD you are also allocated a supervisor and a work buddy, which makes the whole experience so much easier. My supervisor guides me through the legal transactional work, ensuring I am covering a wide range of elements involved in corporate deals and my buddy is always there for me to ask questions and advice.

The apprentice/trainee cohort at WBD is also relatively big, which means there is always someone who has either been through what you are going through or is able to point you in the right direction of someone else who has.

What was the application process like?

While the application process varies when I applied, WBD had the following approach - but it is reviewed on an annual basis:

  • Written application -This was in the format of an online form. It asks things like why you think you would be suited to the apprenticeship, why you would like to do an apprenticeship rather than the traditional route, what qualities you have which would make you a good candidate. It also asks the typical questions such as what grades you have/ are expected to achieve. Research the firm and make specific references to the values or goals the firm has.
  • Group assessment day - This involved various shortlisted candidates taking part in group exercises and tasks. The firm just wants to see how you get on with others in a group. During this assessment day we also did an individual task, whereby we submitted an extended answer to a question. Make sure you really get involved and show you have good initiative and teamwork skills. Don't try to overpower others though, as this is a task which is aimed at seeing how you work alongside others. As for the written task, try to think outside the box for your answers - consider the different ways of approaching the question.
  • Work placement - This involved going into the office and rotating round various teams during the week. I sat with three different teams during my time there - Corporate Finance, Residential and Planning. This will vary based on which teams are looking to have an apprentice join. We were set different sets of tasks in each team, doing things such proofreading documents for errors, drafting letters to fictitious clients and in some teams I was also able to sit in on calls for deals that the teams were currently working on. Don’t be afraid to ask a question. The person you are sat with on the day will not be expecting you to be an expert in what they are giving you so don’t hold back from asking any questions. If anything it shows that you are curious and keen to gain a good understanding of things so you can do the best job at the task you have been given.
  • Interview - This took place during my time on the work placement and it is not as bad as you think. The interviewer will ask the generic questions like why you want to do the apprenticeship etc but it is an opportunity for you to sell yourself and your personality. They want to know what skills you have and what grades you have achieved but more than anything else, they want to see your personality shine through so they can see whether you are the sort of person they want to join the firm.

What’s a typical day like as a solicitor apprentice?

In terms of the structure of my day, I like to get into the office before 9am, so I can check my emails and see what I have on during the day. I like to use One Note to organise the different matters I am working on and I list in separate tabs what I need to get done for each matter. Then I will make a rough schedule of the tasks, ranging from most urgent to least. It can be hard to stick to this so strictly as it is common to get last minute tasks handed to you or last minute meetings etc. This, as I said earlier, does give the job that element of excitement however and it just makes the day more interesting and dynamic.

What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

When I first started the apprenticeship, it was not long at all before I was working on some big legal transactions and cases. I was surprised at the level of involvement that I was able to have - I thought that since I didn’t have a law degree, I would be doing the less interesting, admin-based tasks, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I mentioned earlier, you are assigned a supervisor who will be the person giving you the majority of your work when you start and my supervisor was really keen to get me involved from the outset.

Now, I work with multiple fee earners in the corporate team and this has broadened my knowledge and experience in terms of the various approaches to transactions and clients. As I said earlier on, junior members of the team do often get involved in numerous transactions at once, and whilst that may sound overwhelming, it is so rewarding and somewhat satisfying when eventually the transaction you are working on completes.

What are the challenges?

Prior to applying for the apprenticeship, one of the disadvantages that would crop up on every website was that I would miss out on the university lifestyle. I was worried that because I would be working a nine to five job, I would miss out hugely on the social side of things. This was tough at the start of the apprenticeship when my friends were going to university, meeting new people and going to freshers week etc, but this did soon change. The social network I have built during my time at WBD is amazing. As well as regular nights-out with the apprentices and trainees, I am a member of the Junior Lawyers Division and the Women Lawyers Division. I also started as a member on the Newcastle Young Professional's Forum and I am now on the committee, which means I get involved with the organising and arranging of events.

Another challenge is trying to find and maintain not only a work-life balance, but a work-life-uni balance. As an apprentice it can definitely become overwhelming at times, because as you become a more valued and experienced member of the team, your workload increases. Similarly, as you progress through university, your workload increases and so you are progressively getting a larger workload, which can be tough. What I have learned is that it is fundamental to let your supervisor at work know when your busy times are going to be at university, ie exam periods. I have found it helpful to organise regular catch-ups with my supervisor so we both stay on track of workloads.

What are your career ambitions?

After my four years in the corporate team, I will join the trainee seat rotation where I will gain experience in four new practice areas. Ultimately I will have more experience and knowledge in corporate law, and at the moment I can see myself wanting to qualify into that team, but this is not an expectation the firm puts on you. While doing the training contract, it could be the case that I really enjoy the work involved in a completely different seat and the firm have made it clear that if I wanted to, I could apply for an NQ role in a team which isn't the team I spent my four years in.

Why should aspiring solicitors consider the apprenticeship route?

This route provides you with so many opportunities, not only within the workplace, but also outside of the workplace in terms of networking and social events. Ultimately, the level of first-hand experience and knowledge you will build before commencing the training contract is incomparable to what would be available to you if you go down the university route. Personally, the fact that I will have spent four years within the firm before the training contract makes me feel so much more comfortable and confident for when that time comes. There are also so many more benefits such as the fact that you have no student loans or debt and you will actually be earning a competitive salary.