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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Tsang

Law degree, what’s next? UK LLB Student Shares

The economy is plunging, jobs are more difficult to find compared to pre-COVID times. In the legal field, originally already so competitive, competition has risen to another level. In a time as such, what would help to stand out of the crowd when applying for jobs?



Author: Jonathan Tsang, Winter Intern 2023/2024


Jonathan Tsang
AML Intern Jonathan Tsang in our Harbourview Meeting Room

As my final year of law school in the UK approaches, figuring out my next step after graduation has never been so stressful. When around my fellow law students, the topic of future career prospects is a recurring topic of conversation. It constantly brings to the foreground the large array of choices to make, even involuntarily so. Law, non-law, solicitor, barrister: career defining choices, heavy enough to show up in our dreams, or should I say nightmares? I believe that this happens to most if not all law students.

 

From the beginning of my first year of the LLP at the University of Reading, I have sought both internal and external opportunities fervently. Mooting competitions, mini-pupillages, law firm open days: all on the must-do-list for most law students. In addition, judge marshalling, pupillage evenings and now, attending a law firm internship, are more options to consider. I am still worried, if not anxious, about my future pathway, albeit having participated in the work experience mentioned. I reckon this unfortunately is the norm of law students in general. In this stressful time, I hope my sharing of thoughts on different pathways may lighten your desired path in the very least. With quite some ground to cover already, this article leaves out the consideration of an in-house law career.


SQE vs BPC: Becoming a Solicitor or Barrister

Both being the renewed version of their previous assessment for qualifying as solicitor and barrister respectively, the format of them has changed. The Solicitor Qualifying Examination (SQE) replaced the Legal Practice Couse (LPC) from 2021. The reason behind this decision was stated in the report from the UK Solicitor Regulatory Authority (SRA), which highlights a problem of quality of solicitors. Pass rates vary on the LPC from below 50 to 100 percent, depending on which law firm the candidate was working at the time of testing. No clear performance standard existed to help guide firms in deciding whether their trainees are competent enough to qualify. Also, the transparency of the LPC itself was limited. As such, the SQE was introduced by the SRA in the UK to remedy the above.


The SQE is divided into two stages. First stage being the test of functional legal knowledge. It consists of two examinations of 180 multiple choice questions, 360 questions in total. You must pass both examinations to proceed to the next stage, thereby dissuading candidates from only studying modules they aspire to practice in the future and neglecting other modules. Second stage of the examination is a single, uniform assessment for all candidates, consisting of 15 to 18 exercises (‘stations’) which sample across skills and practice areas. Among others, this stage assesses the practical skills of candidates, such as document drafting and client liaising. The new examination style is much clearer for the public and for candidates, given that there are statistical reports of both stages, stating the percentage of people who passed, the mean etc. Prior to taking the second stage exam, you must have completed 2 years of qualifying work experience (QWE). The criteria for being a QWE includes training contracts (TC), working in a law clinic, at a voluntary or charitable organization or a law centre, or working as a paralegal.

 

Peeking through the bar course

Another renewed version of the assessment is the Bar Practice Course (BPC). As stated in its name, it is the qualifying assessment for barristers. It must be taken and passed before taking pupillage, similar to the first stage of SQE. As for pupillage, it basically equivales QWE for SQE stage 2. However, it is slightly more complicated than being a solicitor. Before starting the BPC, you will have to join as a student at an Inn in the Inns of Court. They are Gray's Inn, Lincoln's Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple. Each Inn has its own uniqueness, strengths and weaknesses. Their funding, scholarship schemes and work experience schemes are also different. Before joining one, one should research each of them thoroughly to decide what best fits you. The mentioned areas can be starting points for your decision.


Jonathan Tsang
Jonathan Tsang in the study room

After joining an INN, you then can take the BPC. After passing the test, you should then take on pupillage, which is notoriously difficult to find. The norm is that it takes around 3 to 5 years to find a pupillage at a chambers. After a year of pupillage, you shall be called to the bar where you can finally practice law as a barrister. You may apply to be a tenant of the attended chambers. However, as you may have already guessed it, tenancy is highly competitive. In case tenancy is not secured, you can apply for a third-six. It means doing another 6 months of pupillage at chambers and applying for their tenancy afterwards.

 

The differences between being a solicitor and a barrister are huge. Their nature of work suggests that they are meant to be different. The following paragraph explores these differences.

 

Team vs Solo: Working as a Solicitor or Barrister

Being a barrister is much of an independent job. Apart from communicating with the clerk regarding when and where trials will be, if there are any, it is mainly a one-person show. Communicating with the client, drafting documents which include arguments, applications of all sorts, all of these are conducted by the barrister and the barrister alone. All success and failures are similarly credited solely to the barrister. It may seem daunting, but for some, it is the preferred way when the trust in their own abilities is high and the desire to collaborate is low. If this characterization fits you, then becoming a barrister would probably be a good career choice. Do note that being a barrister requires a lot more advocacy than a solicitor. However, it should not be taken as an impeding factor as when taking your BPC, advocacy training is provided. You will have time to learn the skills and master them.


In contrast, being a solicitor comes with different characteristics. In lots of scenarios, you are required to work as a team, reporting to supervisors. The reality of working at a law firm is very different to what you have learnt in law school as well. In law school, you are trained to answer a certain type of predicament; when A happened to B, C being the time or special circumstance, advise A. Or when in essay context, a regular question would be to elaborate and express views on an authoritative law. However, in practice, a large proportion of work includes documentation, liaising with clients, drafting contracts and other legal documents. Most matters do not require very in-depth knowledge, and situations are usually highly similar, if not the same. Therefore, for most paperwork, there are templates to follow, and material changes will be the parties, dates and specific matter with specific requirements such as remedies. Not to mention that working for a law firm often entails promotional work, authoring articles for marketing purposes, engaging in business development and much more. Not something regularly covered in law school.


Long story short, if you consider yourself to be a lone wolf, being a barrister would probably be a better option, and vice versa.

 

How about Hong Kong?

The above briefly examines the possibility of practicing law in the UK. Things are less complicated in Hong Kong in comparison.


A law book in a dark room: long nights of studying
Long nights of studying

To become a qualifying lawyer in Hong Kong, there is an ultimate examination to take; Postgraduate Certificate in Law (PCLL). This certificate takes 1 full year of studying. After passing the examination, you can apply for either a TC or a pupillage. Then you may be called by the High Court as an admitted solicitor or barrister respectively. If you are studying overseas, with a common law degree, you will have to take the PCLL conversion test prior to commencing your PCLL. As for non-common law degree or non-law degree, you will have to take a law conversion test, then the PCLL conversion test before taking PCLL. The PCLL conversion test can be taken throughout your law degree, which is what a lot of people do if they study overseas. For example, they will divide their conversion test and take it in two sittings: usually during Christmas when visiting Hong Kong in their first and second year of studies.


Comparatively, in Hong Kong the route is simpler than in the UK. The only thing that students may be hesitant about is which university to choose for their studies in PCLL. You can choose from University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and City University of Hong Kong. In a way, similar to the Inns of Court, where neither is better or worse than the other.


To achieve the above, relevant experience prior to applications is indispensable. Given that there are two main ways to practice law, namely in a law firm or in chambers, relevant experience is derived from these organisations as well. Law firms usually offer vacation schemes to both law and non-law students. As for chambers, they offer mini-pupillages, some of which are assessed, some are not.

 

Vacation scheme vs Mini-pupillage

As mentioned, vacation schemes are offered by law firms. Their target audience is usually law students in their penultimate year of studying. For example, in the UK, it would be at your second year of studying, as for Hong Kong, it would be your third. Durations can differ but would usually last between 2 – 4 weeks. Vacation schemes are usually taken during Summer, ranging from late June to July. There are some exceptions being early August, but no later than min-August. Some larger or international firms are also willing to offer winter and spring vacation schemes. For winter, it usually begins in the beginning of December and ends in later December. For spring, it would usually be in April. Beware that deadlines for all slots are around the same period, and law firms will make you choose to apply for only one of the slots. If keeping track of the different deadlines already seems challenging, wait till you read more about the torment that is the application process, described in the next paragraph.

 

The long journey to secure a vacation scheme

Naturally, application processes will differ subject to the requirements of each firm. However, there are similarities. The process usually consists of 4 stages:


  1. Paper application;

  2. Online assessment;

  3. Graduate recruitment interview;

  4. Partner/associate interview.


The paper application starts with providing personal information, public examination results and information about which secondary school you attended. Afterwards, you will have to answer further questions specific per firms, ranging from 3 to 5 questions with a word limit of around 250 – 300 words per answer. Some exceptions would be up to 500 words max. Questions are usually related to the firm itself and you. Some examples of questions are:

  • Why are you applying to [law firm] for a vacation scheme?

  • As an independent firm what do you think are the main challenges and opportunities that [law firm] could face over the next five years? 

  • Our [law firm] operates in eight key sectors. Which of the sectors do you think will generate the most work for the firm in the next financial year and why?

  • What are three challenges that law firms face now and/or in the future and how specifically is [law firm] positioned to tackle them?

  • What skills, qualities and attributes would you bring into the role?

  • Aside from wanting a challenging and stimulating career, why do you want to pursue a career as a commercial lawyer, and why do you want to intern at [law firm]?

The above examples are only the tip of the iceberg of the range of questions law firms might ask. The proves of responding to these questions is extremely arduous. Given that you would likely have spent a significant amount of time to write and finesse these answers, the person running through applications may already have been reading answers for the same questions for hours and hours, days and days; standing out with 300 words can seem nigh impossible. With each answer drafted and rewritten multiple times to reach perfection, the energy and time spent cumulatively can be very draining. For example, when applying for 15 firms in total, with each firm asking 4 questions requiring 250 words per question, you would have written 15,000 words for only the first stage of application process. And this does not include the time spent providing other required information. Different people use different strategies when they face this plight. Some choose to only apply for a few firms, go for absolute perfection in answering questions and do very in-depth research into each firm they apply to, while others choose to apply to as many as possible. It comes down to personal preference and ability to decide what is best for you.


After the paper-screening application, online assessment will then follow suit. It usually consists of two different assessments, one being situational judgment test (SJT), the other being verbal reasoning. SJT consists of your reaction towards specific situations, such as:

  • When you find your colleagues gossiping about another colleague, what would you do?

  • When your supervisor gives you a task to complete, but you are extremely busy already, how would you approach this task?

  • After your previous rotation, you have arrived at a new department. However, your supervisor’s working style is extremely different compared to your previous supervisor. Your current supervisor asked you to follow his/her method. What would you do?


The Watson Glaser test

Examples like the above involve the law firm’s judgment in if your reactions fit the firm’s culture and expectations, assessing your personality, and general approach when you face crisis. As for verbal reasoning, it usually involves the ability to work with information and draw the correct conclusion. For example, the Watson Glaser test is a favourite of law firms in conducting verbal reasoning test. Watson Glaser includes five different areas of assessment.

  1. Inferences

  2. Recognition of assumptions

  3. Deduction

  4. Interpretation

  5. Evaluation of arguments


The area of inferences tests the ability to determine whether the inferences are definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false, or insufficient data. It follows the ability to assess whether the given information is good enough to draw a conclusion, if it is, then which would it be. It links to clients giving information to solicitors, and based on the given information, and trusting every word said by the client is true, a conclusion needs to be drawn to advise the client.


Recognition of assumption is self-explanatory on what is being tested. A list of statements will be given, and based on those statements only, without your own knowledge, you will decide if an assumption is made in the following sentence.


For deduction, there will be sentences describing a situation. Then you will have to choose the correct statement in the form of multiple choice, that it is a correct analysis of the statements given in the above. This area tests the logical reasoning of the candidate.


In interpretation, the candidate will be given a paragraph or statements of a specific topic. You have to decide if the following statement is a conclusion that follows or not. The statement would require the candidate to assess the meaning of the statements and what is its hidden meaning.


What is tested in evaluation of arguments is self-explanatory as well. The evaluation will be separated into deducing whether the argument is a strong or weak one. Differing from the ones above, this area also requires your own knowledge and skills in determining whether the statement is a strong or a weak argument. It involves a legal sense and exposure to determine if the argument is sound.

 

What to expect from interviews at law firms

If you proceed to the next stage after these two assessments, you will likely have an interview with graduate recruitment. Usually, the manager of the department will hold an interview possibly joined by trainee solicitors and other members of the team. Similar questions from the application form may be asked and more about yourself as well. They would also test your commercial awareness, your knowledge of the firm to see if you know the firm well enough to be an immediate employee. Therefore, keeping your heads up is extremely important.


Jonathan Tsang at the Law Society of HK
Jonathan Tsang visiting the Law Society of Hong Kong

Most news can be searched online through legal websites such as Legal Cheek, Chamber Student Guide, etc. By reading the general gist of how the law firm is doing, you can know what they are looking for or what they lack. A general background check can show your passion and deep understanding about the firm. The starting point can be the history of the firm, understanding how it developed to the format and size today and looking up notable cases handled by the firm. This shows that you have a huge understanding and resonation with the law firm, not only with its clients but also the values by which the firm operates since its establishment.


If you proceed to the next stage, another interview would be conducted by partners and senior associates. The interview might be in the form of a case study. For example, there will be a bundle of a supposed client’s information, of which you must digest all the information and formulate answers to questions within a limited timeframe. The aim of this test is usually to assess your ability to stay calm under pressure and to absorb as much information as possible, instead of finding the right answers after you have read the material, usually you would be asked to give a presentation of the case for about 10 minutes, to examine the logic of your analysis, the method of gathering information and verbal explanation, coherence of the whole case analysis etc. Then, follow-up questions would be asked to see if you are able to combine commercial awareness with the case, which then forms a tailor-made advice. This is where to showcase your full ability to the interviewers and let them know what you can do. If you succeed, then you will have a vacation scheme.

 

Mini-pupillages: a shorter route to secure it

As for mini-pupillages, they are a lot less complicated. Chambers usually sort out applications quarterly, subject to the chambers' availability. Some chambers do not offer mini-pupillages during Summer, the reason probably being the lack of cases. The application process is rather simple. Firstly, you will need to send a CV and/or covering letter to the chambers. The target email address will usually be listed on the webpage of mini-pupillage on the chambers website. Some chambers require completed application forms drafted by them instead, usually consisting of questions like the above, or they would request the CV but with the covering letter being written in the email with word limit. However, CV with covering letter is the majority approach. After sending the application, what is left is waiting. The recruitment representative would reply to you if you have secured a mini-pupillage or not. If you have, then you will need to confirm the dates of availability.

 

My experience at Ravenscroft & Schmierer: disproving the somewhat despondent narrative?

If you have made it this far in the article dear reader, what follows here might uplift your spirits. Although much of my experiences so far have generally trotted along the lines of narrative as laid out in the above, my internship at Ravenscroft & Schmierer in Hong Kong shows that alternatives do exist and thankfully for the better. With my resilience and eloquence, coupled with a fortunate connection on the inside, the application process took an interesting turn. What this underlines is that smaller firms have the choice to instate more boutique approaches to recruiting, sidestepping the often dejecting processes of large firms with rigid HR machinery in place.



Jonathan Tsang
Jonathan at our firm's Christmas company event

For one, instead of the usual routine described, a video introduction was required for the prelude, which allowed me to showcase my skills in a unique way. It is refreshing to have gone through an alternative process and despite it coming with some flaws as one would expect if not aided by soulless HR protocols, I welcome it and would encourage my peers to be on the lookout for firms like this who are open to offering a different path for aspiring interns and trainees. This internship has not only provided me with the opportunity to immerse myself in legal work but also allowed me to be involved in the firm’s marketing efforts, and emulating more closely what working as a lawyer actually entails. Despite its brevity, this internship has given me valuable insights into the inner workings of a law firm and has taught me invaluable tips from my colleagues on how to navigate my future career in law. It has emphasised the importance of building a strong professional network and enhancing my presence on LinkedIn. Additionally, this experience has helped me narrow down the vast array of choices available in the legal field through its media exposure.


Jonathan Tsang
Jonathan at a dinner with HK friends

Studying law is never easy, qualifying as a lawyer is even harder. But with resilience, determination, and always having an ounce of hope in believing in ourselves, I believe we can achieve what we wanted to when we first chose law. I wish you all the best in finding your career path and work experience!

 

Jonathan Tsang

University of Reading 3rd year law student

Internship from 18/12 – 12/1


 

Jonathan Tsang

Jonathan Tsang

AML Intern Winter 2023-2024

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