Guest post by Alice Payne, a paralegal and soon-to-be associate solicitor at Punter Southall Law
My legal journey started with a dropped grade at GCSE.
Twelve years ago, one of my 12 GCSEs was a ‘B’ in chemistry; not high enough to study the subject at A-Level, at my school, at least. Bang went my childhood ambition to be a vet.
Even though I did collect three other A-Levels, I was uncertain of what came next and left education at 18 to work in hospitality, with an as-yet unidentified professional career in mind ‘one day’.
Two years of pouring pints later brought that ‘one day’ forward faster than I’d anticipated. But doing what?
I had always admired lawyers, triumphing in what were often characterised as unwinnable battles, the respect they earned and – let’s face it – headlines indicating a nice salary, but I was spooked by the risk of not only paying to attend university but ending up with just a degree to show for it and no job to go to.
Cue the Open University, where I could fit my studies around earning a living. I enrolled. At first, it was challenging to attend classes and schedule support from tutors. I’d last picked up a pencil case in anger at school, so the adjustment to virtual learning was character-building, to say the least.
In the first test of my dedication, I designed a study schedule, regularly tested myself (it’s all on you) and would sometimes juggle 50-hour work weeks with 50-hour academic weeks. Yikes.
Sacrificing family barbecues or a girls’ night out became the norm. Yes, virtual learning is hard but, with self-discipline, it just becomes the everyday. So, I knuckled down and after three years, rather than the usual six years for Open University courses while working full-time (excuse the trumpet blowing but I’m due a fanfare), graduated with a 2:1 honours degree in law.
I now had the qualification but not the employment. Punter Southall Law (PSL) gave me a crucial breakthrough. I’d seen they were offering a different approach and applied for an internship. Simon Cullingworth, the firm’s managing director, was sufficiently impressed with my contribution to the team to offer me a bespoke paralegal role.
This was a great step forward but the way still seemed to be blocked by the fierce competition for a traditional training contract. It looked out of reach to me (shades of falling short at chemistry GCSE) because, as I saw it, it tended to favour first-class degrees and candidates from top – not Open – universities.
Then the Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination came into being. And into my consciousness. To say it was salvation isn’t overstating it but – and this is the rolling theme of my experience – the next barriers came into view.
PSL’s commitment to fresh thinking helped me to overcome them. By offering an interest-free loan to take the SQE, it removed the biggest obstacle: the cost. Government currently don’t fund study for this stage.
I could scarcely believe my hard work was not only being recognised but that my professional ambitions were also being openly supported.
A gap of almost two years between my degree and the SQE made the adjustment slightly more difficult. I was helped by all my amazing colleagues and the fact that I was now in a job that was relevant to my studies.
Many a late night working on deals was followed by an even earlier start to study the next morning before clocking on at the office.
The exams themselves were another adjustment. SQE1 consists of multiple-choice questions. If that sounds easy, not for me. The correct answer is the ‘single best choice’ so, theoretically, all answers are correct to an extent but you must select the best answer for the situation at hand.
Plus, I had never taken a multiple-choice exam before. I failed numerous mocks and had several ‘I can’t do this’ meltdowns. Nevertheless, I kept going every day until I eventually started passing mocks and then, finally, SQE1.
The SQE2 exams consist of 16 mini exams known as ‘stations’. In short, another long road to travel.
Family and friends were roped into playing the roles of judges or clients. Their initial amusement was replaced by bemusement as they were able to see for themselves what it would take to succeed.
This was by far my most challenging part of my whole journey so far. I had no idea how to prepare for these exams but with my experience – and confidence – growing, as well as my workload in my day job, I stayed focused. In August 2023 I passed the SQE2. I could now apply for admission to the roll.
Having reached journey’s end, I’m now at another beginning. Like my fellow solicitors, I’m proud to be newly qualified and grateful that a distant GCSE exam disappointment was the catalyst for where I am today.