From summer 2014 I have been interning on The Times Magazine, interviewing, assisting and suggesting features.
I was featured in Times Business columnist Sathnam Sanghera’s Friday column which discussed reverse mentoring:
Don’t Get Stuck in the Past. Reverse Mentoring is the way of the future.
Published 26 September 2014
It’s half-six on a Monday evening and I am standing in a pub with Sam Dix, a 21-year-old trainee journalist, discussing careers, work and ambition over a beer.
Being involved with a couple of youth charities, and uncle to about 341 nephews and nieces, I find myself doing this kind of thing quite often.
And it always evokes mixed feelings: the desire to provide constructive advice clashing with the sneaking feeling that you have actually just fluked it yourself; the need to be encouraging running up against the nagging fear that it might be better if more young people trained as doctors than as media professionals.
Though this particular meeting has an added challenge, for Sam, who has a weekly placement on the features desk at The Times, is not here to be regaled with my wisdom.
He is here to give me advice, informing me, among other things, that my choice of profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter aren’t cool (“Posing next to a car? A bit Alan Partridge, no?”), that I probably Instagram too often (“That is a lovely sunset, but we’ve seen lots of lovely sunsets”), and that my plan to grow a beard is both mistimed and misjudged (“That ship has sailed, mate. A beard is the new sports car”).
Frankly, it is all a bit humiliating. But I am taking such brutal feedback from someone barely out of short trousers in the name of reverse mentoring — the practice, popularised by Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, whereby senior staff get mentored by junior colleagues, and which has in recent months been taken up by Mars, Mastercard, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Citibank, Hewlett-Packard and, before he was dismissed, Philip Clarke, of Tesco.
Of course, some might say that Tesco would not be in such dire straits now if Mr Clarke had been mentored by senior financial professionals, rather than wasting his time trying to get an insight into the “generational mindset” of a twentysomething colleague.
That view was echoed in the results of a survey of small business owners the other day, which found that many more would prefer to be mentored by 64-year-old Richard Branson than by 30-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, even though the Facebook founder is the 16th-richest person in the world, with a net worth of $33.3 billion compared with Mr Branson’s paltry $4.6 billion.
Let’s face it, the directly proportional relationship between experience and wisdom is backed up by several millennia of thought and writing, and, to be honest, I went into reverse mentoring with more than a few reservations.
Not least the fact that it is the kind of thing that happens naturally in offices anyway, that conventional mentoring is usually a two-way process if done well, that the whole thing has an air of dad dancing about it, and that, as The Wall Street Journal put it, it can be “intimidating to young mentors and awkward for older colleagues, who may be embarrassed to reveal how little they know”.
But this is actually one of the reasons why I’m a convert. There are all sorts of potential benefits to reverse networking — it could help to dispel the fallacy among the middle-aged that “generation Y”, the so-called millennials, are insular geeks obsessed with Twitter and Facebook, and prepare those, like me, in their thirties who are dreading the day when they have a boss who is younger than they.
But the main benefit is how it could help to plug the generational knowledge gap when it comes to technology.
It’s an awkward fact about the business world that it is being endlessly and profoundly disrupted by technology that ageing executives barely understand. I make a point of keeping up with things, but I still didn’t really understand how Snapchat worked until Sam explained it to me.
Another really great thing about reverse mentoring is that it forces senior people to do something they get less good at — namely, listening.
The higher you get in an organisation, and the older you get in life, the more you find yourself talking at people, repeating the same old stories so often and so mindlessly that the details of what really happened become lost in a mist of anecdote.
There is a cliché in business motivational speaking that “we are born with two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in that proportion”. But it is true. There are few calamities afflicting the world in the 21st century that couldn’t be eased by people just listening more, and being a little less proud, and being a little less complacent.
Which brings us to the main attraction of reverse mentoring. It is an inevitable, natural consequence of doing anything for any amount of time that you succumb to a degree of ennui and exhaustion and complacency.
No matter how hard you worked to get where you are, and how much you enjoy what you do, you will eventually start to take your working life for granted to some degree. Once upon a time I may have worked very hard to get into this trade, but I found it sobering to hear that Sam would like to be in a similar position so badly that he not only paid for his own university course, but is now paying to be trained as a journalist, while at the same time working free for a series of media companies, which has at times required doing a two-hour daily commute from King’s Lynn while simultaneously holding down a bar job.
It turns out that there’s nothing like talking to someone almost half your age, who would probably do your job for half the money, to make you feel more grateful for your lot — or, perhaps, convince you that it’s time to give up and give someone else a chance.
I interviewed five trainee lawyers for the following Times 2 feature. Published August 18 2014
What law school doesn’t tell you: 17,500 graduates; only 5,000 jobs
by Damian Whitworth and Alex Rodin
Even the best qualified are stymied by a shrinking pool of training places in solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers
From the age of ten, when she came home from school and told her mother that she wanted to be a barrister, Charlotte Wheeler-Smith focused like a laser on her chosen career path. While still at school she began to build an impressive CV of work experience before studying law and French at Swansea University, where she got a 2:1, set up a university Bar society then formed the Advocacy Foundation, which stages mock trials around the country.
She went to Bar school and was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple at a ceremony at Temple Church last year. “It was a very special day. I was very proud of my achievement. Neither of my parents went to university and for them it was a very proud day, ” she says.
Now she was technically a barrister, but in order to practise she needed to complete a pupillage at a barristers’ chambers. In two rounds of applications she was interviewed on a number of occasions but was unsuccessful. “I only ever wanted to be a barrister. I was always aware how difficult and competitive it was to get pupillage but I don’t think it’s highlighted as much as it should be. It only becomes painfully obvious when you are at Bar school and out of a cohort of a couple of hundred only a very small handful have pupillage. It helps if being a barrister runs in your family.”
As students prepare to go to university and recent (and not so recent) law graduates look for jobs, the statistics behind the employment landscape for lawyers are sobering. More than 17,500 graduates are pursuing about 5,000 training contracts at law firms and some 400 pupillages in barristers’ chambers. They are also competing against graduates from previous years who are still seeking work. The number of pupillages available has fallen from 695 in 2001 to 429 in 2013. The number of training contracts (for would-be solicitors) also fell from more than 6,000 in 2008 to 5,200 in 2013.
Now 25, Wheeler-Smith is fortunate: she has found a good job with one of the big five “magic circle” firms in London. But that is almost certainly the end of her hopes of becoming a barrister. Many others are struggling to find any legal work. Kate Dunn, 23, who was also called to the Bar in 2013 and who also failed to find a pupillage after applying two years running, went to work for an events company and has now secured a job with another magic circle firm — but in the legal development and marketing department. She has abandoned hopes of becoming a pupil barrister, which she says appears to be only viable if you have independent financial means.
She couldn’t afford to work as a paralegal — a member of a solicitor’s support staff — in order to gain experience while waiting to apply again for a pupillage because she needed to pay off a £20,000 bank loan she took out for her law studies. “Paralegal roles don’t pay enough for me to live in London, so I’ve had to give it all up,” she says. “It’s very difficult to support yourself and still try to gain pupillage. Really, you’d need parental support. I’ve come from a background where I’m the first person to study law. I’m one of the first in my family who even has A levels. I don’t come from what people would see as a barrister [background]. At university you’re told all of that doesn’t matter and that it’s all about merit and stuff, but it’s not.”
The challenges faced by those trying to break into the legal profession are not lost on those who have already established themselves. Hannah Kinch, 31, a criminal barrister at 23 Essex Street Chambers has been a barrister for eight years and says it is harder to get a pupillage now “than probably at any time in history. The pressure on places is going up. I don’t envy anyone who is going through the process now because it’s harder than it has ever been.” She thinks too many people are taking the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) that law graduates must pass before they take a pupillage. “It’s only going to get worse.”
“The percentages are against you right from the start,” says Lindsay Scott, the chief executive of Matrix Chambers. She was a practising solicitor before moving into legal management and is a mother of four. “I wouldn’t advise my children to do it: it’s very hard. They take way more students [on the BPTC] than there are pupillage places.”
The challenge is equally daunting for those wanting to become solicitors. “We urge students thinking of embarking on a career in law to think carefully and do extensive research,” says Andrew Caplen, the president of the Law Society. “Competition for training contracts remains exceptionally high with some firms receiving thousands of applications for each place. Many students are left with debt up to £50,000 when they finish their studies with no guarantee of a job at the end. To succeed as a solicitor, you need determination, motivation and academic ability in abundance. Students should be confident that they are right for the profession and that the profession is right for them before making that commitment.”
There have been suggestions that cuts to legal aid have dissuaded some barristers’ chambers from recruiting, but the bigger problem, affecting barristers and firms of solicitors, has been the economic downturn. Meanwhile, students have continued to apply in huge numbers to study law at undergraduate level and then to take the BPTC or the Legal Practice Course (LPC; for solicitors).
Baroness Deech, chairwoman of the Bar Standards Board, says that she is “very much concerned” that colleges are taking on too many students. The board pushed for the introduction of an aptitude test that candidates for the BPTC must pass before they can enrol. She would like to see the required pass mark raised. She adds: “If I had my way there would be a very tough English language test: the practice of law turns on language.” The board fears, however, that this would be open to challenge as discriminatory under European law.
“The advice I always give students is that you study law for its own sake,” says Deech. “It is a wonderful, stimulating, interesting subject. You might say to yourself: ‘I might become a barrister or I might use this excellent degree with its transferable skills to go into teaching, government service, to join a financial firm or the foreign service.’ You have to be flexible. The mistake is to say: ‘I am determined to be a criminal barrister and nothing else.’ ” She says this advice applies to students who have gone on to take the LPC or been called to the Bar. Those qualifications appeal to employers in many different fields. “Like aspiring musicians or actors or journalists or politicians, there will be knocks on the way and they may never make it,” she cautions.
Sophia Dirir, chairwoman of the junior lawyers division of the Law Society, is blunt: “We need to limit the number of people trying to enter the profession. Having supply outstrip demand is no good for anybody.” Colleges are hardly likely to dissuade students from applying to study their courses and pay their high fees, so she suggests adopting a system similar to that in Northern Ireland where students cannot enrol on the equivalent of the LPC until they have secured agreement from a solicitor to provide training.
Dirir says that some private law schools “allow anybody to do the LPC. I don’t think they give their students enough information about the realities of a career in law. We don’t want people to be so in debt and then not able to find a job. We don’t want to see people taken advantage of with false dreams.”
The University of Law (incorporating the College of Law) calls itself “the world’s largest professional law school” with almost 7,000 students enrolling each year. Imogen Burton, director of business development at the college, rejects the suggestion that by taking students with lower degree grades, law schools are giving places to students who don’t have a realistic chance of getting the job they are aiming for. “I don’t think you can play God and say: ‘You won’t get a job because you got a 2:2.’ Careers advice should be robust, but I don’t like the idea of barriers going up.” Students should be honest with themselves about their ability, she says. “Follow your dream but take a cold, hard look at it. It’s always tough to get a job in law, full stop. I’d never pretend it’s not challenging and it became a lot more challenging in the recession.”
However, she says that a ratio of roughly three students for every training contract “doesn’t terrify me. It’s tough. It doesn’t mean there is a job for everybody. But it’s not the disaster that some people say it is.”
Some colleges claim that high proportions of students gain employment in the legal profession within the first year of obtaining the LPC, but Dirir says that this does not bear close scrutiny. She has encountered students who have the LPC working as receptionists in law firms to get a foot in the door. An increasingly common route for those seeking a training contract is to work as a paralegal, assisting a solicitor with the paperwork for cases.
Stephen Pearson (not his real name), 24, took two jobs to pay his way through a law degree (he got a first) and the LPC. “I really struggled to find any sort of legal work, let alone a training contract.” He took a job as a case handler for a debt recovery company but “quickly became quite bored and despondent because I was overqualified for the role. It’s a blow to your self-esteem. You are so desperate to put what you have learnt into practice.” He now has a job as a paralegal in a corporate law firm where the work is interesting and hopes to eventually secure a training contract. Another paralegal job that he was offered but didn’t take received 100 applicants. Of the dozens of law students who were his peers he can think of only three or four who have training contracts. The majority are doing paralegal work. “Some have given up.”
Others are distinctly unimpressed by paralegal work. “It’s a form of purgatory, it really is,” says Susan Baxter (not her real name), 24, who got a first-class degree in law from a Russell Group university in 2012. “As a paralegal you are not qualified, you can’t advise. There is a ceiling on your responsibility. The work I am doing is not well paid.” She did unpaid internships after university then took paralegal work while looking for a training contract with a company that would fund her LPC. She has not yet been successful and the process of applying, which often involves days of work for each individual application, can be exhausting. Often the outcome is a generic rejection with no feedback. “It’s exhausting. I knew it would be difficult, but it is really difficult.”
Samuel Clague read business, finance and economics at Durham University, passed the graduate diploma in law and then passed the LPC. Seeing a gap in the market he founded the Stephen James Partnership, a firm run by lawyers to recruit lawyers for paralegal work. He has 10,000 people on his books. “We see people coming to us with firsts and 2:1s and they struggle. There are people down the food chain with 2:2s and even thirds still going through courses. People with very low grades are doing courses when in reality there is a very small chance of them getting a training contract.”
He says that many of the recruiters at big legal firms, who qualified as lawyers ten or 20 years ago, are amazed by the competition for jobs now. “They say that people who should be lawyers now are missing out because of increased competition. A lot are saying that if they were trying to get qualified now they wouldn’t get through.”
The advice of trainee lawyers at the law firm Bird & Bird in London, is not to be put off by talk of how difficult it is to break into the profession. “It is definitely possible,” says Karan Aswani, 26. “But the way you get into the profession has changed. Some of the hurdles you have to jump through are a bit more rigorous.”
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when it got tough but I would 100 per cent do it again.” says Tom Mintern, also 26.
“Many of my friends have been successful, the only difference is when,” says Abbas Lightwalla. “Some people will have spent years of trying again and again.”
Emma McDowell, 27, says that you have to accept “that on the whole people don’t get the first contract they apply for so you have to swallow your pride and be prepared for a certain amount of failure — just keep applying”.
Alex Gill, 28, graduated from law school in 2009, at the height of the credit crunch. She went home to the Channel Islands, did paralegal work for two years, then got on a vacation scheme at Bird & Bird and eventually secured a training contract. “Recognise what you’re good at, what your strengths are,” she says. “Law isn’t for everyone but if you seek career advice early and get work experience early than I think you’ve got a head start. With the right attitude, if you can get the right experience you can definitely make it into law.”
* Additional reporting Sam Dix