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From the Big Apple to the Big Ben: Navigating a Legal Career Abroad

by Mary Suberu

It Starts With Goodbye

Leaving New York, the city that housed my  favourite bakery and lively jazz musicians, for London, a foreign place that seemed to hold so much history and tradition, was a tough decision full of mixed emotions. As an aspiring lawyer, the move represented both a formidable challenge and an incredible opportunity.

I was working in the litigation group of the New York City Law Department and had planned on pursuing my Juris Doctorate (JD), or US law school. The hurdle to achieve this goal was to score high enough on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to gain admission to a top 14 school. I had my mind set on attending a top law school which required me to attain a score in the 99th percentile, and so I studied and took the test, thankfully scoring well enough to gain a full ride scholarship to a good school. At the Law Department, there were also talks amongst the staff about the seemingly well-structured process to becoming a lawyer in the United Kingdom. This involved getting into a big law firm, who will sponsor your legal studies, and whose law departments you will subsequently train at for two years. I spoke to a few of my mentors who had done the JD to get some advice on what to do, and they advised me to consider my options widely, especially in an overly saturated legal market. I decided to push myself to try to attain this opportunity in the UK. Although I was excited about the new life that awaited me, there were many challenges along the way (more on this later). I was able to navigate this life-changing transition and the obstacles I encountered, learning strategies along the way to overcome them.

Navigating Life Abroad

Growing up in rural Vermont, I had moved to New York to study, and upon graduating, the most reasonable option was to stay in New York to work. I had never thought of moving far away from home, even for law school. When I announced my plans of moving to London, my parents, siblings and friends were all hesitant to let me go. But I knew I had to explore what was out there, and the allure of London—a global legal hub known for its rich legal traditions and international influence—was irresistible. The potential to work in one of the most prestigious legal markets in the world promised not only professional growth but also personal enrichment. The opportunity to travel across Europe was also enticing to me as someone who loved travelling.

I had only ever been to Europe during a four month study exchange program, and this was in France. I was aware that living in London required adjusting to a new culture and lifestyle. Despite both New York and London being cosmopolitan, the cultural nuances, social etiquette, and even the way people network in professional settings were different. Building a new social and professional network from scratch was also daunting.

Apart from the culture shock, one of the biggest challenges was understanding and adapting to the UK's legal system, which differs significantly from the US. While both countries share a common law foundation, their legal practices, terminologies, and procedures vary widely. For instance, the UK has a split legal profession with solicitors and barristers, unlike the unified system in the US. Securing a training contract at a big law firm also proved to be a challenge. As I was coming from a US background, the differences in educational systems, legal frameworks, and professional expectations yielded some unique challenges.  For example, in the work environment, apart from the minor spelling differences while drafting (e.g., favour instead of favor, or realise instead of realize), there were major stylistic differences with drafting emails to clients. Also, I had to adjust my approach while speaking to colleagues and clients in the UK compared to what I was used to in the US. The conversations with UK clients revolved around topics of discussion like football, cricket, and other things I found myself lost in. I found that I had to do extra research and studying to know how to build rapport with clients and colleagues.  However, with the help of mentors and my faith, I was able to overcome these hurdles.

To familiarise myself with the UK legal system, I immersed myself in studying its intricacies. I attended legal seminars and enrolled myself in short courses, such as Intro to the English Legal System. I also networked with local legal professionals by joining groups such as The Law Society. This helped bridge the knowledge gap and ease the transition into the new legal environment.

After many months of researching and applying, I was able to gain a spot on a law firm’s diversity scheme and subsequently was offered a summer vacation scheme. I was then assigned a mentor, an associate in the Banking department at the firm, whom I connected with. This was truly the game changer. After multiple sessions with my mentor, countless interviews and assessments, I finally got the call that the firm would like to offer me the training contract. I was elated. All my hard work and sacrifice of moving halfway across the world away from my family and friends, had paid off. I was told as a US graduate, I would need to undertake the GDL to convert my undergraduate business degree to a recognized UK qualification, and subsequently undertake the LPC.

Embracing the New Chapter

Despite the various challenges along the way (the countless rejections and expenses), I was able to persevere and successfully reach the seemingly unachievable goals of getting into the UK legal market. I can now say that moving to London has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I am now handling complex legal cases that I once dreamed of and have built a great network of fantastic lawyers and friends I plan on staying in touch with for as long as I can. The exposure to diverse legal practices and the opportunity to work in a globally influential legal market has enriched my professional life beyond measure.

Living in London has also broadened my personal horizons. I have made lifelong friends, explored the city’s rich cultural heritage, and enjoyed the vibrant international community. I have also been able to travel across Europe to places I never dreamed of being able to visit. The experience has taught me resilience, adaptability, and the importance of embracing change.

Overcoming Challenges and Advice

Looking back, if I were to pinpoint some strategies to enhance anyone seeking to secure a training contract from a non-traditional background, here’s what I will suggest:

1. Educational Bridging:

Think about enrolling in the GDL and SQE to align your qualifications with UK standards. This demonstrates commitment and provides the necessary legal foundation.

2. Leverage Transferable Skills:

Highlight skills gained during your undergraduate studies and any legal experience, such as analytical thinking, research, and writing. Emphasise how these skills are applicable to UK law.

3. Gain Relevant Experience:

Seek internships, clerkships, or paralegal positions in the UK. Even short-term experiences can provide valuable insights into the UK legal system and enhance your CV.

4. Build a UK Network:

Attend networking events, join legal associations such as The Law Society and connect with UK-based professionals on LinkedIn. Personal referrals and a strong network can significantly improve your chances.

To overcome social and professional isolation, I actively sought out networking opportunities. I attended legal networking events, joined professional associations like The Law Society of England and Wales, and participated in local community activities. These efforts helped me build a supportive network of friends and colleagues.

5. Tailor Your Applications:

Customise your application materials for each firm. Demonstrate a clear understanding of their practice areas, values, and why you are specifically interested in them.

6. Seek Mentorship:

Find mentors who have navigated the transition from the US to the UK legal system. Their guidance can provide valuable advice and support. My mentor was a game changer in my applications as she gave me an insight into life within the firm.

7. Be Persistent and Flexible:

The path may be longer and more complex, but persistence is key. Be open to various entry points into the UK legal market, such as smaller firms or in-house legal departments, which can eventually lead to your desired role.

And So, the Journey Continues…

Achieving any career goal, whether it be securing a UK training contract with a non-traditional background, is undoubtedly challenging, but not insurmountable. By understanding what the firms are looking for, leveraging your unique background as an attractive trait to the firms, and strategically navigating the application process, you can increase your chances of success.

Persistence, adaptability, and a proactive approach to building relevant experience and networks are essential in turning this challenge into an opportunity for a rewarding legal career both in the UK and back home in the US.

Transitioning from New York to London to pursue a legal career has been a journey filled with challenges, but it has also been a journey of growth and discovery. The obstacles I faced made the successes all the more meaningful. For anyone considering a similar path, I can confidently say that with determination, careful planning, and an open mind, the rewards are well worth the effort.

Mary Suberu

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marysuberu

Instagram: mary.suberu

June 2024