Wednesday, 23 February 2011

When to start building a CV?

So you wanna be a lawyer huh? You do realize you're not the only one. Why should we give you the training contract instead of the 100 other applicants? While speaking to a newly qualified lawyer friend, she told me about the perils of looking for a training contract. I'm 2-3 years away from my diploma year but I've become very aware already of the fact that it's tough out there and getting tougher. When being introduced to a friend's wife for the first time recently, and discovering she was a lawyer I naturally picked a conversation about law, when she found out I was a student, with a sad glint in her eyes she said 'hopefully by the time you graduate there'll be some jobs again!'.

I'm a naturally optimistic person, but I think Thomas Jefferson hit the nail on the head when he said 'I find that the harder I work the more luck I seem to have'. With this in mind at the start of my LL.B I decided that if I was planning on looking for a training contract at the end of my degree I'd be more inclined to 'get lucky' if I put the work in to building a strong CV from the outset. I've maybe got a slight advantage as a mature student, by having more experience in terms of trying to get what I want, but realizing that to make that happen you often need to 'bring something to the table'. So what have I done and what am I planning to do to build my winning CV?

Well, firstly I've tried to think about the experiences I've had in my work life which relate to being a lawyer and the types of transferable skills applicable to law:

Sales roles: dealing with clients directly, explaining the contracts, persuading them of the best course of action.

Management roles: Working effectively within a hierarchy, delegating responsibilities, passing on key information to team members, dealing directly with other businesses.

Being 'Staff/Class Rep'; Dealing directly with senior management, understanding the needs of those you represent and communicating them effectively.

Then comes the process of trying to find other things to boost the CV:
While attending a charity event during my 1st yr, I happened to meet and get chatting to a lawyer who runs a small criminal defense firm, after a relatively short chat he told me to email him and arrange to pop in for some work experience. I went on to volunteer for six months in his firm 1-2 afternoons per week, this was a great experience where I learned a great deal about the actual day to day running of a law practice.

Other ways to gain experience include: Law Clinic/Pro Bono work, Citizens Advice etc

I also try to stay up to date with developments in the legal landscape, I do this by having a number of links on my web browser to favorites such as The Law Society Journal and The Firm, I have a wee look at these as I'm checking my emails in the morning. In addition I follow the twitter feeds of a number of people who regularly blog on legal  news, such as Guardian Law, (I'm not a big fan of traditional newspapers).

This year I've joined my University's Mooting Society, and I'm glad to say my partner and I have made it to the quarter final of our internal competition, which brings with it a trip to the Supreme Court. In my mind the benefit of mooting is two fold:
1. It forces you to go and research an area of law you may have little or no experience of.
2. You then have to defend your opinions and research to a 'Judge'

I'm planning on trying to add to my CV year on year, and make a point of choosing the electives which will give me the best chance both at diploma and beyond, (as far as I'm aware you can't be an Advocate without having studied Roman Law).

In a competitive market I can't help but think the jobs and diploma places will go the best applicants. Becoming the best applicant means making an effort to think of the bigger picture from the outset by developing a plan to build a great CV along with the self discipline to implement that plan.

'Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning' - Thomas Edison

If anyone has any suggestions for other things I could do to boost my chances of success please get in touch, I'm all ears! (Any Malcolm Gladwell fans'll know what I mean when I say I'm chasing after my 10'000 hours.)

Monday, 21 February 2011

Modern Learning: Webcasts v Lectures

In this day and age of facebook, youtube, blogging, twitter and online shopping, should  students, at real brick and mortar universities, be happy with lectures being delivered by webcast/podcast? I find my university course is increasingly reliant on webcasts and podcasts instead of traditional lectures. Is this an example of the university and lecturers making good use of their time and resources or is it simply an example of lecturers distancing themselves from their undergraduate students?

There are a great many benefits to having instant access to your class lectures online, many of which are obvious:

  • Working through the syllabus at your own pace
  • The ability to re-wind and re-watch lectures as often as possible
  • Creating your own personal lecture timetable
  • Having access to lectures during revision periods
  • Choosing your own study venue
  • Being able to pause your lecture to take better notes

But how about the down side? Are there any reasons not to embrace the webcast lecture?
My personal experience of classes delivered by webcast lectures has been mixed.

Some of the downsides of webcast lectures include:

  • No opportunity to ask questions
  • It's easy to become complacent, 'I'll watch my lecture tomorrow'
  • It can be easy to rely on the lectures rather than books
  • Creates distance between the student and lecturer

In a time where we are becoming less and less physically connected with people and living more of our lives online, surely there's an argument to be made for going to University, being about going to University? Having the physical experience of interacting with the academics, who's life work has been the study and understanding of a chosen field. Surely part of what makes University learning so valuable is the access students have to great minds with whom they can interact and not just read about. It's this distinction which has marked the different experiences I've had with webcast lectures.

When properly implemented, webcast lectures are excellent tools which save time for everyone and are massively accessible; it feels pretty good to be able to listen to your lectures while out for a jog or on the train to work. The problem in my mind comes when these lectures are used as a substitute for actual contact with the academics . . . . you can't ask questions of a podcast (and expect answers).

The best class I've taken, which was taught largely by webcast, was supported by regular meetings with the professor responsible for the class during which we were all encouraged to ask questions and discuss the ideas from the online lectures. These sessions proved invaluable, as the class knew they were coming and as such they were like progress markers. Everyone would aim to have covered a certain amount of the syllabus in time for each meeting.

My least favorite class employing webcasts was one in which there was zero contact with the class leader (the professor responsible for more than half of the class material). This lack of contact and structure lead many of my classmates, myself included to become disheartened. Morale was low and there was no-one to pick us up, or offer a helping hand upon which we could rely. Without contact, and the opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge of the lecturers first hand there is nothing to separate going to university and taking a correspondence course.

My overall feelings on online lectures/podcasts can be summed up quite neatly as follows. . .

Are podcasts and webcasts here to stay? YES
Do I like them and see them as valuable? YES and YES
Are they helpful and flexible tools for teaching and learning? Definitely

In addition to all this I think it's very important to allow students regular access, via lectures, tutorials or Q&A sessions, to the academics responsible for designing their curriculum. Without the access to the academics and the opportunity to ask questions and seek clarification, our understanding will never reach its full potential.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The brain drain, my tips for massive memory . . .

I found myself, during my first semester studying Criminal law, a subject which is, by its very nature dependent on case law. As such for my exam i decided to learn as many cases as possible. For each case I wanted to learn the names of the parties, the year of the case, the court in which it was heard, and the key details. By the time my criminal exam rolled around I had over 150 cases committed to memory along with all the relevant details. Did I achieve this by endless hours of repetition? NO! I learned my cases by making use of a number of techniques I had learned through my interest in magic.

Yes magic, card tricks, David Blaine, rabbits and hats, magic. More specifically the type of magic practiced by Derren Brown . I used the kind of techniques taught by the aforementioned Mr Brown, to memorize the order of a deck of cards, or a long list of numbers, the only difference being that I used them for my studies. The key to many of these memory techniques is tapping in to the way our minds and memory already work, by using vivid pictures (don't worry, you don't need to be able to draw), association, and mnemonics. I don't know anyone who has ever learned to read a musical treble clef who doesn't remember that Every Good Boy Deserves Fun, nor do I know of any native English speaker who isn't painfully aware of the 'i before e except after c rule'. These are examples of ways the human brain finds it easy to remember things, following this thinking I try to make everything in my studies easier for my brain to remember, simple (stay with me people, it's worth it I promise!). Many people see mind-maps as a fantastic and underused tool (have a look at  ) I see the easy to learn memory techniques below in exactly the same light.

Remembering Numbers

I found the most useful thing to remember numbers (such as the year a case was reported) was to use a mnemonic system. The system I used works by turning numbers into letters, those letters into words and those words into pictures. (Please believe me when I say this is a great deal easier to do in practice than it is to explain).

Check out

Remembering Cases

To Remember specific cases I'd Build a single vivid picture in my head in which each detail represented something key to the case, for example: Donoghue v Stevenson, I could picture my freind Donna, holding a garden hoe (Donna + hoe =Donoghue), riding the back of a giant snail but feeling sick (to remind me of the facts of the case), talking to my work colleague Ms Stevenson (who doesn't know donna, similar to the defendant) and is looking straight at her (forseeability), and is holding a giant lego man (lego man = 1932, as per my mnemonic). This ridiculous, exaggerated larger than life image is easy to remember, in fact I don't even need to try because by picturing it once or twice, VIVIDLY it sticks in my mind, even makes me laugh! I do this for each case I need to learn. In order to remember anything at all I try to convert it to a vivid, exaggerated, absurd image that way it's more likely to stick in my mind!

Putting it all together

Tying my 'Case Pictures' together I used a 'loci' system to arrange the cases I'd learned in order, grouping them by the area of law they were relative to. This technique relies on taking a trip in your imagination around a familiar route (like your walk home), and placing images which are representative of the items you're seeking to remember along that imagined route. So each 'Case Picture' would get tagged in my mind to a spot along a familiar journey. I could imagine my trip to work, at my front door, I'd imagine the Donoghue v Stevenson picture above, at the bottom of the steps I'd visualize my next 'Case Picture' etc etc untill I had a few cases for each area of the syllabus. . . job's a good un!!

Similar to the mnemonic number system this is a lot easier to do than it is to explain and is massively effective!

Check out

But it all seems a bit contrived, doesn't it?

My personal experience of using the above has been nothing but positive, these are all techniques which took no more than an afternoon to learn properly and have been with me for years. I can honestly say I've used them in one form or another for every exam I've sat in the last few years and they've never failed me, consequently I've never failed any of my exams. I introduced my study partner to them and she swears by them, they've also helped my teenage cousin with her standard grade exams. If you've ever wished you could go in to an exam, meeting, speaking engagement with more concrete information in your head and less notes, these techniques are perfect.

Further Reading

Derren Brown was, in a former life, a law student and in his excellent book Tricks of the Mind, he includes a chapter on memory where he details at length the techniques he used to memorize large amounts of quite dry information. I found this chapter invaluable, it outlines, in greater depth, everything I've mentioned above and more. While the techniques in Derren Brown's book were things I'd come across elsewhere, 'Tricks of the Mind' puts them together in the most concise, useful and entertaining format I've ever seen. It's for this reason that I'd highly recommend it.Buy it on amazon here

I hope you find some of this useful, I certainly did and use these techniques regularly, any questions feel free to get in touch or leave a comment!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The academic 'warm-up': pre-entry at University of Strathclyde

In 2008, having decided to make an effort to go back to 'school' in my late 20's and having no recent academic history upon which to base an application, I found myself on the pre-enrty certificate course at the University of Strathclyde This excellent course was, to me, the perfect way to return to the academic world, perfect for a number of reasons;

1. I only had to commit to a single 2 hr lecture per week on a Thursday night.
2. The course would allow access (dependent on performance) to a wide range of courses, from history to economics, business or law.
3. The mode of teaching was in the style of University lectures, as such it helped prepare me for what was to come academically.
4. The course was extremely affordable, £200 for which I could receive funding from ILA Scotland,, (The fees are £300 for the 2011/2012 academic year)
5. On  a personal level, it really helped to develop academic confidence.

The course tutor was a fantastic, approachable, slightly paternal figure called Dr Bill Wurthman, a brilliantly helpful man, who really helped make the whole process feel extremely exciting and gave a number of lectures on general topics such as study skills and what to expect form the course.

The structure of the course was simple, the academic year was split into 3, short 7 week semesters, during each of which we had a number of classes to choose from. Each class was assessed 50% by an assignment and 50% by a final exam, much like many of the classes I'm doing now on my degree course (sorry If I've spoiled the ending)

My strategy for success was simple, the LL.B had the highest entry requirements, I'd aim for that and if I fell short I'd re-consider my options. In order to gain a place on an LL.B course it was necessary to study English & Law, along with one other subject. So, I was tied to English and Law, for my third subject I had the option of Psychology, Politics or Sociology. I opted to study Sociology and couldn't have been happier with my decision!

Sociology was the subject for semester one, I was keen and a voracious reader and loved every minute of it. I was delighted to feel my brain stretching out in wonderful new directions (an experience which I hope will always fill me with joy),  as I learned about Max Webber and positivism, Marxism, Durkheim and all manner of other things. I was literally jumping for joy when I received my marks for my assignment, (an essay on the reasons for the gap in educational attainment between the social classes), a more than respectable 74%. It had begun, the bug for learning was upon me!

Semester two brought with it the study of English in the form of poetry and short stories. I enjoyed the departure from the hard facts and scientific approach that came with studying a much more artistic subject. Similarly to semester one I found myself learning a lot. One of the key things in this semester however was having to read that which I wasn't as interested in. Building up the self-discipline of doing the homework on a short story which I didn't enjoy often meant reading it a multitude of times and picking out important features and techniques used by the author. (An exercise not dis-similar to reading cases for a law class and finding the all important ratio)

Semester three was law, and for the first time I became aware that it's not all 'black and white'. This single concept, the idea that 'it's a little more complicated than that' was a revelation to me as a lay person (another moment where I felt my brain stretch a little). It fascinated me, I was interested to learn about the court system, the constitutional ideas that hold the UK together (my chosen essay topic), the ideas of common law, statute and roman law. One of the ideas that really caught my attention was the Declaratory Power of the High Court, a power to declare an act illegal, in effect creating a new crime after the fact, a power I was glad to discover which is un-likely to ever be exercised again.

Following all this was the exam, a two hour exam, where we had to answer, in essay format a question on each of the subjects we had studied. The Exam was yet another new experience for me, having to sit a blind exam, in which I had to write three essays, in two hours, on three completely unrelated subjects filled me with a touch of the fear (I'm planning on blogging on study skills at a later date). The fear was due in no small part to the fact that two of the subjects were those studied 3-6 months before the exam. An exam which I'm delighted to say I passed and passed sufficiently well to earn myself a place at the University of Strathclyde's Law school on the LL.B course.

I feel like the pre-entry course taught me a great deal, and not just in the academic sense, I learned about budgeting my time, how to study and prepare for exams, how to read and really try to extract as much as possible from the written word. In short I learned and started to develop skills and ways of thinking and communicating which have really helped me in my undergraduate work.

Also, I made a fantastic friend who's helped me a great deal with my studies so far (she got in to the LL.B too). The support of a friend can be massive, they keep you going when morale is running low and help you to see your coursework from a different angle, widening your perspective and ultimately helping to develop your understanding. Thanks for all your help Study Buddy!!

So, I say to all those who are contemplating a change of direction and going back to school as an adult learner 'go forth and do', there is a wealth of things to be learned in the big wide world, organisations who'll help fund you, friends to be made and confidence to be gained.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The longest journey begins with a single step . . .

Long long ago (2008) in a galaxy far far away (a finance office in Hamilton), a young (27 yr old) man sat quietly contemplating his future. Having worked in a multitude of roles (Croupier, Sales Manager, Art Auctioneer, Account Manager), at home and abroad, self employed and in corporate environments, and with the 'credit crunch' looming ever nearer, bringing with it the prospect of redundancy, the young chap in question decided to take steps to try to ensure himself a more stable life. A life where he could use the many skills he had learned along the way, in tandem with his intellect and tenacity to forge a career for himself in a respected profession. With this in mind he decided to return to the world of education.

His initial investigation into the academic landscape of the West of Scotland brought to his attention an evening course ran by the University of Strathclyde designed to help adults to return to education.  The pre-entry certificate course ( seemed to be the perfect solution, as for a mere £200 (£300 in 2011/12) and the sacrifice of one night per week, for a mere eight months, our protagonist was promised the opportunity to earn a place studying at Strathclyde University in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

So, with a spring in his step and a smile on his face he cheerfully applied for a place on the pre-entry certificate course and to his delight was accepted. Contained within the initial literature was the promise that if a student achieved a sufficiently high grade for the course (65%) and had chosen to study the correct subjects (Law & English & Sociology/Psychology/ Politics), entry to the LL.B course at Strathclyde University Law School was highly likely. While entry was possible to study a wide range of other subjects none of the others on offer demanded such a high pass mark, so with this in mind our protagonist decided to aim for entry to the Law School, reasoning that if he could earn a place studying law he was assured entry to any other course.

In order to fund his new adventure the young man was reliably informed by the good people of Strathclyde University that he would qualify for an ILA account.  "What's that?" he asked with eyes like saucers, and was delighted to discover that a mysterious benefactor (ILA Scotland: ) was prepared to finance his academic adventure, now all that remained was to go to school and fill his head with the knowledge that would propel him onwards to a degree course  . . . .

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Brave new World?

So, what's happening here? In short I suppose I'm responding to a blawg written by another mature student in Glasgow, who's a few years ahead of me in terms of her law career. The quite impressive Michelle Hynes who's blog I read regularly, looking for hints and tips along with a little chat about what I've got to look forward to over the next few years.

I feel it'd be a little rude to write my first post without introducing myself, My name's Drew and I'm the 2nd year of my LL.B, at Strathclyde University, doing quite well so far and generally and genuinely enjoying being back at uni. I feel like studying law is something which I wouldn't have found myself doing straight from school, I possibly wouldn't even have been capable of it, (not academically more in terms of my level of commitment and self discipline).

Anyhoo, it's my plan  to document my journey from the start of my 2nd academic life, (beginning a few years ago) when I decided to return to higher Education, right up to the point of Graduation and beyond out into the big wild world of law, be that as a Solicitor, Advocate, Academic or something entirely different. If all goes well and time permits, I'll discuss my classes, learning techniques, motivations and anything else which seems relevant. Hopefully someone'll find it of use or interest . . . .