Rhianna Thornton-Reid recently graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in History. In September, she will begin a Graduate Diploma in Law, the first part of her law conversion. In August 2022, after having completed her studies, she will join Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP as a trainee solicitor.
As a History student, what drew you to a career in commercial law and how do you feel your degree has supported this?
When I started university, I already knew that I did not want to become a historian. I chose to study History because I am passionate about the subject and hoped to learn as much as I could through an undergraduate degree. I quickly found that I loved the academic rigour of my degree and that using these problem-solving and analytical skills was something I sought in a career as well. When I first looked into the legal sector, I discovered that it ticked these boxes. I also loved that History is relevant to law through the historic rulings and principles which underpin the law. Commercial law appealed to me, in particular, as I am fascinated by business and seek to work in a fast-paced and demanding environment in a client-facing capacity.
I believe that my degree has set me in good stead for a career in commercial law by providing opportunities to develop these skills through many research-based written assignments. Working on group projects taught me about the importance of teamwork and I have also improved my communication skills and overall confidence through presentations. Most recently, my dissertation offered me the opportunity to explore a topic in detail, teaching me patience and perseverance which will serve me well in long-term projects.
What extracurricular projects have you undertaken and what skills do you feel you have developed as a result?
At university, I was keen to get involved in as many activities as possible as a way to make new friends and find new hobbies. During my four years I was involved in a range of activities both within the “Bubble” — in choirs, charitable societies, and Student Association committees — and outside of it. Juggling these extracurricular activities and my studies was challenging at times, but well worth the effort! By my fourth year, these activities had led to greater positions of authority – I was a Senior Student Ambassador, Co-President of a society, and Co-Coordinator of the University’s Green Week. Together, these experiences helped me to develop a range of skills including leadership, communication, and problem-solving.
How did you choose Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and how did you find your vacation scheme?
I chose to apply to Freshfields after I attended a presentation at St Andrews during my third year. The firm’s reputation speaks for itself, as do the international scope of its cases and the major clients it represents. I was impressed by opportunities for an international secondment, which exceed many other firms, and the way in which the historic firm (the oldest international law firm) is taking opportunities to innovate. However, finding a firm which would also provide a supportive environment in which to launch my legal career was one of my main priorities. By offering eight seats during their training contract, rather than the traditional six, Freshfields offers its trainees more opportunities to experience different areas of the firm. Trainees are also supported throughout their contract by a “Trainee Intake Partner” and the firm’s Manchester-based Hub is said to relieve trainees of some of the menial tasks typically involved in a training contract. Above all, speaking to lawyers at this event, I was struck by their enthusiasm for their jobs and the firm as a whole.
I thoroughly enjoyed my vacation scheme, and would definitely recommend it to any student thinking about a career in law. During my three weeks at the firm, I gained invaluable experience working with a department on ongoing cases with a number of lawyers. I was given much more responsibility than I had expected. Together with other students, I was assessed on tasks which included a legal memorandum and “client pitch”. We also attended a number of informative talks on various aspects of the firm (including one by the Managing Partner of the London office). Everyone I encountered at Freshfields was so friendly and eager to help. A couple of St Andrews alumni reached out to me, offering to meet over a coffee and I was also encouraged to reach out to lawyers working in potential areas of interest. The advice and experience I received were invaluable!
Did you take part in any other legal internships and how did these support your understanding of the industry?
Once I realised that I was interested in law, I was keen to gain as much experience as possible to see whether I would like it in practice. I quickly decided that I was better suited to being a solicitor than a barrister but I was aware that there were still so many routes available and I was eager to scope them out. I spent a week with the legal department of a wealth management and insurance firm to experience “in-house” work and I later undertook work experience at a leading regional firm in Liverpool where I engaged with corporate, employment, and property law. Together, these experiences proved to me that law was the right path and they inspired me to apply to larger Magic Circle firms.
What are you looking forward to most for your Graduate Diploma in Law and training contract?
After four years studying History, I cannot wait to start my GDL to immerse myself in a new field and to learn the key principles which will underpin my career. Although I am not quite sure what to expect, I know that this will be an exciting new chapter for me!
I am also really looking forward to starting my training contract in 2022 when I will leave university behind to start my career! I am particularly excited to be able to work in so many departments and rotate through my various seats to learn more about the different aspects of commercial law!
What resources do you suggest students utilise to gain a better understanding of the legal and commercial industries?
The best way to learn about the legal sector is definitely to gain first-hand experience through the various insight and vacation schemes organised by firms. However, I would also recommend taking advantage of the online resources available. Many universities (including St Andrews) have subscriptions to publications like the Financial Times, which can help students to learn about business developments and current trends. Reading these articles will prove hugely beneficial when it comes to the interview stage and will help to make you a better lawyer by improving your understanding of the changing landscape of business and law.
Websites like The Lawyer Portal publish their own “commercial updates” while Chambers Student offers interesting summaries and rankings of firms, including insights from current lawyers.
I would also recommend looking into the many books which have been published about law and the legal industry. Glanville Williams’ “Learning the Law” offers a great introduction to the English legal system and is geared towards future applicants. If you are thinking about becoming a barrister or are interested in learning more about the criminal system, “The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken” is definitely worth a read. At the moment, I am reading Helena Kennedy QC’s “Misjustice: How British Law is Failing Women” and I am loving it. Reading thought-provoking books like these have encouraged me to look at the law in a different way and have inspired me further!
What did you enjoy most about St Andrews and how can aspiring lawyers make the most of their time there?
I had the most incredible four years at St Andrews and I am so grateful for all of the memories I made there. It is such a unique place to live and the student experience is truly second to none. I made so many lasting friendships with people from all over the world and I loved all of the crazy traditions and events we took part in!
Whilst academics are important I would definitely encourage aspiring lawyers to take part in extracurricular activities which can be a great way to socialise and build CVs. Meeting new people and having the confidence to engage with them is a key skill in any career, and this experience was definitely helpful during my vacation scheme. Attending the University of St Andrews Law Society’s events can be a great way to develop these networking skills by putting them to the test with fellow students and visiting lawyers. Above all, the society’s events are an invaluable resource when it comes to learning more about specific firms and selecting which ones you would like to apply. Speaking to lawyers can be a great way to pick up useful advice and they may also provide you with details about their firm which could help your application stand out.
Do you have any advice for students in regards to upcoming legal applications (such as cover letters, aptitude tests, interviews, etc)?
I think the most important thing to remember when you start to make applications is not to spread yourself too thinly. Finding the balance between applying to enough firms and giving yourself the time to do each of them well is difficult, and there is no correct way to go about it.
Whatever your strategy, focus on the firms which appeal to you most. This enthusiasm will come across in your cover letter and, along with your knowledge about the firm, will help you stand out. Remember that firms are not looking for the finished product but rather for signs of your potential — your experiences and the skills they have taught you will help you, but your ambition and enthusiasm must be the decisive factors.
Aptitude tests can be tricky to master but many websites offer free tests and with practice, they become much easier.
Finally, my experience at the interview stage was much less daunting than I feared so I would encourage other applicants not to stress about it too much. Whether or not you succeed, an interview is a great opportunity to see inside a firm and to ascertain whether it is a good fit for you!