Siobhan Ali graduated with an MA (Hons) in Social Anthropology from the University of St Andrews in June 2022. As a future trainee solicitor with Allen & Overy, she is currently studying the Law Foundations Course (PGDL) at BPP University.
Studying at St Andrews, Siobhan found that there were many students who shared her interest in law. As the University does not have a law department, she was inspired to establish the St Andrews Law Review in 2020 to offer students a platform to discuss their interest and support them in forming a network of peers in the legal profession.
What was your academic experience at St Andrews like? What made you choose Social Anthropology and what are the most valuable skills or insights that you’ve taken away from this degree?
Social Anthropology is a really fascinating subject which can be applied both historically to past events and also to contemporary issues. I studied everything from the anthropology of the Cold War to economic crises and natural disasters and really enjoyed the diversity of topics covered. The theories and concepts that I was taught continuously crop up in everyday life and so I will always feel like an amateur anthropologist at heart!
My dissertation combined my interests in anthropology and law to look at how commercial law firms use pro bono initiatives to craft their corporate identities for employees, clients and competitors. I think this shows how applicable anthropology is in different contexts and how almost any issue can be viewed from an anthropological lens.
I always knew that I wanted to do law conversion and work in commercial law so going into my University degree that was the plan. But I liked the idea of doing something completely different which would be interesting and enjoyable while also giving me valuable transferable skills to help me in my professional life. Social Anthropology is fantastic because it really gives you an appreciation for different types of people and diverse environments. I thought these skills would be really useful when navigating the multicultural atmosphere of London City law firms and also when working with people all over the world on multi-jurisdictional deals. The discipline also really helps you understand and balance various perspectives so I found that it enhanced my critical thinking abilities, taught me how to structure arguments and improved my written communication skills - all which would help me in a professional context.
Outside of the St Andrews Law Review, which extracurriculars did you get involved in that helped your personal and professional development?
I had done a lot of freelance writing during my gap year so I continued that at University and was heavily involved in student publications. I worked for The Saint in various roles such as Deputy Features and News Editor from August 2018 to February 2020 and as an Analyst and Editor for the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Review from August 2019 to July 2021. I think these experiences were really helpful in developing my ability to adapt my writing style to suit different audiences. I also learned how to dissect complex political and social issues and explain them coherently and concisely. Beyond that, it was a really interesting way to engage in the conversations taking place on campus, reflecting on local issues as well as broader international events through writing. Seeing how other publications were run was so helpful when establishing the Law Review as I had been exposed to different editorial practices.
I was also keen to participate in student representation and served as Class Representative for my cohort for three years and as School President of Social Anthropology in my final year. I loved getting involved with the behind-the-scenes happenings in the Department and gaining an insight into the conversations taking place about issues like examinations, adapting to distance learning and how modules are designed and delivered. Speaking up at Department meetings was quite daunting at first but I think it was an invaluable opportunity to learn how to present information to a group of more experienced professionals and how to prepare thoroughly for such conversations. It was also really nice to get to know not only my own classmates but anthropology students across different year groups.
Finally, I worked in Sponsorships for the St Andrews Charity Fashion Show (FS) from November 2019 to July 2021. Besides being a fun event that I enjoyed attending every year, it was really fulfilling to help coordinate it and seeing it all come together. Working in the Sponsorships department, which I later led, also gave me experience in speaking to companies across various industries, from food and beverage to luxury goods. I think the commercial experience of negotiating contracts, working in a client-facing capacity and building strong relationships will stand me in good stead in my future career.
What previous legal and non-legal work experience did you gain prior to graduating? How did this help you discern your career path?
I did several legal internships and insight programmes during school and University holidays - about eight, and was also a Brand Manager for DLA Piper on campus from September 2021 to April 2022. The majority of my legal experiences were for commercial law firms but I also interned at a firm specialising in family and personal injury law because I wanted to try a different area of law and confirm I wanted to eventually go down the commercial route. I found that every insight scheme and internship I did made me more and more eager for a career in commercial law and really emphasised that this was what I was interested in. Coming from a non-law background, it was important to get as much exposure as possible to see the different types of work involved. This also came in handy when applying to firms as it showed recruiters that I was committed to a career in the industry and had given lengthy consideration as to whether it was right for me. It was also good to explore different firms as they all have their particular practice area strengths and I could see where might be a good fit for me.
I also worked as a research assistant for a lecturer in Legal Anthropology in the summer of 2020 during which time I researched the socio-legal impacts of movements such as police defunding and statute removal. This was really topical at the time as it came shortly after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. I think this helped me see interplay between anthropology and law and also explore how you could approach law from an interdisciplinary academic perspective.
I began working as an intern in the Principal’s Office in the summer before my final year and continued in the role for a year, until the end of the mammoth 26 graduation ceremonies in the summer of 2022. It was an incredible honour to support the administration of the University and to represent the Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor. Working with the team really elevated the quality of the work I produced and trained me in work practices of the highest standard - whether that was in conducting research, drafting written correspondence, organising events, collaborating with peers or engaging in meetings. I am very grateful for the unique opportunity and it remains one of the highlights of my student experience.
What made you interested in working as a solicitor for Allen & Overy? Were there any alternative post-graduation law paths that you were interested in before choosing your current one?
Like I mentioned previously, I was pretty much set on a career in commercial law from when I was at school. I had dipped my toes in the waters of academic legal anthropology, family law and personal injury law but my interest in commercial law was only more firmly confirmed as time passed.
I had interned at Allen & Overy in their Abu Dhabi office in 2016 and it had always been a dream firm of mine. I remember being 17, incredibly nervous and very inexperienced; for context, I will only start training at the firm when I am 25 so I was way off actually joining the firm at the time but the team was so incredibly welcoming and encouraging. They spoke to me as a peer and were very generous with their advice and support. So that already established a really strong affiliation for the firm. Moreover, this experience highlighted that A&O is inherently a global firm, which resonated with my own experiences living in and travelling to different countries across the world and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds.
A&O also has a strong reputation for excellence across a range of different practice areas and is renowned for the quality for its training programme. These were two very important factors determining my choice in the firm because, at this crucial stage of my professional career, I wanted to make sure I develop industry-leading practices and have the opportunity to learn from the best lawyers in the field. Furthermore, A&O is frequently at the forefront of legal innovation - they were recently the first Magic Circle law firm to introduce Artificial Intelligence technology through the Chat GPT-style ‘Harvey’ chatbox. This gives me hope for the longevity of my career with a forward thinking firm that adapts to contemporary change.
How are you finding the next stage of working towards the Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) and the Solicitors Qualifying Exam?
I started the PGDL in January 2023 and have found it so fascinating! I had heard about various legal concepts through my internships and while writing and editing articles but it is exciting to formally learn these in a structured and systematic way. I’m also in a class with other A&O future trainees and it’s great to start to build that network and make friends that you’ll be working with in the years to come.
I am studying contract, public, tort and company law this semester so not all of it is directly relevant to my future career but it is still very interesting to cover and helps you understand more about the processes and procedures that affect your daily life. For example, this week in our public law workshop we looked at the power - or lack thereof, that courts have to block or prevent legislation within the context of the ‘Small Boats Bill’ currently making headlines.
There is an incredible amount of information and it moves so swiftly; I feel like I just moved to London and I am nearly halfway through the course! But the materials BPP University provides are really clear and engaging and over time concepts start clicking and it’s a great sense of achievement when you realise you’ve retained the names of cases or legal principles.
I am also really grateful to St Andrews for preparing me well - I think the academic riguour and excellence that the University emphasises established good study practices which made the PGDL more manageable. For instance, we had similarly short semesters at St Andrews, with 10 or so weeks of teaching followed by exams, and so the structure of the PGDL didn’t come as a complete culture shock. Also the PGDL involves learning the concepts yourselves through study materials and then discussing these in a tutor-led workshop. This is a very interactive style of learning and I found that my lectures and tutorials at St Andrews, which were also heavily discussion based and required independent research, helped me adjust well.
While aspiring lawyers from non-law backgrounds are no longer required to do the law conversion, I would still highly recommend it. The SQE - which all aspiring lawyers need to undertake, tests all of the modules of the PGDL (and then some) and therefore the conversion course is a great way of preparing for those exams.
Looking back at the St Andrews Law Review, what are you most proud of and what are your hopes for its future?
The St Andrews Law Review is one of my proudest achievements and it is an absolute pleasure to see how it is thriving even after I’ve graduated. I’m really grateful to and proud of every single writer, editor and executive member, both past and present, who have committed their time and effort to making the publication what it is today. It was a project I was very interested in but I could not have sustained it on my own. So it’s really fulfilling to see that others are similarly passionate and dedicated to it. I’ve stayed in touch with so many former team members and it's wonderful to share and reflect on that common experience which has shaped our University experience.
All I can hope for is that people continue to want to discuss their interests through the Law Review and that, in the process, they find like-minded individuals with whom they can share their opinions and foster critical discourse. I hope that for non-law students, the Law Review makes legal conversations more accessible and less daunting by demonstrating that they can bring various interdisciplinary perspectives to issues. Regardless of what shape their legal career takes, I hope that the team and readers find that the Law Review community has supported them and that they can stay in touch with peers and colleagues.
Do you have any advice for non-law undergrad students who are thinking of pursuing a career in law?
It is really easy to feel nervous when applying for a legal career if you haven’t studied law. However, the legal concepts can easily be taught very quickly. In fact, it is a lot more interesting when you’re able to bring different academic backgrounds to your teams and work environments. A lot of people in my PGDL class have worked in different industries for several years and then decided on a career change and it is really fascinating to hear about their life experiences and to see how they approach problem solving and client issues based on their external knowledge.
Therefore, I would recommend that non-law students take advantage of any and every opportunity that comes their way. It doesn’t necessarily need to be legal work or extracurricular activities but any experience that can develop key transferable skills and makes you a more well-rounded individual. Have a hobby that you’re interested in and dedicate time and effort to honing your abilities - it really makes for an fascinating candidate to speak to and a fun colleague to work with.
And of course, consider contributing to the Law Review!