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A way into law for students of all backgrounds: the SPARK work experience scheme

Clifford Chance’s SPARK scheme is a unique chance for exceptional students to sample a career in law and even secure a training contract offer.
I spoke to people who had degrees in mechanical engineering, languages and history,’ says Eleanor Giles-Thomson

If you are a first-year student (or in the second year of a four-year degree) Clifford Chance’s SPARK scheme, formerly known as Springboard, is one of the most exciting ways to explore a career in law. Over the course of a week, you’ll be exposed to the environment at Clifford Chance, find out more about the firm’s strategic focus, its different practice areas (specialisms), take part in interactive workshops and work-shadowing opportunities, and even go on a visit to the firm’s Amsterdam office. Successful applicants are paid £350 for the week and there is a bursary available if you need help with accommodation and travel.

The programme is open to exceptional students of all degree subjects and the firm is particularly keen for students from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) backgrounds to apply so that they can better understand how their unique skillset is a relevant and powerful differentiator when it comes to a legal career.

Saurav Zangeneh is a second-year MEng chemical engineering student at Imperial College London and is about to take part in the next SPARK scheme. He believes that STEM students don’t always recognise the massive potential they have for a career as a solicitor: ‘Some STEM students think a lawyer sits in a library with a pile of books, but law is becoming more intertwined with technology. You can see this with the number of legal issues arising with concerns such as crypto-currency and AI. Clients are more involved in the digital world and law firms need to be able to offer relevant advice. I am excited to have gained a place on SPARK to learn more.’

An early training contract offer

Uniquely among law work experience placements, SPARK gives you the opportunity to gain a training contract (the two years of on-the-job training required to qualify as a solicitor) offer at the end of it. This means that you can secure your future career in your first year, a full year before law students usually start applying – without the need to juggle coursework with job-hunting. ‘The opportunity to gain a training contract at this early stage, without having to worry about going through recruitment processes at the same time as my finals, was a huge incentive for applying,’ says Eleanor Giles-Thomson, a first-year politics with economics student at the University of Bath who will be on the next SPARK scheme.

Lewis Barton, a law student at the University of York, attended Springboard, as it was known, in 2017 and received an offer. ‘I was absolutely ecstatic,’ he says. ‘I was set on working with Clifford Chance from my first encounter with the firm. If you are seeking a first-year scheme, this is definitely the one to apply to. It’s a fantastic experience from start to finish – the exposure you gain to commercial law and the opportunity to build up contacts put you in an excellent position for the future.’

Diversity thrives in law

Clifford Chance proves that a career in commercial law at a magic circle firm – as the top five commercial law firms are known – is open to everyone, whatever their social background, university or degree choice. The firm encourages applications from a wide range of universities, not just from the Russell Group. In 2018, 40 per cent of first-year attendees were the first generation in their family to go to university. Each year, too, a number come from the firm’s PRIME work experience scheme, which is open to those who would be the first generation in their family to go to university and/or those who were eligible for free school meals.

Lewis attended PRIME, having discovered the scheme through an internet search. ‘PRIME was inspiring,’ he says. ‘It threw me into the commercial law sphere and clarified that this was the career I wanted. I saw that if you work hard enough all the opportunities are there for you at Clifford Chance. I was nervous beforehand – when I told my teachers I was attending they just said “Wow!” – but everyone I met was friendly and approachable. When the graduate recruitment team told us about SPARK, I was determined to get a place on it and ultimately start a career with the firm.’

Eleanor is also a PRIME alumni. ‘It gave me confidence in myself and affirmed that commercial law was what I wanted to do,’ she recalls. ‘I came away hungry to learn more. We didn’t have a law society at my university, so, inspired by PRIME, I set one up. I am so excited to be going back to Clifford Chance; getting an offer from the firm would be my ideal scenario. Every time I walk into that office, with its awe-inspiring facilities, I think: just imagine being able to work here!’

Before PRIME, Eleanor worried that her choice of degree would be a disadvantage: ‘I was anxious that I wouldn’t be up to speed, but I was given a mentor who had studied politics and I spoke to people who had degrees in mechanical engineering, languages and history,’ she says. In 2018, almost a quarter of Springboarders came from non-law subjects. Clifford Chance comprises a vast range of different people – 50% of trainees come from non-law backgrounds.

STEM students suit law

The firm feels that STEM students will find their niche in the firm. Saurav started considering careers outside of engineering early on at university, including consulting and investment banking, but it was law that appealed to him. ‘In my first year, I interned in legal research and this made me realise that law is about strategy; there are so many angles to a legal case that I think the career will be constantly challenging,’ he says.

He encountered Clifford Chance at networking events. ‘I heard Clifford Chance representatives speak about FinTech and about intellectual property and litigation at student events. They went into a lot of depth about what they did and how the world was changing. I learned a lot and discovered that Clifford Chance has a reputation for being at the forefront of technological change. I found out about the SPARK scheme and I realised that very few firms offer something like this to second-year engineering students.’ Saurav is keen for other STEM students to consider law: ‘Your degree helps you build logical thought processes and a structured approach to problem-solving, which is valuable in commercial law,’ he says. ‘STEM students offer a different perspective on a legal situation. We may pick up on points that a lawyer without a tech background would perhaps miss. Certainly, if you are investigating a career in investment banking you should also consider law.’

Staying connected

SPARK itself is a week but it would be more accurately described as a year-long scheme. The firm keeps in touch with you long after the week finishes, inviting you to social events, networking events, development sessions and topical briefings. ‘Clifford Chance really makes you feel involved with the firm,’ says Lewis. ‘After Springboard I even went to see The Vamps at the O2 Arena with other Springboarders and trainees in Clifford Chance’s private box!’

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