I spoke to recent graduate and future trainee solicitor Leshandra Mandlate to find out what drew her to commercial law, how she managed to balance her studies with extracurriculars and what she did to stand out as an international student.
1. When you decided to study law, your goal was to become a human rights lawyer. What made you decide to pursue a career in commercial law instead?
I wanted to be a human rights lawyer because of my passion for human rights and community development, but I quickly learned that the reality of the work was completely different from what I thought it would be. The more I attended careers fairs at university and after taking various modules I realised that I was better suited to be a commercial lawyer. I decided to pursue a career in commercial law after the International Human Rights module I had picked was take off the module list for some reason. I ended up thoroughly enjoying it! Following that I took modules in consumer and commercial law which I also really enjoyed. A vacation scheme with a global firm in London confirmed my desire to be a corporate lawyer; the work was interesting and satisfying, and it was overall just an amazing experience.
2. Exceptional grades are no longer enough to secure a place at a good firm. Students are expected to demonstrate their commitment to becoming a solicitor from the very beginning, which means attending a variety of events and taking part in a number of extra-curricular activities, competitions and the like. How did you manage to balance all of this with networking, firm research, applications and all the rest of it?
It can be very overwhelming, so it is important to prioritise. I tried to make sure that I knew which events were happening and when so that I could pick events to attend that I felt were more useful for me and I would avoid making commitments that were too close to coursework deadlines or exams. An important factor was that I had a small group of friends from class with whom I would visit the library every weekday. They were a good support system and being in the library with them meant that I was always working on something even if I wasn’t really doing that much.
At the end of the day you want to take every opportunity you can to get where you want to be and sometimes that might mean sacrificing a few weekends of socialising to attend law events or make applications.
3. The importance of commercial awareness is undeniable. That being said, it still remains an elusive term for many law students. In your words, what is commercial awareness and how can young solicitors-to-be demonstrate it to potential employers?
Commercial awareness doesn’t have one set formula and there are many ways you can demonstrate it in interviews and on applications. Commercial awareness is essentially being able to put your work into context. Your clients will be businesses, so you have to consider how they are affected by politics and the economy. It is also important to remember that no one is expecting you to know everything that happens in the world at any given time. Pick a few interesting stories to follow and get to know them well. When I was applying for vacation schemes, for example, I was taking a consumer contract module and the question of automated vehicles came up so I kept up to date with the legal issues that would arise with driverless vehicles and was able to speak about it in interviews.
4. As international students, we are often reminded of the particular difficulty we will be faced with when it comes to securing training contracts, yet a number of other individuals from various countries, yourself included, have managed to find meaningful work in the legal industry. What do you have to say to those who are still sceptical of finding employment after graduating?
I think that it’s important as an international student to get in there early, especially if you want to enter a legal career. Apply for positions while at university, don’t wait until final year to stress about getting a job. Also, try to get as much experience doing anything while at uni.
I tried not to let negativity stop me from applying to anything even though I received a lot of rejections in the past. There is always self-doubt but if you let that control your life you can’t get far.
5. What have been your biggest career highlights to date?
The most satisfying feeling is doing something you either didn’t think you could do or doing something that you were afraid to do. During my vacation scheme I worked on an interesting case based in a different jurisdiction while sat in the Banking Litigation seat. The work I did in this seat was so satisfying because going into it I knew nothing about banking litigation but by the time I was finished with my task I knew the details of the case (there were a lot and it took me almost a week just to finish reading one claim) and was able to sit in on and follow a meeting with other lawyers.
6. Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to those currently making first-year, vac scheme or training contract applications, what would it be?
The best piece of advice I can give is to meet representatives from as many firms as possible beforehand, all of which I have elaborated on in an article here.
Leshandra completed her A-Levels at Arundel School in Harare, Zimbabwe before coming to the United Kingdom where she studied law at the University of Sussex.