Lawyers serve a huge variety of clients, from families to celebrities to big businesses and beyond. With this in mind, it makes sense that lawyers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Shaun Cook of Hogan Lovells is one lawyer who entered the profession from a non-law background. We caught up with him.
The path to law doesn’t always begin by studying law. This is a fairly obvious truth: many people contemplating a career in the law will already know that you can ‘convert’ to law after studying a different subject at university. But with the way it’s sometimes positioned, you’d be forgiven for concluding that a non-law degree is something of a handicap.
The reality is, it can be an advantage. Increasingly, law firms are called upon to advise on more than simply the technicalities of the law. They’re asked to assess the broader context of the marketplace and understand the client’s business—in other words, they’re invited to act as business advisers. In these situations, interests and experiences that lie outside the sphere of law are invaluable, because they can bring a different perspective on the challenge at hand.
This is precisely the approach taken at Hogan Lovells—a leading international firm that actively looks for future lawyers from a variety of backgrounds and degree disciplines. In fact, each year 50% of the trainees Hogan Lovells takes on didn’t study law as a degree. They’ve studied arts, languages, sciences, technology, maths. Some have even changed careers.
It’s not an obvious launch pad for a legal career, but for Shaun Cook, now an associate at Hogan Lovells, it provided a satisfyingly steep learning curve. Before joining as a trainee, Shaun had graduated with a degree in philosophy and natural sciences from Cambridge University. Now, he’s enjoying a role in Hogan Lovells’ Business Restructuring and Insolvency team. So how did he get here?
“I left university in the summer of 2012 and started working in London in a variety of jobs, including working for the NHS and in recruitment for (of all things) the legal sector. I really enjoyed the work and learned many skills that have stood me in good stead since I started at the firm, from simple things such as how to work in an office environment to more important skills such as client management and hitting deadlines. I knew these weren’t permanent jobs, but the opportunity to experience other areas of work was good preparation before starting my career at Hogan Lovells.”
Despite a fair amount of experience of the working world, for Shaun, actually experiencing life at the firm was pivotal. “I did the winter vacation scheme in 2012. For someone like me—from a non-law background—it was a great opportunity to come into the firm and get an insight into what a City lawyer does and the types of work that Hogan Lovells offers.
“During my training contract I had the chance to do seats in finance, real estate and litigation before finishing with a secondment to our Washington DC office. Being able to experience all these different fields and getting to go abroad has really given me a broad understanding of the law in general, and since qualifying, I have been working on building up a depth of knowledge in my practice area specifically.”
So, when you’re coming from a non-law background, what’s the best way to build your career? “When you’re starting out with the firm, I think it’s important to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. Not just in terms of the work you get involved with, but things such as pro-bono projects and sports teams too. Taking on as much as you can gives you the best chance of finding out what you’re really passionate about, before you qualify and begin your road towards specialisation.
“My own focus for the next few years is to become as strong a technical lawyer as I can be. I’m also keen to improve my client relationship and business-development skills. That’s something the firm emphasises early on in your training contract. And it continues throughout your time as an associate, with training sessions and development programmes. It’s all designed to help you become a more rounded and successful lawyer, whatever foundation you’ve started from.”