Get in to Commercial Law
“Get into” is an interview series that aims to encourage individuals to consider professions they traditionally thought was out of reach. In our first segment, we will be speaking to talented trainee lawyer Orin Begum (OB) from Clifford Chance. Orin talks about a range of things from life as a trainee to the challenges faced by minorities in the world of corporate law. So, to learn about Orin’s journey along with the opportunities available at Clifford Chance and other magic circle law firms, read on.
Hi Orin, as a current trainee lawyer, what does your average day look like?
OB: My day-to-day schedule includes drafting documents, accepting comments on documents from various parties on the deals, jumping on conference calls, negotiating, I mean you name it. But regardless of what department I’m in, the role of a trainee is very high responsibility. That’s not to say you’re on your own, the team sit down with you and guide you through the process, telling you who’s involved etc. However, as a trainee, you’re the first line of defence. So, I’m constantly liaising with clients trying to move a deal forward as much as possible.
You took part in Clifford Chance’s PRIME Programme (details on programmes are below). What has your journey been like from Prime to Trainee?
OB: I got involved with the PRIME programme at Clifford Chance through the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF). Having grown up only a stone's throw from Canary Wharf, when the SMF advertised this opportunity, I felt that I should take it up and see what the financial hub of the UK looks like from the inside. The only reason I would normally head into Canary Wharf before was when I was passing through it to get to somewhere else, so I wouldn’t have stopped and thought about the work that goes on here. I applied for the PRIME programme thinking I would get a week’s work experience in a building in Canary Wharf. But I sat with a senior associate who really taught me a lot, I got to learn what the make-up of the firm was like and I realised that the people who work here were not robots but very real and welcoming people who come from all walks of life. I made sure to stay in touch with the graduate recruitment team and they followed my journey through university, and by the time I got to my final year I knew them very well.
But, funnily enough, when I applied for a vacation scheme with Clifford Chance in my second year at university, I was unsuccessful. I was really disheartened at first because I really felt like Clifford Chance was the best fit for me and definitely my firm of choice. I applied to 6 law firms for vacation schemes, and I got rejected from 5 of them. This was when I learned that rejection is a big part of life and that I need to figure out how to take it in my stride. I was, however, successful in securing a vacation scheme Baker McKenzie after a very rigorous 5 stage assessment process. I actually ended up having an amazing time at Baker McKenzie; I spent 3 weeks doing some very interesting work and getting to know the firm and its ethos. I did, however, apply for a training contract with Clifford Chance too in order to keep my options open. It transpired that both Clifford Chance and Baker McKenzie ended up offering me a training contract which I was not expecting at all. It was a tough decision but (as cliché as it sounds) I went with my heart and accepted the offer from Clifford Chance.
After graduating, I decided to take 6 months out of studying and work just to recover from the stress and pressure of finals and relax a little before going back into studies. I eventually started to my LPC course with the rest of my cohort at Clifford Chance which the firm paid for as well as provided us with a maintenance grant to see us through the6-month long LPC. This was when I learned that if Clifford Chance sees talent in you they will do everything in their power to keep you, and this includes investing in you financially. Now it’s been a year and three months since I started at the firm in September 2017 and time has absolutely flown by!
Did anything hold you back when applying?
OB: Here’s the thing. Having grown up on a council estate on the Isle of Dogs, there was always a noticeable divide between those who live on the Island and those who work in Canary Wharf. While the divide may have faded a little it definitely still exists. As I previously mentioned, I would very rarely come to Canary Wharf, and when I did, I felt so out of place. This divide is a really powerful thing; it makes people think they can’t cross that boundary, it made me feel like I didn’t belong in the world of professional services and had it not been for initiatives like the PRIME programme, I would have felt very apprehensive about approaching a career I had no exposure to. I don’t have any lawyers in my family, neither of my parents went to university, and I didn’t know of anyone in law who looked like me, spoke like me or was even the same gender as me, so the social mobility initiatives that firms like Clifford Chance employed, really opened up doors for me that I never knew existed.
Why is it important to have diverse candidates in high-level roles?
OB: If we’re going to be a global law firm and market ourselves to all corners of the world, it doesn’t make sense to have a strictly white, male, middle-class workforce. On any given day I’m liaising with clients across the globe and speaking to a local counsel in those respective countries. Law is essentially a people business. So, you can be great at running deals, but if a client doesn’t have an affinity for you then what’s there to stop them from choosing a different firm? For example, there was an innocent incident where a colleague of mine was on a conference call with a client in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan and very innocently asked how lunch was after a break for midday prayer, and that didn’t go down very well. So, having a culturally and religiously sensitive workforce serves to strengthen our connections with our clients.
And having seen what Clifford Chance does to try and increase diversity, I definitely don’t think it’s lip service. They put so much funding and so much manpower into their initiatives. For example, when I participated in the PRIME Programme, it was a one-week programme with 5 students. Now, the scheme has grown so much that there are two intakes with around 25 students on each round.
I think the main issues or disagreements surrounding diversity initiatives come from those who don't see how diversity can be reconciled with a meritocracy. As a result, they feel that positive programmes like PRIME disadvantage other applicants, but that’s not the case, we’re simply trying to tap into a whole new pool of talent that we would have otherwise shut ourselves off to. We don’t employ tactics like quotas or affirmative action, but what we do have is a CV blind process, so we don’t see things like the university you went to because we want to make the application process as fair as possible. Diversity has become the political buzzword of current times, but it is not just a politically salient thing to say, economists all over the world have attested to the fact that a more diverse workforce is more profitable in the long term.
There’s a stereotype that implies only the black and ethnic minority students from Oxbridge are who firms are after, do you have any thoughts on this?
OB: I think the fact that we have a CV blind process is a testament to the fact that we do not seek our talent exclusively from Oxbridge. As I previously said, when you apply to Clifford Chance, everyone, irrespective of university, is required to pass the Watson Glaser test in order to progress to the next round. And the same CV blind process applies throughout the application process all the way up until interview, so unless you mention it during your interview, the interviewers will not know which university you went to.
I completely understand why there is this belief, because, if you look at the partnership the majority of them are from Oxbridge. But, you also have to bear in mind the time in which those partners were made up to the partnership. While we cannot change the make-up of the senior leadership now, and to be honest those partners have been instrumental in the success of the firm from its first days, what we can do is going forward be proactive in recruiting from a diverse talent pool at every stage – from the trainees all the way to the partners.
The legal industry has a long way to go in order to shift the perception that it recruits only from Oxbridge, but I think this is also something non-Oxbridge students can help us with by applying for as many opportunities within the legal industry as possible. If a more diverse range of people continue to apply to law firms like Clifford Chance, the change in the makeup of the workforce is demanded, and the momentum of that change is kept up.
What were your original perceptions of Commercial Law and how have they changed?
OB: When I first decided I wanted to go into law, I didn’t know that there were all these other types of law like finance or commercial law. I went into law thinking I was going to become a criminal barrister because that was the only kind of law you’re exposed to when you’re that young. Even when I was learning about commercial law, I still felt shut off from it, associating it with exclusivity and the Harvey Spector types. And I think a lot of people continue to associate commercial law with these specific traits, but again the only way to fight against these perceptions is to apply and disprove those myths.
The only way to get change is to demand more from it, and say ‘look, I’m here, I’ve arrived, and I’m good enough for this opportunity’. I made it, and I’m not an exception, it’s not going to change overnight, and yes, it is a gradual process but, change is happening – I'm proof of it.
What has been your biggest challenge and throughout your time as a trainee?
OB: My biggest challenge was having imposter syndrome. I felt those who were privately educated or had lawyers in their family had more exposure to the legal industry, already feeling familiar and ultimately comfortable sitting in an office, being able to work a room full of clients and network and I think not having had that and coming from a background with no legal experience, I’ve frequently questioned “am I good enough to be here?”. But the truth is I should know I’m good enough because I have worked hard to get here, and they would not have invested me if they had not seen potential in me and what I had to offer the firm. I think the self-doubt is very common when, again, you don’t see people like you in whatever industry you’re working in and having to fight against it can be a real challenge sometimes.
And finally, what has been the most rewarding part of your time as a trainee?
OB: There have been two highlights of my time here at Clifford Chance so far. The first was being able to work on a deal which involved Bangladesh's acquisition of its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner. As a Bangladeshi immigrant who came here when I was 3 years old, being part of such a historically significant deal for the country of my birth made me feel incredibly proud because I felt like I was finally able to give something back. Not only this, but actually getting involved with drafting documents which ministers would have to debate in parliament and then sign was a huge responsibility, but I am so glad I shook off the self-doubt and conducted the closing call for such an important deal. I received a lot of recognition from the team for this deal.
The second highlight was when I was asked by the graduate recruitment team to take part in a film project which depicted my journey from being a PRIME programme student to ending up as a trainee at the firm. The film allowed me to speak about the apprehensions I had going into the career, how I feel about it now and advice I would give to people who are in the same shoes I was in all those years ago. This demonstrated to me the how much Clifford Chance seek to improve the diversity of their workforce, to open doors for people who would otherwise never have considered a career with them and to be leaders in this wave of change in the legal industry that has been a long time coming.
Clifford Chance offer a variety of opportunities to further your understanding of commercial law and aid your overall development. From PRIME as mentioned above to PathMotion. For a comprehensive list of what’s available visit the Clifford Chance Careers website here.