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Training up

When Cara Pritchard left school at sixteen, she had no idea that a career as a solicitor in one of the UK’s best-known media companies, Guardian Media Group, awaited. She tells us about her in-house training contract and the support she has received from her boss, Sarah Davis.
By Catherine Wycherley

‘I got called to do jury service at the Old Bailey,’ Cara recalls, ‘and it lit a spark.’ But without A Levels or a degree, Cara found that many legal doors were closed to her. She went back to college and studied to be a legal secretary, working part-time at a call centre. Eventually she got a job as a legal PA at Sainsbury’s.

But in 2007, everything changed when Cara went to work for the Guardian as PA to group commercial legal director Sarah Davis. Fuelled by the degree of responsibility she was given – ‘she was doing a paralegal job long before we called it a paralegal job,’ says Sarah – Cara enrolled at Birkbeck, University of London. Over four years, while working full-time, she gained a law degree.

Sarah’s extremely able PA was now an ambitious would-be solicitor, and Cara wasted no time in pitching to her boss for a training contract – despite the fact that no such scheme was in place. ‘I was delighted,’ says Sarah, ‘because Cara was such an obvious mound of potential. She was interested and diligent, so why wouldn’t you support and encourage that?’

Of course, not every in-house department could rustle up a bespoke training contract scheme, but it wasn’t as difficult as Sarah feared. Before being put off, Sarah advises other legal heads to look closely at their own businesses, because they will find existing models – even if they are outside of legal. ‘Finance team members, for example, do their professional qualifications whilst employed,’ she points out.

Another challenge was providing all the seats that Cara needed to be able to qualify. But Sarah was encouraged by the willingness of law firms to step in and plug the gaps. ‘In-house departments are well-placed to deliver training contracts because we’ve got relationships with external lawyers who have offered the seats that we can’t provide in-house – either trainee swaps or secondments,’ she says.

Despite limited resources, the legal team has been fully on board. ‘We’re a team of six,’ says Sarah. ‘But they have really relished the opportunity to take on some training duties for their own development and management experience. So it’s a nice opportunity to provide development opportunities for people in a relatively small in-house department’.

Without the traditional qualifications required for a solicitor role, Cara might well have given up on a legal career. Her tenacity and ability spurred her on, and Cara’s colleagues, not least Sarah, admired this spirit. But on top of talent, successful candidates need confidence. ‘One of the areas that I find particularly under-addressed when we think about diversity is confidence,’ says Sarah. ‘That can be affected by socio-economic background, or even cultural differences.’ Diverse candidates are constantly managing their difference, and an unfamiliar environment can sap the confidence and self-belief that are key ingredients for success. Non-diverse candidates, on the other hand, often possess these in spades. ‘We’ve had pupils come in and do work experience, and they’re so socially accomplished! That’s no criticism; it’s absolutely brilliant. But it’s such an advantage, and they have no idea that they have it. The challenge is how do you instil that in young people who don’t?’

Thanks to a supportive environment, Cara’s confidence has grown. ‘Eight years ago, if I was sitting in a meeting I wouldn’t have spoken up, or if I did, I wouldn’t have expected my point of view to be thought of as valid. But now,’ she says, “it’s the total opposite. What I say has an impact on the situation and people appreciate my point of view.’

Would Sarah run a similar scheme for another promising candidate? ‘I think Cara’s an exceptional example,’ she says, ‘but I also think we could do it again because the infrastructure’s there. We’ve found that we can support it. It takes commitment and you have to be prepared to properly give the time, effort and energy to the trainees. But there’s a real appetite in the team to do it.’

 

 

 

 

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