Ben's journey from the RAF to Trainee Solicitor at Bird & Bird

What is your background?

I studied Microbiology at the University of Sheffield, initially with aspirations of becoming a field virologist. When it came to the third-year crunch, however, I decided to do something a little more vigorous and, at the promptings of a like-minded friend, tried out for the Royal Air Force. Much to my surprise (given that I had never even touched the controls of an aircraft before) I was offered a commission as a pilot.

Thus began my 12-year stint in the RAF – 6 months of Initial Officer Training at RAF College Cranwell (running around in the mud with pine poles and marching in shiny shoes), followed by three years of flying training at various stations around the UK. A brief dalliance with fast jets came to a very justifiable end, and I ended up training to fly the RAF’s fleet of Lockheed L-1011 Tristar air transport and air-to-air refuelling aircraft. I spent over seven very happy years on the fleet, four as co-pilot and a further three and a bit as captain, operating for the vast majority of the time in and out of Afghanistan servicing Op HERRICK.

Attribution: Photo: RAF/MoD/MOD, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/

What attracted you to a career in law?

I had a great time in the RAF, but I knew I didn’t want to stay in for longer than my initial 12-year commission. Most of my contemporaries were planning to leave and join the various airlines, but I wanted something with a little more variety and intellectual challenge, and, with a young family, something that would mean I would be home at evenings, weekends and holidays. I spent a good deal of time considering my next career choice, as I knew it would be difficult to change again. I had developed an interest in the law after completing an Open University Master’s in philosophy, and decided to explore whether city law firms would be interested in a candidate with my background before committing. With the rough idea that I should like to carry across my aviation experience into law, I googled ‘aviation law firm’, and (wait for it) up came Bird & Bird as the top hit. So I explored their site a little bit, and came across something very similar to this blogpost, by a chap who had left the British Army and joined the firm. I decided to email the Graduate Recruitment team with my CV to see if they would consider my application, mentioning the article I’d read. The Grad team were really helpful, and offered to arrange a meeting for me in London with the ex-Army fellow. I took them up on the offer, and had a really helpful meeting, which convinced me that I could succeed in commercial law, and gave me a good set of pointers to develop my CV.

I took the plunge, and enrolled to complete the GDL part-time, whilst I finished my last few years in the RAF. Fortunately, I really enjoyed studying law, and began looking at which firms I should apply for. I also considered joining the bar, and completed some mini-pupillages. I enjoyed the court-based aspect of life at the bar, but not so much the idea of working as an individual rather than as part of a larger team. I decided to focus on law firms which were great at the sectors I was interested in – IP and aviation – but which were also of a size and outlook which would make me attractive to them and vice versa. This narrowed the market down to about four firms, and so, on completing my GDL, I made straightforward training contract applications to them. Being as I was still serving, and as I did not have sufficient leave, I couldn’t at that point go down the vacation scheme route.

How did you find the application process?

My first round of applications did not even result in a single interview, which was a bit of a blow, especially as my recent academic results were pretty good. However, I have never lacked self-confidence (however misplaced), and so threw myself into applications for the next year’s vacation schemes. I asked a Bird & Bird partner I had met at a recruitment open evening I had been invited to for some advice on my applications, and she was very helpful. This time, I was offered the chance to complete a video interview, and then invited to an interview and assessment day. Despite the daunting moniker, this was actually a really fun day, with the opportunity to chat to current trainees, meet other applicants, and take part in some fun tasks. The whole atmosphere was friendly and helpful, and designed to get the best out of us.

Please tell us about your time on the vacation scheme

I was fortunate enough to be offered a placement on the summer vacation scheme, and asked to sit in the IP department. The 3-week scheme was brilliant; I got to do some real work, enjoy some sport and socialising, met loads of people at the firm, and also to spend some time in the aviation department. At the end of the scheme, I was offered a training contract, which I accepted without hesitation, having experienced at first-hand how friendly and engaging life at Bird & Bird was. I completed my LPC with BPP, and then, with the extra year, took the opportunity to gain some non-law commercial experience, first with RBS and then with Wincanton, a logistics company. I gained some great new skills, including working with accounts in Excel, and some good customer-facing experience in a high-pressure office.

Tell us about your time as a Trainee at Bird & Bird to date

In September 2016, I started my training contract here at Bird & Bird. So far, I’ve completed seats in IP and Aviation, and am currently in Dispute Resolution. During my IP seat, I was fortunate enough to go on secondment for three months to the IP department of a global bank, which was an amazing experience. At 36, I am the oldest in my intake (but not by as much as you might expect!), but the Grad Recruitment team do a fantastic job of selecting candidates – we are all very diverse in our backgrounds, experiences and ambitions, but there is an overlap in terms of attitude and outlook which means that we all get along like a big old house on fire. There are generally 8 to 10 of us at breakfast in the morning, and we try and have lunch together every day, work permitting. Being a small intake compared to a lot of similar-sized firms, we all know each other very well.

Being a more experienced candidate, with a first career behind me, has a lot of advantages, though of course there are a couple of disadvantages as well. I’d developed a lot of transferable soft skills, and I have a level of confidence in myself and my work which comes from having achieved in a different field previously. The confidence to work independently and have a good go at something, and to ask questions where others might not, has stood me in very good stead. I’m not as daunted by, for example, networking events as some of (but by no means all) of the younger guys and gals are, and I have a well-developed ability both to self-criticize fairly accurately, and to realize when I am out of my depth and really do need to go looking for help. There have been times when I’ve been slightly frustrated by my inability to run before I can walk, but I’ve found it has always been worthwhile doing the ‘easy’ or ‘small’ stuff as well as I can, to build confidence in supervisors, who then feel more comfortable assigning bigger and more important tasks. I’ve been able to put my previous experience to good use, especially in my Aviation seat, and my input has always been well-received.

Attribution: Sgt Pete Mobbs RAF/MOD, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/

As I mentioned, I have a young family – two children, one of whom was born six weeks into my training contract! Balancing everything has been a challenge, but the whole team at Bird & Bird, from Grad Recruitment to the partners, and everyone in between, has been incredibly understanding and helpful. There’s an understanding that having a family can bring a different perspective to your work, and there are plenty of people here who also have families, and who balance their work successfully.

Overall, whilst it has its challenges, Bird & Bird has made changing my career a satisfying and enjoyable experience, with support where I have needed it, and a real commitment to making the training contract work for every type of candidate.

Ben King, Trainee