James Seddon is a trainee solicitor at the Magic Circle law firm Linklaters. He has dyslexia and dyspraxia, and was unable to finish his A-levels due to health issues. He worked as a special needs music teacher for four years before going to university at 21; he completed an LLB at the University of London, where he first studied an access course at Birkbeck, and then finished his degree at SOAS.
Trying to achieve or even focus on a competitive goal can be particularly hard when you have had to overcome challenges in your life. This goal could be a coveted university place or a job that comes with high expectations and rigorous application processes. Having to properly align yourself and your experiences with these expectations and application processes can feel hopelessly difficult.
You might feel that certain aspects of your application could raise red flags for recruiters, or there could be issues outside of your control that undermine your grades. These issues could be something like a having a disability or health condition; going to an underperforming school; or having to work part-time or care for a family member during your studies.
However, these challenges can be overcome, and can even become the highlight of your application. Often, the real barrier to success lies in either expecting to fail or in not trying in the first place.
I have had to overcome a number of challenges in my life, but today I’m a trainee solicitor at the Magic Circle law firm Linklaters. Even so, I feel a long way from where I started this journey: plucking up the courage to ring university admissions officers, trying to persuade them to accept me onto their law degrees even though I didn’t have any A-levels.
I had to work hard getting over that first hurdle: simply being eligible to start my degree. But, that drive, positivity, and patience not only got me a university place, it also brought me academic success in my degree and got me a job at a prestigious law firm.
The key lesson that I take away from this journey is that, when you are competing with others, being ‘normal’ or ‘average’ is not necessarily an advantage. Here, success is less about keeping up with other candidates and meeting conventional standards; instead, it is about embracing the fact that remarkable people often have remarkable backgrounds, and can do remarkable things. This means that overcoming challenges in your life can give you an edge over your competitors. You just need to have the confidence in yourself to use it for your own benefit.
You have to remember that obtaining a competitive place at university, or being offered a competitive job, is hard for everyone. Being offered my job was not difficult solely because of my situation, it was difficult full stop. The challenges that I have had to overcome gave me the ability to approach things differently, set myself apart from others and, most importantly, made me determined to succeed. It is these things that mark success, not conventionality. It is these skills that employers really value.
Applying for jobs
The advice that I would give to people who have overcome challenges in their lives, such as those who may have had difficulties in their past or who have a disability, is: don’t hide from it – use it. If you’re open about these things, then you can maximise your rare abilities and, perhaps more importantly, can take control over how these things are viewed by other people.
When I applied to Linklaters, I didn’t just explain my background, ask for special consideration, and then stop there. I remember calling the firm’s graduate recruitment team to discuss my background and training contract application. I didn’t ask for their compassion and generosity. Instead, I spent roughly 30 seconds explaining my ‘unconventional route’, and then five minutes explaining why it made me a strong, hardworking, and creative individual that they should hire.
I know that without everything that has happened in my life and everything that makes me who I am, I would not have achieved what I have achieved today. I take pride in my background and experiences, and I know that my success is due, at least in part, to what makes me different.
Tips when applying for jobs
- Firms receive applications from hundreds of people and want to hire the rare, special, talented people amongst them – your challenges can be the thing that sets your application apart.
- Graduate recruitment teams are experienced professionals whose job is to find outstanding candidates – trust their professionalism if you chose to disclose challenges to them.
- If you chose to disclose information when making an application, then control the story. Don’t simply inform them, but take the time to explain how you see it and don’t be afraid to sell yourself with it. It is your story, so tell it in your own way.
- Use your challenges as a reason to speak to recruitment teams. Becoming known and creating a rapport with them is one of the most valuable things you can do when applying for a job. I called the Linklaters graduate recruitment team several times both before and after I submitted my application. Each time I was able to sell myself and become better known to them.
- Often the key difference when making applications between those who have overcome challenges and those who haven’t is confidence. If you have managed to achieve a goal in the face of adversity, then the challenges that you overcame will not lessen your application. Instead, they make your achievements even more remarkable and make you stand out compared to those who achieved similar goals, but without facing similar difficulties. Feel confident that your challenges can boost your application, not undermine it.