Looking for the biggest wave: GB rower Melissa Wilson on her law career

Lucy Cavendish alumna and rower Melissa Wilson shares how she prepared for her career in law, and top tips on balancing commitments

What made you decide to do law?

I was taking a year out after my first degree to train with the GB Rowing Team, and saw Shami Chakrabarti speak at the Cambridge Union about the vital importance of Human Rights. I returned to study law hoping to eventually follow in her footsteps in training to be a human rights barrister, but I was increasingly concerned by environmental issues and now hope to practice in that area. A career in law also seems like a way to be pushed intellectually, work alongside engaged and driven people, and feel like I’m contributing to varied areas of society.

How are you developing a readiness for a career in the law?

Having finished the Affiliated Law course in June, I returned to training full-time with the national rowing squad. We train three times a day most days, with one or two Sundays off a month and a summer break of three weeks. I’ve done some mini-pupillages (internships in barristers chambers) during those breaks, but the training schedule means that other full days away from the Team are hard to arrange. We do have a couple of two-session days each week, so I’m using those afternoons to tutor a couple of Law students and volunteer for an environmental litigation charity called Plan B. Our current case concerns judicial review of the planning permission granted for a sixth Heathrow runway. It’s been invigorating to start using knowledge and skills from my degree in “real” work.

I often find myself reaching out to coaches, friends, family … anyone I think might have some advice!

How do you juggle your priorities?

Firstly, I try not to see a busy schedule as something to be stressed by. Those who know me know that I often don’t carry this off! But a couple of years ago I came across a quote that “the surfer always looks for the biggest wave”, and I try to apply that kind of perspective to times when I feel lots of different pressures – that the big challenges are what I want, and are exciting rather than problematic.

Next, if I’m finding the juggling tricky, I seek support from those around me. I wasn’t very sporty at school, so having teammates was an experience I only really gained from University and its something I really appreciate both in sport and work/general life. I often find myself reaching out to coaches, friends, family … anyone I think might have some advice!

Finally, I try to keep some clarity about what really matters to me. When I was still at school, my grandpa used to get me to write a list of the different things I had going on – at that stage stuff like GCSE subjects, music groups, DofE … and rank them in terms of what mattered most to me. His advice was that if it all got too much, just write a couple of emails and strike the last one off the list. It still works!

It turned out to just be a brilliant opportunity to speak to people from right across the sector, and actually the perfect place to ask pretty basic or stupid-sounding questions

How have you made use of the Careers Service in your career to date?

I went to a lot of talks and panel discussions at the Careers Service through my English degree to see what direction I might want to go in (exploring routes like teaching, publishing, public policy, radio, advertising, arts/heritage…), and at that stage it really helped me cross some things off and focus on others.

Each year I’d considered going to the Careers Service’s Law fair, but felt too nervous and ill-prepared. I thought I wouldn’t know what to say, or would make such bad blunders that the solicitors and barristers there would put me on some sort of mental black-list. Then, in the year after my English degree, I was working for the Careers Service at some of their events and got put on a shift for the Law one. I was wearing an oversized, Careers Service-branded, highlighter-coloured t-shirt, handing out flyers and free paraphernalia, but as soon as I was there I realised there were so many students and practitioners that even with the garish t-shirt there was no way any of them would remember me. It turned out to just be a brilliant opportunity to speak to people from right across the sector, and actually the perfect place to ask pretty basic or stupid-sounding questions.

Once doing the Law course, I’d go to panel discussions where possible and both years there was a specialist Barristers fair in the Law Faculty, which was hugely valuable for making some links ahead of mini-pupillages. I also met with the specialist Law careers adviser at the Careers Service multiple times as a sounding board for CVs and scholarship applications. When I start preparing for interviews this autumn, I’ll definitely return to the Careers Service to seek some help, too.

Looking to establish a career in law, and want some advice? See our law webpages to get started!

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