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Managing Setbacks

Updated: Apr 19

We’re generally slow to talk about setbacks. When we do, so often they’re framed in inspirational setback-to-success tales which, whilst admirable, can be hard to relate to and glean any tangible application or advice from. It’s now July - vacation schemes and work experience may be virtual but are now in full swing and Linkedin status updates will undoubtedly populate the next few months. If you’re on one of these schemes, congratulations and good luck; though not what you expected, I hope that time is insightful and useful. If you’re not, then you might be watching social media feeds with disappointment, having been unsuccessful in your own applications. The below doesn’t claim to be a one-stop-shop to answer any questions, nor a rigid checklist which will fix everything, but having been asked by several readers my opinion on managing setbacks, I hope this fills a gap and helps kickstart the conversation.

Different kinds of setbacks

Setbacks come in many shapes and sizes. There will be the dramatic, route-defining moments in which setbacks define a new course of progress. I remember chasing down the postman on 12 January 2015 expectantly waiting for a very specific letter (which the dog subsequently – and very uncharacteristically! – ripped to shreds). It turned out to be a rejection from the University of Cambridge. Seven months later and I remember waking up earlier than usual having hardly slept, refreshing my UCAS account all morning until finally a notification came through. “It says Sheffield.” This was my rejection from the University of Bristol. For me, getting my insurance choice of university has been my most landmark setback in a professional sense – whilst there have been many others along the road, before and since, these two days stick in my memory as significant disappointments. I remember feeling like a failure, like I’d let myself down and that going to my “local” university was neither the message I wanted to send to the world about myself and didn’t put me in a great position for applying for vacation schemes and training contracts in future, or at least that’s what I thought at the time.

Other setbacks are mendable. You might get a poor result in a mock or a final exam. You might fail an interview or not progress through an applications process. These are undoubtedly disappointing setbacks, but their effects don’t need to set you back in the long run. One disappointing exam result needn’t drag down your total university grade. One year of unsuccessful applications doesn’t preclude you from being successful in other applications, or in different years, locations or firms.

Finally, there are the setbacks which are like daily stumbles. Everything from poor performance in a seminar to poor drafting, communication, planning or research. Work which lacks finesse, attention to detail and efficiency. Work which displays a certain immaturity in experience or which lacks effort or meaningful thought.

Managing setbacks

There’s no one-size-fits-all response to a setback; depending on age, experience, personality type, the nature of the setback etc. our responses will vary. Caveat said, there are a few things I’m increasingly learning which may be helpful to share.

Disappointment is normal

You’ve done all the background research, the drafting, proofing and studying to submit an application but you’ve just found out that you’ve missed the vacation scheme spot, the training contract opportunity, the work experience placement. This rejection could be a big disappointment. It may get you down and knock your confidence. Being upset is normal in these circumstances so don’t beat yourself up just for being disappointed – it shows that you cared. Have your moment of disappointment and indulge in your go-to pick-me-up (chocolate, cake, wine, Netflix, Nutella, you could even have the absolute luxury of a haircut and be the envy of all).

Having said this, the last thing I want this blog to be is a green light to corporately wallow in past failures. By all means ride out the disappointment for a short time, but ultimately setbacks are an opportunity to change course and that’s a really positive opportunity we can seize.

What went wrong and how can you fix it for next time?

Ask yourself (or preferably someone else) the reason for the setback. If you can, find someone appropriately placed to offer you some feedback – a lecturer, graduate recruitment, boss, friend or colleague. There are several reasons behind setbacks, most of which I think fall into the below:

  • Lack of technique

Consider asking someone to read your application before you send it – someone with capacity to offer some constructive feedback and an honest opinion. If you’re unsuccessful and it’s possible to ask graduate recruitment or whoever else has reviewed your application for a feedback call, even better. There are various ways to improve your application technique. I’ve written a separate blog on applications offering a couple of thinking points of my own, in addition ask people for advice, or explore courses, blogs, videos and lectures such as those produced by AspiringSolicitors which may help you improve your technique.

  • Lack of time/effort/attention to detail

Typos. Copy and pasted answers. Lack of research into the firm. Generic answers. Lack of knowledge of the role. Mass applications which lack specificity, or desperate attempts which lack finesse or individuality are likely to be rejected. I don’t necessarily mean that you have to shine out as an individual, but you should tailor applications to the relevant firm and role. It’s easily done, especially when in a rush. I know a recurring theme among students whilst I was at university was a sense that exams and deadlines were always around the corner and so applications could wait until after that – my advice is not to be that person. Do research over a prolonged period of time (e.g. summer holidays are a great pre-mikround time to utilise) so it doesn’t feel like a rush. Be convinced of what you’re applying for, why and why you’re a good fit. Don’t read this as an illusion that I’ve never fallen short myself – I had a pretty embarrassing call with a firm following a failed vacation scheme application in which Graduate Recruitment listed a couple of typos and seemingly generic answers which were the reason I’d failed. Make sure to give yourself time to research, reflect and review before you submit a mistake-riddled application.

  • Lack of experience

When I say this, I’m thinking about times when we make mistakes as a result of inexperience, rather than having an application rejected because a CV isn’t developed enough. On a day-to-day basis, this is one of the most common reasons for our slip-ups and setbacks. Inexperience leads to mistakes because good judgment calls, analysis, increasing your knowledge and applying that to various situations takes time, discipline and practice. Not to mention the day-to-day rumble of the workplace – how to address people, how late is too late to call someone, how should you name and save documents, how soon should you respond to a call, email or task, does that colleague need to be cc’d in your emails or is this something you can handle alone? Besides this, there’s not fully comprehending what’s market practice, meaning you don’t necessarily pick up everything of interest when you do reviews and research and may lack a clear reference point to what is "typical".

Most of these mistakes result in some mild embarrassment, perhaps a point in the right direction from a colleague and lessons learned for future. Whilst it doesn’t always feel like it, these kinds of mistakes make life much more interesting. I often think of students and junior professionals like professional toddlers (no offense intended – I wholly bundle myself into this category!). Attention to detail hasn’t fully blossomed. Legal semantics (or all of the acronyms!) aren’t yet fluid on the tongue. I haven’t attained my new goal of “second level thinking” (or at least, the second level usually hits me later than I’d like it too – it’s not yet instinctive) to go beyond what’s in front of me, really engage brain and take a view based on everything I know. I can be slow and forgetful or too quick and imprecise. All of this I find disappointing – when I miss a detail or I think of something after I sent an email there’s a pang that I could of (and perhaps should of) got that right. But I didn’t, and that can be a (small-scale) disappointing setback.

The joy in all of this is that you’re usually in a world surrounded by more professionally mature people – academics or colleagues – who you can watch, quiz, listen to and learn from. Toddlers pick things up quickly, they watch everything and see dramatic progress in a relatively short period of time. The reality of being a professional toddler means that there’s a profanity to stumble and fall over – mistakes will happen and feedback is best embraced as a way to learn, refine your technique and grow. I love being surrounded by colleagues in this way (even virtually) who I can watch and listen to, get feedback from, model myself on and learn from. As a professional toddler there's so much to learn and so much scope for growth that life in the workplace can be a very exciting opportunity if you decide to take it up.

Perhaps you’re reading this but struggling to see these kinds of mistakes in the context of university. Think of these frequent stumbles as the failures to prepare for seminars, the undeveloped conclusions, the drafts that got scrapped… In my final year, I opted to study 5 different research modules and one of my favourite phases of producing work was meeting with professors and bouncing ideas around with them, watching them reject some of my ideas and play with others. I often left their offices having changed my approach considerably and knowing I was going home to more work than I’d thought, but these little setbacks taught me much!

Try again

Some of us are keen to skip to this part and miss out all of the above – a strategy which sometimes leads to repeated setbacks. Others of us are tempted to linger, overanalysing everything that went wrong or could have been better, and we find we’re treading water and making no (or very slow) progress. Still others of us might be tempted to give up after any setback, great or small.

None of the above are great responses to setbacks. All of the above has to ultimately culminate in some kind of reformed approach and a recalibrated perspective. You don’t have to apply for the same thing twice, but you can still take some lessons from the setback and apply them moving forward.

University in Sheffield

Tomorrow, it will be exactly a year since I graduated from the University of Sheffield – that wonderful institution I’d felt so reluctant to go to became home for three years and it seems only fair that I wrap up by giving you the 2020 perspective on what was initially a disappointment. I left Sheffield having loved my degree! I was taught by incredible professors who kindly gave of their time, helped me understand their ideas and foster and tailor my own. I lived in Aix-en-Provence for a year – something I couldn’t have done had I gone to Bristol or Cambridge! – and studied French law. I travelled to Milan and did a research project at a US firm where my love of all things Fintech and new enthusiasm for espresso truly blossomed. I did pro bono for a year in the Sheffield law clinic. I won a writing competition on Fintech and separately got an essay published in the European Law Blog (a fun diversion from corporate law indulging in a comparison of supranational citizenship regimes – available here if you fancy a read!). I don’t want this to be an “I did so you can too” ending. I also don’t want this to come across as self-promotion – the list of things I applied for and failed to get whilst at university is much longer than the above list of things I did achieve! Sheffield was the right place for me and I think it’s only fair to come full circle and say that it most definitely wasn’t the disappointment I’d feared. There was some truth in the things I’d felt back in 2015 though. I feel acutely aware that lots of law firms don’t make it quite so far up north as Sheffield. I know that most of my peers didn’t know whether, or how, or when to apply for schemes (and that I only knew after hours trawling the web for guidance). I know that going to schemes, I often felt imposter syndrome, being the northern girl who went to a northern uni, with no family background in law. More can definitely be done, by students, by firms, by universities and by the profession more widely to increase exposure to law and ensure that perceived setbacks don’t have a domino effect, precluding students from jobs and roles.

Present day

Let’s finish in the present. These days I work as trainee at a law firm. Colleagues have been wonderful role models – they nudge me in the right direction and I gain so much from watching them and hearing their feedback. Sometimes mistakes I make are embarrassing and often they’re unnecessary or avoidable. Today I’m preparing for more run-ins with excel – a personal nemesis – and determined to prove to myself and my team that I can stay calm and concentrating even when I’m looking at a spreadsheet. Not just concentrating, but that I can actively engage brain and think about what the numbers are, what they represent and what difference that makes. In other words, that somehow, I can overcome all the mistakes I’ve made in the past three months and demonstrate that my brain works with numbers as well as words. I’m gearing up to choose my next seat – to be attentive to where I’d like to go and open to where I end up, even if these two things don’t perfectly align. I’m looking forward to a coffee with a colleague who is fellow northerner and I've generally been really pleasantly surprised to find myself surrounded by a little band of northern ladies at work! I’m excited to schedule coffees with vacation scheme students over coming weeks and get a flavour of what they’re up to and how they’ve found the scheme. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the mistakes and setbacks which will inevitably feature this week, but I can say that I value all that I’ll learn from them!

All that’s really left to say is good luck! Good luck in applications and work and studies. Good luck adopting a healthy attitude and learning from setbacks to improve your approach, in the knowledge that this is something that many of us are working to get better at!

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