Spotlight on Fernanda Perna-Ash, Trainee Solicitor at Vodafone

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

I have spoken about my experience in-house to law students a couple of times now. My focus has always been on my journey rather than the work itself. This wasn’t because I love talking about myself but because I believe the best contribution I can give when speaking about my experience (especially to those who haven’t yet secured a training contract) is hope. Hope that if I could make it, they can make too. Here is why.

I studied law in Brazil but left the course halfway through to marry my husband who is British. I then had to start my LLB from scratch in the UK.

Bristol University was my dream, but as an international student, I couldn’t afford to study at a bricks and mortar university. I started to doubt I would be able to complete my degree at all, until I met Pascal*, an elderly homeless man, in a church meeting.

Pascal told me his dream had always been to become a lawyer and said he would try to read law with the Open University (“OU”) and suggested it could work for me too. A few months later, I enrolled in an LLB with the OU. Unfortunately, I never met Pascal again to tell him that I had completed my degree, but now and then I quietly thank him for that tip and hope he had the chance to study law too.

I believe the best contribution I can give when speaking about my experience (especially to those who haven’t yet secured a training contract) is hope.

I always performed well in exams, but never as well as I had revised for. I knew there was something not quite right, as my short-term memory was really bad, reading was a challenge and I was comically slow with my handwriting. It was only in the last year of my degree that I was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia. This was an important step as I was then able to work on techniques and strategies to overcome my challenges. However, it also contributed to my self-doubt: I was in my mid-twenties, trying to read law in my second language, at a distance-learning university and now officially dyslexic. Could I realistically become a Solicitor? The answer seemed to be loud and clear, but I’m stubborn and just continued trying.

Despite over 100 applications, I never passed the first stage of any selection for vacation schemes, paralegal roles or training contracts. I achieved really good academic results, but I didn’t have UCAS points (as my previous education was all in the Brazilian system), so applications to traditional law firms were a challenge. By contrast, I had a really good experience when I interviewed at a law firm which was an alternative business structure (ABS) and was getting really close to offers in large corporations. I understood this not as a barrier to my career in law but that I was potentially more suited to work in a company rather than a traditional law firm.

I secured a one-year paid legal internship at General Electric Capital, the financial arm of the American multinational conglomerate. I couldn’t be luckier with my first experience in the corporate world. I worked with some professionally outstanding and kind-hearted people who taught me so much. This experience showed me that training (and subsequently pursuing a career) in-house was right for me. I loved the idea that I could be working with my colleagues in areas such as Operations, Commercial, Finance and Risk, adding value that went far beyond just legal advice.

During my work experience, I exchanged emails with a Trainee Solicitor at Vodafone (so I thought). I was so excited to see that such an interesting company had in-house trainees. I then started my journey to find my way into the Vodafone legal team.

As it turned out, Vodafone UK didn’t have in-house trainee solicitors (but instead had trainees seconded from law firms). However, following my research, I discovered that Vodafone had a license to offer training contracts, and so I continued with my plan and I applied for Vodafone’s Graduate Scheme and was offered a place in the Corporate and External Affairs stream.

I was placed in the Corporate Security team (and briefly in the Risk, Compliance and Privacy team) and although this wasn’t my end goal, I soaked up the all knowledge I could. Meanwhile, I networked endlessly; which to begin with felt completely alien and awkward to me. I sought introductions from my mentors until I got a chance to sit face to face with the then Head of Enterprise Legal. This was a chance to speak to someone that was incredibly talented and whom I had heard was really fun to chat to. This was also my chance to make myself known and show my aspirations to join the Legal team. By the end of the chat, I had laughed so much, and was told that a training contract was on the table and had been invited to apply for a paralegal role.

I was offered the paralegal role and spend over a year being managed by one of the lawyers who interviewed me for the role. I had the chance to learn from this phenomenal lawyer who was very generous in imparting her knowledge and experience onto me. That’s one of the amazing things about training and working in-house; because the structure is usually so flat and we have colleagues from all walks of life, we get the chance to benefit from such a vast amount of experience, even from people a lot more senior than us.

I was extremely focused on my application for the training contract; but on the day I was going to submit it, I found out I was pregnant. The initial happy shock was tainted with doubt. Surely now I can’t be a Solicitor? Will I be able to take maternity leave? How can I train, having a small child at home? Despite these doubts, with the support of my husband, I decided to go ahead with my application and to believe we would just find a way to make it work.

I was offered the training contract and was immediately strongly supported by my seniors (and team in general) when I announced I was pregnant. Now I have a 15-month old beautiful daughter and am training in my 3rd seat in Privacy Law and Data Protection. So yes, I’d say we have been finding a way to make it work.

I’m sure it would be an unfair and daft generalisation to say that I could never train in any traditional law firm, given my background and circumstances. In fact, I don’t have the experience in private practice (other than rejected applications) to make any assertions on the subject. However, I can say for sure that my experience working in-house has helped me to recognise the value of my non-traditional background; I see it as an asset and fully embrace that. I feel empowered and excited about my career not only as a lawyer, but as an integral part of the business.

*not his real name

This article was first published on: inlaw