"Long stints in the office gets me restless, so I take a walk around the block a few times before returning to my desk"Anthony DELANOIX/Unsplash

What do I want out of life, and how will I get there? That’s a question we’re given little time to ask ourselves at Cambridge. We spend so much of it driving in a particular direction without knowing precisely where we’re going – and often it’s the golden lights of the City that draw us in.

So I applied to a handful of commercial law internships over the winter. I knew others who were applying to dozens of them without much luck, but trying out the corporate world felt like the thing to do. It’s the next rung on the ladder. I’m also a privately-educated white man, so I thought, at the very least, I’d look the part.

Yet how often do we get to witness the day-to-day realities of the City life?

So I seized the opportunity and made some notes during my time there.

Day 1 – Enter boardroom. Clusters of fresh faces making small-talk. After making tea, I join the nearest circle. Try to cut tension by picking up breakfast item from across the room – bacon brioche. The rest is lying there, beckoning me. I’ll never understand why food in corporate spaces is always left so unsatisfyingly uneaten.

Rest of the day spent in health and safety talks. Get a load of free stash, which is superb. Timetable for scheme is busy. Talks by different departments, workshops, and office-time shadowing with our own solicitors.

Later, I meet my solicitor. An Oxford Historian. Like I was reconstituted in papier-mâché form, with my bucket CV for plaster-caste.

Minor existential crisis on the Tube home as I contemplate how conventional I have become. Sleep.

Day 2 – After one year at the firm no one can tell the difference between Law and non-Law undergraduates, according to my solicitor. I smile to myself in macabre satisfaction, having prudently avoided the labours of undergraduate Law. Then a keen fellow intern brings up ‘Due Diligence’ and I feel lost again.

Day 3 – Workshop on ‘responsible business’ – one of those corporate euphemisms of which I tend to be sceptical. Usual buzzwords come up.

Day 4 – Taken to a local theatre for workshop on body language. Summary: manspreading really is the route to success! In addition to: direct eye contact; and firm handshakes. Boys school really worked wonders.

Spend the rest of the day performing my best Justin Trudeau impression, speaking deliberately and directly in an effort to project benign authority.

It’s early days with my fellow interns but I’m feeling less intimidated by them. In between discussing scraps of the FT, one asks me which other firms I’m considering. I name the other few that I applied to (which all rejected me at the online test stage). Got to wing it to win it. I’m sure this professional façade will fade soon enough, and we can all return to acting like confused, overwhelmed students. Because we all are.

So spend some more time asking yourself that overwhelming question, because sometimes there isn’t the option to turn back

Day 7 – We’ve had presentations from just about every department in the firm and now the timetable is looking empty. Just me and my solicitor in a shared office for the next few days.

Long stint in the office gets me restless, so I take a walk around the block a few times before returning to my desk. Continue work preparing notes for my solicitor’s report, but doubtful about how useful I am. Suspicion my work will be torched when I leave.

Day 9 – Workshop on interviews was cancelled and now I’m sitting in my office with my associate. Other interns are making habit of long ‘coffee breaks’ downstairs. Starting to join those. My guy doesn’t seem that bothered. He may be secretly reporting on me.

Day 11 – The partner in charge of recruitment walks into the boardroom where we’ve gathered for another talk in preparation for final day interviews. “At the end of the day, commercial law is the highly-paid application of common sense,” he tells us. We laugh, but most of us are absolutely intent on proving it. He’s a robust handshake of a man, with hawk-eyes staring, Justin Trudeau-like, at each of us in turn.

Day 12 – Final day, the interview. One hour written exercise, then an interview with partners from the firm. Feeling pressed for time during the written trial but interview flew by like a good conversation.

Coach home to Edinburgh. Leaving London, the bus turns into the M1 and I’m informed that I’ve just entered ‘The North’, otherwise known as Watford.

So, I was still doubt-ridden about my future. Admiring myself in a crisp suit in the bathroom mirrors (which I may or may not have frequented too often) didn’t seem to help much either. Don’t be mistaken – I looked great. I just needed more time to see myself there.

I’ve delighted in the liberty of keeping my options open in life until now. My future, however, seemed a lot more real as I passed through those glass doors every morning into an office chair. Suddenly those stray thoughts scribbled on scrap pieces of paper, those ideas and intentions about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, had to become reality.

Cambridge offers us a highway. We can get anywhere we want at cruising speed. We can view from an elevated position the winding off-roads and turn-offs which others have taken. We can even turn onto them at the next junction, if we so choose.

I know others who’ve done so already. Take the lawyers and doctors, for example, who took their turns in sixth-form; the dreamers who sent themselves off packing to drama school or music conservatoire; and those who didn’t bother to take a road at all, choosing to go their own, meandering way, perhaps in a foreign country.


Mountain View

Can I keep up? My first few days at Cambridge

While our LinkedIn accounts may present a colourful itinerary from success to success, let’s just remind ourselves, now and again, that we’re not all powering along the highway of dreams. In fact, most of the time, we’re meandering on side-roads, doing roundabouts one time too many, and sometimes even taking wrong turns.

Perhaps, though, that’s better than cruising along toward a destination we haven’t yet fully considered. The lights of the City will continue to burn brightly, I’m sure of that. But it’s not the only destination on offer.

So spend some more time asking yourself that overwhelming question while you’re at Cambridge, because sometimes there isn’t the option to turn back.

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