A Chat with DLA Piper: Interview with Bella Chan

Bella Chan is an Associate in the Litigation and Regulatory team at DLA Piper. Bella has a broad range of experience across commercial litigation and regulatory and compliance matters, representing clients on both contentious and non-contentious matters, with experience in claim litigation and regulatory investigations.

Personal Journey:

How many application cycles did you complete before securing a training contract?

My journey was a bit different to most.

In Malaysia there’s no such thing as a “2-year-training contract”. You complete your degree and jump straight into a job — you don’t wait for two years — so I had no awareness whatsoever as to what a training contract was. 

It was only a few months after I arrived in the UK that I realised I needed to secure a training contract if I were to stay. By that point, I had missed all the deadlines for vacation schemes. I didn’t get anything in my third year at university either, partially due to ignorance, and partially because I didn’t have any relevant experience.

I didn’t tick any boxes. I essentially had a blank CV.

I struggled a lot in third year. The only relevant legal experience that I could secure was the University of Liverpool Law Clinic (a module doing pro bono work) — that helped me, indirectly, to secure a fixed term contract as a case worker at a local law firm helping with the Hillsborough disaster inquiry. Luckily, I secured a scholarship to stay on and complete a Masters in Law at the University of Liverpool. If I’m being honest, the main reason I did it was to buy myself more time to secure a training contract. I knew I was so far behind everyone else in terms of applications, so if I could buy myself an extra year to build my CV, gain more experience, and work on applications, I stood a better chance of getting a training contract.  

In the year I spent doing my Masters, I participated in a social mobility scheme which helped me to gain more exposure at commercial law firms. I got two or three vacation scheme offers but I still failed to get a training contract that year! As such, I went on to do the LPC at my own expense, and finally, with tremendous hard work and a pinch of luck, I secured a training contract with DLA Piper.

Life at DLA Piper:

Describe DLA Piper in 3 words.

Fantastic.  Supportive.  *Pauses*   Quirky!

Why those 3 words?

Everyone I’ve met through DLA has been fantastic. We have a fantastic range of clients and trainees are given fantastic exposure to high-level work.

I really enjoyed every seat I experienced in Liverpool, Birmingham and Dublin — all my supervisors have been extremely supportive. When I started working in Liverpool, I spoke English, but was not entirely fluent. Anything I drafted would always come back with red circles – not on legal points, but literally just on grammar. However, I am grateful for that, because I wasn’t patronised or criticised by getting basic grammar wrong, instead my colleagues’ attitude was more like ‘you’re doing really well for a non-native speaker, but you might consider putting it this way instead.’ On the whole, the culture at DLA is very supportive in your personal as well as professional developments, and the firm truly respects you for who you are.

I have encountered all sorts of characters at DLA! Many a time, I feel like my colleagues (from trainees to partners) are more like friends than colleagues. They are all very quirky in their own way. This is what DLA is looking for – they aren’t looking for a finished product, they are looking for friendly people with their very own personality and character. I remember my Supervising Partner once said to me, ‘you are the most bonkers trainee I’ve ever seen, but that’s what makes you so special and a valuable asset to my team.’

You have mentioned Dublin, Liverpool, Birmingham.  Have you been to any other DLA Piper offices?

I visit the London and Manchester offices most often for work and social reasons. We now work on a ‘One North-West’ basis, meaning Liverpool and Manchester work closely together for all North-West projects.  Since Covid, there is understandably much less travel between offices (which is a shame) but under normal circumstances, DLA does encourage us to mingle with colleagues from other offices as we work on a One UK basis. 

You are a champion of LGBT+ rights within DLA Piper. Why do you think its important that these rights are discussed and advanced within a workplace?

It’s very important to me on a personal level because my brother is gay, and being gay in Malaysia is a criminal offence – you could get imprisoned for it. Seeing the hardship and struggles he faced growing up, I am determined to do more to ensure people are respected for who they are, that their voices are heard, and that the right attitude and culture towards LGBT+ people is reflected in my workplace. 

At the end of the day, it is simply the right thing to do. I live by the quote “you should treat people the same way you expect them to treat you.” LGBT+ or not, they deserve to be treated exactly the same way as anybody else. 

Let’s talk commercial awareness.  According To A Law Student exists to help facilitate commercial awareness, how much do you actually use your commercial awareness at work?

A lot! Every day in fact.

DLA is a very sector-focused firm. For instance, the main sectors I deal with (in litigation and regulatory) are life sciences, consumer goods, and technology. It’s not enough for me to know all about the law, but also what is happening in that particular space so that I can advise my client how the law applies, or how to prepare for certain upcoming legislative changes. 

We monitor developments in each sector and the relevant cases very closely. For example, we write articles and actively approach our clients to share sector insights, also proposing training or policy review in light of new developments. This is one of the ways in which we attract new work and new clients!

You speak 5 languages, how helpful has that been throughout your work?

My mother tongues are Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien. I also speak Malay and English, of course. Mandarin has become very helpful at DLA. I have dealt with quite a few cases for Chinese clients, and against Chinese defendants in litigation. DLA is trying to grow its China practice, so I often translate our English articles into Mandarin and get them published for our Chinese clients.

How varied is your work in Litigation and Regulatory?

The litigation work in Dublin spans far and wide. For example, I’ve dealt with:

  • Injunctions against fishermen (because it’s Ireland, *laughs*)
  • Disputes over contaminated horse feed
  • Insurance litigation
  • Cybersecurity breaches
  • Enforcement actions

While litigation is quite active, I’d say regulatory is even busier! For instance, when a client wants to launch a new product or service, they will come to us to say ‘this is what we want to launch, these are the jurisdictions in which we want to launch it, give us an overview of all law that applies and tell us how it affects our products’, and that could involve anything from health and safety, food labelling, product safety, telecom regulation, competition law, anti-money laundering advice to financial services. Clients may come to us when they were notified by the regulators about non-compliance, and ask for help to remedy the breaches, and to enhance their procedures and policies to mitigate the losses. How varied the work is depends on the team you work for. For example, the DLA London office has specific teams just dealing with aviation claims, insurance litigation, and product safety. On the other hand, as the Dublin office is relatively new – we handle a bit of everything!  

What is one thing about DLA that you wouldn’t know unless you worked there?

It probably depends on which team you work with — different teams offer different surprises!

I can only speak from my experience, but a Partner once invited me to a surprise meeting, just to drag me away from my desk for half an hour. When I returned, the team had decorated my desk with Chinese New Year decorations and they even gave me a red pocket (a red envelope with money)! Usually, I receive red pockets from parents or relatives, but I was certainly not expecting it from my colleagues! This is just one example of how my colleagues at DLA went above and beyond to make me feel included. 

In Dublin, we run an internal nomination scheme called ‘Value Champions’ to openly recognise colleagues who have upheld the firm’s core values:

  • Be supportive
  • Be collaborative 
  • Be bold 
  • Be exceptional  

Everyone is free to nominate anyone in the firm (including paralegals, IT support staff, secretaries etc.) for their contributions and support. The Value Champions and the individual’s line manager will be notified of the nominations, and the nominations are sent to the individuals and will be reflected in people’s yearly performance reviews.  People who get nominated will receive an electronic ‘Thank You’ card, and sometimes physical gifts (e.g. vouchers)!

Words of Wisdom:

If you could give one bit of advice to any students reading this interview, what would it be?

When it comes to psychometric tests, make sure you’ve practiced the test and are comfortable doing the real thing. 

Once you get past that stage, make good use of assessment centres to show your personality and transferable skills. Make sure you are able to talk about the commercial awareness questions you answered four months ago and how things have changed since then, and how it might affect the legal industry today.

When it comes to interviews, show your authentic self. If you are a quiet person, tell them from the beginning – don’t pretend that you are extroverted when you aren’t. We have very different characters in our office; some are introverted, some are talkative, and some are in-between. The firm values you for who you are. As long as you illustrate that you are interested in what the firm is interested in and can live up to their values, then you will be hired no matter what your background or personality is.  

Vacation scheme applications are really good practice, even when you fail. I probably failed at least 10 times before DLA hired me! Take each application seriously and learn from each experience, with time, you will know what works and what doesn’t work. You will get there eventually – just never stop trying! 

What is one question you wish I had asked you?

It is not so much a question, but rather some general advice.

For those who haven’t started applying (and might be doubting yourself due to lack of experience) – do not wait! There is never a “right time.” Start where you stand, work on whatever you have now, and more will be at your command as you go along. Law school doesn’t teach you how to get a training contract, whereas experience will. During an interview, treat it as an opportunity not just for the law firm to get to know you, but also for you to get to know the law firm. Pick a firm that aligns with your values and offers the kind of work and culture that is in line with your preference and expectation.

When it comes to starting a training contract, go in with an open mind. Don’t jump to conclusions on whether you love or hate certain contentious or transactional seats until you’ve actually tried them. I know of a lot of people who eventually qualified into a seat that they never thought they would actually enjoy in the first place. 

When it comes to qualification, don’t just settle for anything, think long-term:

  • Is this a practice area you really enjoy and can see yourself working in long term?
  • Is this a team you will enjoy working with long term? 
  • Does the firm offer the support you need, and does the firm’s culture and values align with your expectations? 

Big firms do not necessarily guarantee the most rewarding experience (it might come with more stress and longer working hours); smaller firms might not be a bad option either (don’t reject them straight away!) Ultimately you need to pick a firm that suits you, and only YOU know what you like or don’t like!

This article was written by Toby Johnston. Toby is a Content Writer for According To A Law Student and second-year Law LLB student at the University of Liverpool. Toby has aspirations to become a commercial solicitor.

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