In an age where almost everywhere we look we hear lament about declining standards, let’s consider some good news from the front lines of mentoring: it’s remarkable how intelligent the young are. It’s hard to say this without sounding patronising, so it needs to be bound up with a couple of relativistic statements. They are, seemingly without exception, more intelligent than I was at that age – and always know things I do not know. In short, there’s always two-way learning to be done, and I’d distrust any mentoring process that didn’t have this understanding as a sort of guiding principle.
We have the word ‘precocity’ for this and I think generally we can say today: the young are precocious. Whether this is because the Internet, with its moreish flow of information, has democratised intelligence, I don’t know. But one thing it definitely hasn’t democratised is the work ethic. That is now the rare thing; to know what to do with intelligence.
This last point is what sets Max Liebmann apart. When I heard that a mature young man was joining our Bursary scheme, I initially underestimated the extent to which that would be true. This mandate would see Finito help take Max all the way to Cambridge University and in time, we hope to be part of his journey beyond that point. It’s definitely an example of a story where the candidate’s initial excellence was central to the mandate’s success.
Liebmann came to the Finito bursary scheme fully formed in certain crucial respects. He knew for instance that he wanted to work hard and succeed. More than that, he had known from a very young age that he wanted to be a lawyer. “I have known that I wanted to become a lawyer since primary school,” he recalls. “I have always enjoyed logical problems, participating in Maths Olympiads during secondary school. I initially developed a passion for languages, taking both French and German at A level. This logical thinking I used to apply in maths evolved into a love of applying the law to problems. I like the ever-changing nature of the law which keeps it exciting and intellectually challenging.”
Sometimes an appetite for the law is a hereditary bequest, but not in this instance. “My mum currently works as a teacher in primary school, helping SEN and less-able students. I am also very close to my grandparents, and they have had a significant influence in my life,” Liebmann explains.
Liebmann attended at Parmiter’s School in Watford and, as he came to maturity, began to stand out. He was successfully elected Head Boy for the year 2021-2022: “I was incredibly fortunate to have been elected to that position. During my time as Head Boy, I represented the school at events, sought to improve the school, and I organised prom.”
This appointment gave Liebmann huge confidence, and it reminds us how maturity can often lead to a higher grade of experience which deepens a maturity which was already far advanced. Liebmann recalls: “Being Head Boy strengthened my leadership, time-management, and public-speaking abilities, and it showed me the importance of giving a voice to students from underrepresented backgrounds. Working in a large and diverse community to bring about change, I learned how to synthesise multiple standpoints to determine a common objective.”
It was at this point that the world beyond Parmiter began to loom, and Liebmann decided he would apply for Cambridge. At this hinge point, he was introduced to Finito, and assigned to our bursary scheme: “I try to make the most of every opportunity that I am offered,” Liebmann recalls. “I want a career where I can constantly learn new skills and face new challenges. I think it’s important that you do things that you enjoy in life. A career needs to be fulfilling, and I find law really exciting.”
So what were his impressions of the bursary scheme? “I first came across Finito during lockdown. Finito was excellent, helping me out in every way it possibly could. I was given mentors, each of whom helped me out with different things. I was advised how best to present myself to the business world, and Finito helped me set up a LinkedIn account. Finito helped me practise my interview skills and develop my legal thinking.”
LinkedIn training is all to do with the way we present ourselves to the world and is absolutely vital at the outset of our careers; it might be the unglamorous side of mentoring but that doesn’t make it any less important. Clair Marr, one of Finito’s experts, recalls Max’s mandate: “I suggested that Max think about who he wants to be on LinkedIn as well as on other social platforms. We looked at three other barrister profiles and considered what we could learn from them, and also discussed keyword strategies.”
Liebmann was already beginning to develop a strategy for posting content based around keywords: ‘team player’, positive’ and proactive’ – words which, this writer can attest, do indeed encapsulate Max’s strengths. More broadly, what this approach shows, is that Finito were already thinking beyond the entrance examination to Max’s eventual career.
Meanwhile, it was necessary to prepare an all-star prep team consisting of Lumos Education and Bonas Macfarlane. This is an opportunity to thank Lumos Education and Johanna Mitchell for their own sponsorship of the Finito bursary scheme.
Mitchell recalls: “We were delighted to be asked to support Max Liebmann to prepare for his Cambridge law interview. Monica, Lumos Education’s tutor, worked with Max for three sessions. Prior to the tutoring, she read through Max’s UCAS personal statement. This helped her to understand the type of questions he might be asked, based on the specific fields of law in which Max was particularly interested. Interviewers are almost certain to make reference to the applicant’s academic interests set out in their personal statement.”
And what else did Monica cover? “Monica also discussed with Max the law specialisms of the dons who were interviewing him, so Max would be aware of their particular stance and bias.” A successful interviewing strategy was born.
Meanwhile, Bonas Macfarlane tutor Sam Williams went deep into the detail of how to impress – even taking Liebmann deep into first principles. Williams explained to Liebmann: “The law often works like grammar: the parties are like the subjects and the objects in a sentence. The verb is the action that occurs between them. Other grammatical elements of the scenario will give you more information about the syntax and significance of that relationship.”
Max was also advised by Williams to ‘focus squarely on the question asked; try not to introduce extraneous or abstruse counterfactuals. Ask your interviewer if you need clarification on the facts of the scenario to develop your answer.”
The advice throughout the report is admirably specific and shows how thorough Liebmann’s interview prep had become. At one point, Williams wisely urges: “Don’t hedge: you do not generally need to give a yes no/answer, but your discussion of the principles needs to be confident. Try to avoid “possibly”/”might be argued that”/depending on the circumstances” type-answers. If you are using the word “depends”, do so sparingly and to refer to precise circumstances.”
Another piece of advice should resonate for all students preparing for the highly demanding entrance interview: “Be open to the tutor guiding you to reconsider and reframe your position. They are looking for intellectual exibility and teachability.”
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, Liebmann was also hooked up with a senior figure in politics, whose identity is to remain confidential, but whose initial sense of Liebmann is worth quoting in full: “Max is up for the intellectual journey which is needed to get into Oxbridge. He has set his ambitions at the highest level when it comes to any arts degree in this country. Without help he is looking at a one in eight chance of getting in – but with help can get to a one in two or three chance. He has no doubt got command of his school subjects and leadership – but lacks the extra yard needed in that his application has no evidence of entrepreneurial or world-leading academic courage. It’s not expected to be world-leading in standards, but his paperwork should be screaming that he’s fearless while being modest and that this man is not just going go nail his degree but will take St John’s around the world in reputation.”
The senior figure began identifying weaknesses: he was intent on stress-testing Liebmann’s candidacy. He recalls: “When asked why he wanted to go to St. John’s he replied that the squash court is a major attraction for him. He won’t get close with this.” The mentor advised Liebmann to lead with academia, and also ‘to be alive to conferences where his supervisors have spoken out big.” He was also advised to be ‘current’ and, when it came to the question of immigration law, for instance, to be in contact with community groups.
This first session with his senior mentor would clearly bring out the best in Max. As the sessions went by, our mentor became more and more impressed by his pupil culminating in this assessment: “Max aspires to serve society as a barrister, to ask questions of the law and appreciate human circumstances. Being from a single parent household on free school meals, Max is acutely aware of sensitivities and vulnerabilities. He knows what makes people human. As such he has become a leader through understanding people, commanding the respect of his entire school to become Head Boy. He doesn’t lead to gain followers, he leads to create leaders – of their own choices and of society. With his breadth he has the potential to be at the vanguard of the legal profession. He was exceptional today – had a huge range of societal awareness and his subject in great shape. He has all the information to write his statement.”
It was time for the interview itself: the big day. So how did that go? The day after the interview, Max spoke with Lumos Education’s founder, Johanna Mitchell. “He said that he felt that the interview hadn’t gone well at all and that, the more he reflected on it, the more he felt his answers should have been better,” Mitchell recalls. “Knowing Max’s considerable capabilities, and how daunting Cambridge interviews can be, I wasn’t convinced that the interview had gone badly. I reassured Max that he had probably done better than his own assessment of the situation led him to believe.
And Liebmann’s own recollections? “The entrance exam went quite well, and I was not particularly nervous about it. I took the Cambridge Law Test, which meant that I had to write a legal essay in an hour. I was more worried about the admissions interviews, and Finito really helped me with that. I had many mock interviews, but even that did not change my sense of doubt afterwards.”
In the end, Liebmann’s fears were misplaced: he was offered a place to read law at Sidney Sussex College. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Liebmann. “The first thing I did was get someone else to verify that I had actually read the email correctly! I then called my family and celebrated with my friends. The offer day was full of mixed emotions; it was difficult in school, since many people were sad about the outcome of their application.”
So to fast forward to the present time, what has the course been like? “I cannot lie – the course is really intense. The short terms in Cambridge mean that term time is hectic and the workload is heavy,” Liebmann says. “I haven’t had the option to properly explore the law yet, since I could not choose which modules I studied in my first year. Nevertheless, it is manageable and can be a lot of fun. I am lucky to have made so many friends at Sidney.”
Meanwhile, Max has continued to benefit from the Finito bursary scheme. Liebmann has been connected with people at the highest levels of law – most notably with Sir Rupert Jackson. Max now also has work experience over the summer with Carter-Ruck – again through the bursary scheme.
All this would have been impossible without the support of The Stewarts Foundation. This began as a result of the support of the outgoing managing partner John Cahill who has said: “In a perfect world comprehensive career guidance would be available to all regardless of their background. The Stewarts Foundation is delighted to support the important work of Finito via its bursary scheme.” We are thrilled that this support is now continuing under the leadership of Stuart Dench. We will continue to support Max as he continues his journey, and report back on developments.