One of the questions we are most often asked by students at law fairs is 'What work experience can I do to improve my chances of getting a training contract?' This is a very good question.
Evidence of work experience is now a requisite part of any training contract application. You'll need more than just top marks and a determined look on your face to land yourself a job. It's no longer right to think of a training contract (or even a vac scheme) as the first stage in your career. The first stage should be gaining some relevant substantive work experience.
Besides giving you a chance to hone key skills and find out exactly what being a professional entails, work experience demonstrates your commitment to your chosen career path. “Without it how would you know what practice areas you're interested in?” says Samantha Lee, recruitment manager at Bond Dickinson. “You'd also have very little to draw on when answering competency questions during interviews.”
The work experience you do should reflect your own interests and ambitions. It's not a tick-box exercise. There are many options – from working at a firm or law centre to doing an internship in business or starting your own company – but whatever you choose to do, you should be able to find the motivation to get yourself the experience you need. After all, it's all about what you want.
But at the same time, we're sure you could do with some pointers. So over the past few months we've been asking our trainee interviewees what work experience they undertook before applying for their current training contracts. Here's what we found.
City and international firms
Two types of work experience stand out as being particularly common among City trainees: studying or working abroad and experience in the financial sector.
Applicants who have studied abroad are popular with recruiters. Among the trainees we've interviewed since starting research this year were individuals who had studied in Paris, Strasbourg, California and Amsterdam. Work experience abroad is common too: one interviewee had worked for an NGO in Sarajevo while another spent time at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Legal Service.
Simply travelling or studying abroad is not necessarily going to impress. What recruiters appreciate is evidence that you got involved locally by volunteering for a student society, working in business, or doing an internship with an NGO.
We've also spoken to plenty of trainees who've got similarly useful experience in the UK: working for a conservation charity, doing an internship with a Liverpool-based community organisation, and teaching English to foreign students are just some examples. One interviewee worked in the insurance industry, paralegalled for a while and then worked for a financial services firm in Tokyo. This shows the depth of experience that some candidates have.
When we ask commercial law firms what impresses them in recruits, one of the things mentioned most often is applicants who started their own business (or charity) while at university. Aside from the clear business skills gained through this – managing finances, promotion, handling customers and suppliers – it tells a law firm you’re a go-getting entrepreneurial sort; given that hundreds of recruiters quote the E-word in the personal qualities they’re seeking in candidates, setting up a company can be CV gold.
“I didn't do much in the way of legal work experience,” a trainee at one large commercial firm told us. While some at City and international firms do have experience as paralegals or in other law-related roles, many don't. Experience working in business or finance is perhaps more common, especially at firms with a more corporate-finance tinted practice. For example, one trainee we spoke to spent a year working on financial regulations at a financial services clearing house.
But don't be afraid of undertaking a variety of activities – you don't have to have experience in the financial industry to land a job with a corporate firm. One vac schemer told us: “I gained a range of experiences – none of them in finance – and that helped me to explain both why I want to practice law generally, and to show why I was applying to City firms in particular – I have an appreciation of the alternatives.”
Where to start with paralegalling?
There's a new platform worth looking at called F-LEX which connects vetted students with law firms or in-house counsel. It sources paralegal work on-demand for law firms with the kind of online resourcefulness you see from the likes of Uber. It allows students to get paralegal work while they're studying, and to gain a variety of experience before committing to anything long-term. More information can be found at www.f-lex.co.uk.
Trainees at national firms often have a mix of legal and commercial work experience. “What especially stands out is someone who has experience that is aligned with our practice areas,” says Samantha Lee of national firm Bond Dickinson. The importance of commercial awareness means that experience in other sectors is increasingly part of the work experience package which recruiters expect.
Legal work experience undertaken by trainees we've recently spoken to at national firms includes working at a Citizens Advice Bureau, as a paralegal for the CPS and as a legal secretary in a high-street firm. On the commercial side working for an insurer or at a bank (high street or investment) is common – both allow aspiring trainees to become better acquainted with these two frequent law firm clients.
Legal research can also be a good way to build up your skills and get some practical experience. Here at the Student Guide, we're big fans of research and can’t recommend it enough for building up lawyerly skills. Plenty of universities, institutions, publishers and government bodies look for people with a good knowledge of the law to take up research positions, often for short periods of time.
Don't shy away from more unusual work experience either: a firm we researched recently currently employs one trainee who set up and ran an online clothing retailer and another who had worked as a chef. “Don't underestimate the value of experience in the hospitality and retail industries,” says Samantha Lee. “It involves working to targets and selling things to people, both of which are good transferable skills,” All experience – if you can market it correctly – is good experience.
“I had a prior interest in the area I now work in, and I did relevant work experience,” an interviewee at one specialist firm told us. “I mostly arranged that through various family contacts I had.”‘All right for some!’ we hear you say, balking at our interviewee’s casual assumption that your family will have connections worth using. However, this is all too common among the social groups entering the legal profession; your competition will use their connections to get ahead. So if you don’t have lawyers, CEOs or tycoons in the family, looking towards your university contacts, classmates, friends or people you met on the night bus could be equally valuable if not more – because to network your way into work experience shows a far more enterprising candidate than someone with an important daddy.
If you don't have any contacts who can help you, then get out there and meet new people. Universities organise tons of careers events and the Law Society and other professional bodies put on lectures and receptions. It's all about networking: the idea that 'it's not what you know, but who you know' may be a cliché but it's also true.
During our research this year we've spoken to several trainees at specialist firms who've worked in publishing, and others who've been teaching assistants, spent time as literary agents or paralegalled at a high-street firms. An interviewee at one shipping firm had worked for a shipping agent in Hull, while a trainee we spoke to at a West End firm had done an internship at the National Theatre before applying for their current position.
Regional and high-street firms
Among trainees at small and regional firms paralegalling experience is noticeably common. Paralegal positions can be hard to come by – again, networking can come to your aid. Remember that paralegals don't just work at law firms: in-house legal departments (at banks for instance) often employs large numbers of these legal worker bees. And don't be afraid of getting experience at a smaller firm if you actually want to work for a regional commercial midsizer.
Many high-street firms only recruit trainees from their own paralegal pool. But be warned: some will dangle the carrot of a future training contract in front of every eager paralegal applicant, but then only make the trainee dream come true for a limited number of individuals.
Formally you don't need to have done a law degree, the GDL or the LPC to become a paralegal. Increasingly however employers are demanding that applicants for paralegal positions have a LLB or even a completed LPC. There is no legal or regulatory basis for this requirement, but it's definitely something to be aware of.
If you're interested in working for a regional or high-street firm, that probably means you want to help individuals who have got into a legal kerfuffle. If this is the case voluntary pro bono work could be the thing for you. Read our feature on Pro bono and volunteering to find out more.
You can volunteer with groups off campus, such as with the Citizens Advice Bureau and Free Representation unit (www.do-it.org.uk is a great starting point). But there are also some great opportunities on campus as many universities have facilities like law clinics.
Case Study: Kent Law Clinic
Law clinics like the one at the University of Kent operate for two reasons: first, to provide legal advice and representation to those who can't afford to pay for them; and secondly, to give law students direct, practical experience of the law. Students are able to work on a range of cases, under the close supervision of qualified lawyers.
Claire Splawn, a second-year law student at the University of Kent, told us that she was “nervous about speaking on the phone to clients” when she first started at Kent Law Clinic. Then in January 2014 she was caught up in a vortex of national press coverage after her involvement in a case in which she helped a man from Afghanistan win asylum in the UK on the basis of his atheism. Splawn says: “We argued that an atheist should be entitled to protection from persecution on the grounds that their beliefs are protected in the same way as those of a religious person.” Speaking about the verdict, she continued: “I was thrilled. Seeing the press coverage was amazing. It all came in one day – it was quite overwhelming!”
We asked Sheona York, the Kent Law Clinic solicitor supervising Claire, whether it was unusual for a student to get involved in a case with so much media attention. Her answer was simple: “Any student at the clinic can get a case like that.” By working at a clinic students are able to learn skills like interviewing and drafting skeleton arguments. Sheona York again: “We want to underpin students' general legal education with practical experience. All participating students interact with clients and are expected to prepare major and minor client interviews, and – when possible – to interview clients too. You can see them all gaining confidence as the term goes on.”
Splawn is optimistic that her involvement in the clinic and with the atheist case will help her in the future: “I am looking at various vacation schemes and summer placements at the moment. I applied for one last year and was rejected, but I now have a wealth of knowledge and experience that I didn't have before.”
Vac schemes and public speaking
Vac schemes have always been the classic way for budding lawyers to get to know the industry. Getting a spot on one is increasingly competitive, so they should certainly not be the only way you try to get summer work experience. But they are still incredibly valuable, especially as many firms like to recruit trainees directly from them. To find out more read our feature on Vacation schemes and check out our Vacation schemes comparison table.
Public speaking experience is a skill which many employers value, and one of the best ways of getting it is by mooting. Extracurricular moots are usually run by the student law society and involve students arguing an imaginary case in a simulated courtroom.
While public speaking is a skill more commonly associated with barristers, mooting can be useful for aspiring solicitors too. Public speaking is a great way to boost overall confidence, and to show that you are able to work in a team – virtually all moots involve students working together for a collective result.
University is not a time to sit back and think about your next seminar or social outing; it's an exciting jungle of wide-ranging experiences that your CV is crying out for. You should aim to gain experiences which are as varied as possible while still being relevant to the areas you're interested in. On top of developing lots of different skills, this will give you an insight into a broader legal world, enabling you to make far more informed choices.
This feature originally appeared in our April 2014 newsletter.