For any student wanting to pursue a career in law, work experience is vital. Not only does it provide an opportunity to clarify whether a career as a solicitor or barrister is actually what you want to do going forward, it also suggests you are a keen and willing student. If you end up applying for a training contract, you will be given an entire section to discuss work experience. Whilst you can include part time jobs or any voluntary work in other sectors in that section, it would be beneficial to your application if you have some legal work experience in there too. To that end, it is better to be prepared and start thinking early on about when and where you would like to get some experience.
If you look around your nearest town or city, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of solicitors firms or barristers chambers there are (although there are likely to be considerably less barristers chambers around). You may wonder where on earth you should begin with your hunt for work experience.
The best way to begin with gaining legal work experience is to do it on an informal basis. First of all, make use of any contacts you may have in the legal profession, whether it be friends or family members. Even if your auntie has a friend of a friend, it is worth a try! Not everyone has contacts though, which means you have to contact law firms yourself. Despite the informal nature of the placements you may be seeking, do not underestimate how competitive the process can be. You still have to make an effort and come across as a professional candidate.
The way you approach the firms is entirely your choice. Realistically, you can either: telephone, email (CV and covering letter), send a letter (again, CV and covering letter) or visit them personally. My approach consisted mostly of emails and telephone calls to follow up my initial correspondence if I had not received a response.
Usually, if the firm has a website there will be a name of an employee that deals with work experience or trainees, so send your email to them. If you cannot find a direct email address, it would be worth a brief phone call to find out. At least you will have peace of mind knowing your email is being sent to the relevant person directly, instead of sitting in a generic inbox and potentially being discarded. If you want to approach a small firm and you cannot find a website or email address for a particular individual, ring or visit them to initiate contact instead.
If you are sending a firm your CV and a covering letter, ensure your CV is up to date and your covering letter is tailored to the particular firm. I would structure it something like this:
Paragraph 1: In this paragraph you should introduce yourself. Tell them your name, the current stage of your education (school, college or university) and where you are studying. It may also be worth outlining your academic achievements to date. Also mention the purpose of your letter – to discuss the possibility of work experience – and your preferred dates.
Paragraph 2: This is an opportunity to sell yourself. Without making this section excessively long, state why you feel work experience would benefit you and what skills you have that make you feel you are an ideal candidate. Perhaps outline some extra curricular activities or interests here too.
Paragraph 3: In this paragraph you should outline your motivations for applying to the particular firm. Talk about the areas of law in which they specialise or the type of clients they deal with and why this interests you.
Paragraph 4: Thank them for considering your application and say you will look forward to hearing from them. Sign the letter off with ‘yours sincerely’.
After emailing or sending your covering letter, give the firm a ring in around two weeks time to ensure they received it and to make sure it hasn’t been forgotten about. Although do bare in mind that they will probably be very busy and so may not have got round to responding yet.
The next stage may involve the firm asking you to go in to talk to the individual that deals with recruitment or one of their lawyers to discuss what you would like to get out of your work experience. They will be likely to give you an insight into the type of work you will be doing and what your working day will look like. Other firms may get in contact to make arrangements for the work experience without a prior meeting.
A prior meeting before your work experience starts should give you an idea of what to expect on your first day and similarly what the firm will expect of you. An important thing to remember is to dress appropriately. It is worth investing in a suit! Particularly if you go to any client meetings, a suit is essential to ensure you look smart.
Most informal work experience placements will run for a period of one or two weeks and they will be undertaken on a voluntarily basis so it is unlikely that any payment will be received for the time spent with the firm. However, the experience you get could be invaluable. When it comes to stating date preferences, aim for Christmas, Easter or summer holidays so the placement does not interrupt your education.
The tasks you may be given will vary a lot depending on the type of firm you are going to. Some firms may give you quite a lot of responsibility and a considerable involvement with current cases. During one of the work experience placements I went on over the summer, I was given some client’s case files and asked to send them letters based on the information in the file. I was given a template and my letters were checked, but ultimately they were actually sent out to the clients. Moreover, a solicitor asked me to draft instructions to counsel for a case that was going to court. It was a challenging, but really interesting task. I had never done anything like that before but the solicitor gave me really positive feedback afterwards.
It is often said that students on work experience end up making the tea and coffee. While this may be true in some firms, it still gives you the chance to absorb the environment, get an idea of what everyone is doing and to see what a typical day looks like. The most important aspect of the work experience is that you are able to reflect on it, evaluate the things that you learned and apply that to future applications or experiences. The best way to do this is to take a notebook with you and keep a record of the tasks you are given, or any things that particularly catch your attention about the work or the way it is done.
Depending on the stage in education you have reached, you may be looking at more formal work experience placements. This is likely to be in the form of a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage, which have much more formal and structured application processes that often require more than a CV and covering letter. These types of placements need to be considered by students in their penultimate or final year of a degree.
The most important thing to remember when applying for work experience is that you may not be successful with the first firm you apply to. They may not offer the type of experience you are looking for, or the process may be heavily oversubscribed. Take the time to apply to other firms and really think about your motivations for applying to them. Your hard work will pay off in the end.