Halls of residence. Freshers’ Week. New friends. Independence. The last thing that a first year law student is thinking about is work experience.
Flutters and whispers of the phrase circulate through lecture halls and tutorial rooms, though the subject is never confronted. It is scary and new. However, after the seamless daze of first year blurs into second year, it becomes all too apparent that work experience is a necessity you should have secured by now!
As a result of my frantic haste, I gave no consideration to the areas these firms practiced.
From nursery through to sixth form, a student is constantly guided and made aware of matters such as what colours to mix together to make purple paint or when and how to apply to university. Arriving at university, many students are shocked to find that there is nobody to tell them what to do and when. Students are left to their own devices to create a career path for themselves. There is no ‘How to Become a Solicitor’ module where students take page after page of notes from a lecturer explaining what to put in their application and when the deadlines are. There is no entitlement to work experience as a law student, though many who do not study law may beg to differ.
This summer, my uncle asked what I had been doing since finishing my exams in May. I replied that I had been working as a receptionist full time, after failing to secure work experience following my second university year. I explained I had applied for over 50 placements! He began to tell me about his old neighbour, a solicitor, who as a law student walked into several local firms and gained a placement in each. This was 40 years ago. He explained that she offered to work for free and that maybe I should do the same. I explained that you have to apply to work for free now, along with every other law student in the UK applying for the same space.
What not to do
First of all, knowing when to apply is hugely important. Many firms offer vacation schemes where students are offered the opportunity to gain work experience for a week in the Christmas, Easter or summer holidays. The majority of firms open their application stage in September each year, with the deadline of 31 January of the following year for Easter and summer placements. Deadlines for Christmas placements are usually on 31 July for a placement in the same year.
I am ready to try again this year, but I am approaching it with a whole new perspective.
I believe that it is important not to deal with rejection with bitterness. Being bitter does not allow time to reflect and I feel that having had the opportunity to do so, I have understood what I did wrong. I am ready to try again this year, but I am approaching it with a whole new perspective.
What I have learnt
Firstly, I have shortlisted several firms that I have researched that I will be applying for. I have visited their websites and had a good look around; I have seen their brochures and I have read their client reviews. I fully understand what these firms stand for and the key areas they practice in. Last year at my university, we had a guest lecturer who works at a top law firm. He explained that students must identify the areas they would like to work in early, as, for example, gaining work experience in a family law firm would not get you a training contract in a corporate one. This is why I have chosen firms that practice in the areas that I am interested in. In January, I applied for a dozen corporate firms, despite never having studied corporate law. One question I faced in one application was: ‘What difficulties are corporate law firms facing in the next six months?’. I abandoned the application and never returned to it. I could not answer the question, as I knew nothing about corporate law because I had not done my research.
I hope readers of this article will learn from my mistakes and how not to apply for work experience.
Secondly, I am taking my time. I have started one application already but I have saved it and will go back to it later. I helped to process applications at work this summer for my current position after I leave and I could tell where applications and covering letters had been rushed. They look untidy and unprofessional. I have learnt that an application for work experience requires a huge amount of thought to set it apart from everyone else’s.
Finally, I realised my applications should have substance. I have done things within my university that could make my application stand out more. Unfortunately, I was not lucky enough to achieve top results for my A-Levels. I have average A-Levels combined with a 2:1 for both years of study at university. I understand that my grades will most certainly not stand out amongst applicants who have achieved the best possible A-Levels with a first from university. I was not part of any societies when I made my applications in January, so I was an average student with nothing to say for myself. Now, I am a secretary for one society, a fundraiser for another and a member of two more. I have taken on responsibilities that differentiate me from others.
This is really important, as there are many students going for each placement. It is also worth noting that law students are not the only students interested in gaining work experience within the field of law. A quick search of trainee profiles on law firm websites reveals graduates who studied biochemistry, zoology, business studies and computer programming. Suddenly, the competition increases even further and being average certainly means you will not stand out.
It is also important to note that ‘Magic Circle’ law firms are not the only places a law student can apply. There are legal departments within businesses, local work experience initiatives and smaller firms seeking inexperienced volunteers through job websites.
While lecturers cannot teach you to be a solicitor and cannot hand work experience to you, they can be really helpful if you approach them and ask for guidance. It is worth visiting the careers guidance department at your university to see if they can help in any way, too.
I hope readers of this article will learn from my mistakes and how not to apply for work experience. You can find out more about law firms that have opened their application process on this website by clicking the tab entitled ‘Jobs & Work Experience’.
The majority of applications for summer placements are now open. Good luck to you all!
This article was originally published in September 2013.