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Work experience

updated on 14 February 2024

To secure a training contract or pupillage, you need relevant work experience.

A fantastic academic record isn’t enough to satisfy recruiters in the legal profession. They also want to know that you can represent the firm to clients and work well with colleagues. Equally, recruiters want to see that you’ve made an informed decision about becoming a solicitor or barrister.

An ideal start to your career is to get a place on a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage. These placements are the perfect foot in the door at a firm or chambers, as they assess how you fare in a legal environment, and you get to see them in action too. First-hand experience is the best way to decide whether somewhere is the right fit. However, there are other ways of gaining legal work experience – read on to find out more.

How do I get involved?

Formal schemes: vacation schemes and mini-pupillages

Vacation schemes and mini-pupillages are an incredibly competitive part of the recruitment process. Many firms and chambers will offer you an automatic training contract or pupillage interview during your placement. Many schemes involve opportunities to experience real work as part of one or more of the firm’s teams. This may be supplemented with other activities, for example, a mock client pitch or presentation, or a project to work on over the course of the placement.

Vacation schemes are usually rotational, in that you’ll probably spend your time in two to four different departments. During that time, you’re likely to be engaged in a variety of tasks. Vacation schemers at Shoosmiths, for example, have a full schedule of assignments and activities, including workshops on the firm’s core practice areas, assignments that reflect common trainee tasks and a project that ends with a presentation.

As well as work and interviews, there are always opportunities to socialise. Most firms plan social events for placements, from informal drinks to meals out or activities. It’s worth noting that competition is fierce, and recruiters will be assessing your abilities. Remember to always be polite, friendly and a team player.

Summer is the main placement season, but many firms also run schemes during the winter and spring. Firms that try to separate out non-law students may organise a dedicated non-law scheme during the winter holiday period. This ensures that all prospective trainees are on a level playing field.

Keep your eye on the vacation scheme deadlines page for updates.

The majority of application deadlines for summer and spring schemes tend to be between the end of January and the end of February, with many firms also sharing a deadline at the end of March, but it’s best to apply early. If you’re a non-lawyer, you’ll need to apply by the end of October for most winter schemes.

For an insight into what goes on during a firm’s vacation scheme, read our interviews with former vacation schemers.

Alternative experience

Those of you who don’t manage to secure a place on one of the formalised programmes must be resourceful. It’s not the end of the world, but you should take the initiative and create opportunities for yourself (eg, volunteering at your local Citizens Advice). Plus, any work experience you have could count towards your qualifying work experience as part of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam.

Lucie Rees, early careers manager at HFW, says: “All experience is relevant and shapes you into the person you are. Firms are looking for well-rounded candidates and experience in a variety of areas will help with this. All the work experience you have will build your knowledge and transferable skills – it’s how you then choose to make it work for you on your application form that counts.”

Nadia Evans, the law programme manager at upReach, agrees: "Non-legal work experience and other extracurricular activities are both excellent ways to develop and demonstrate the skills and qualities required as a lawyer. The key is learning how to sell yourself by clearly and confidently explaining the experience you have had and how it relates to the skills firms are looking for. Plus, it doesn't just have to be professional work experience. Don't forget the restaurant or retail job where, for example, you showed great initiative, delivered strong performance and were given responsibility or played a key role in a team.”

Andy Creer, barrister at Landmark Chambers, adds: “We recognise that people have different opportunities according to their socio-economic backgrounds. It’s therefore more important to demonstrate what you have got out of your work experience, than what you have done per se.”

Citizens Advice

One option is to volunteer at your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). A senior crown prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service who volunteered for about a year at the Barking and Dagenham CAB following a master’s degree, says: “I provided advice on housing law, landlord and tenant issues, claims for disrepair and welfare law. When it came to applying for training contracts, I was able to talk about some of my experiences at CAB – for example, when asked to discuss how I dealt with a difficult situation, I referred to an incident at the CAB involving a client with Alzheimer's. I would certainly recommend CAB work because the training is excellent: you are trained in all the areas that they expect you to advise on and in how to use their files to find information. It teaches you how to apply the law in reality and hones your interview and advice skills.”

Court work

Court work is another option. Marshalling involves spending time with a judge to see the litigation process from a judicial perspective. You’ll read the skeleton arguments and papers before the court and then watch the trial unfold. The process is immensely useful: you quickly learn which advocacy styles are effective and which to avoid. When it comes to applying for pupillages, marshalling experience will help you to answer those standard interview questions, such as ‘What makes a good barrister?’ Marshalling is a good introduction to court, the roles of the advocates and the ultimate aim of advocacy as a barrister – persuading the judge.

Free Representation Unit

Other options include volunteering for the Free Representation Unit (FRU), a charity that provides free legal representation to those who can’t afford it. FRU trains you to represent its clients at tribunals. Lots of barristers/solicitors look favourably on this practical experience, which is invaluable when applying for pupillage and training contracts. A pupil at Blackstone Chambers says: “I volunteered at FRU for almost two years while on the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and [what was] BPTC. Outside of studying, I think it was the most useful thing I did. FRU allows you to get stuck into practical elements of law in a way that not many other pro bono organisations do. You have to meet and advise clients, run a piece of litigation on your own and ultimately may have to argue a case before the Employment or Social Security Tribunal. In short, you get real experience of what being a barrister is like.”

To volunteer at FRU, candidates should book onto FRU employment and/or social security training courses that are currently held twice a year, in the spring and autumn. The training fee is £60. The dates are publicised on the FRU website or candidates can see the dates by signing up to a training newsletter. Those eligible to volunteer with FRU include people who’ve either completed their LLB or GDL or are in their final term of their LLB or GDL and will have completed the course by the time you start volunteering for FRU, CILEX students who’ve completed their level 6 diploma or Foreign Qualified Lawyers. 

On completion of the training, there’s a legal test to confirm that volunteers have the necessary legal skills. For those who pass the test, there’s an induction session, they need to observe a tribunal hearing and the volunteer can then select their first case. Full support is given for case preparation from the FRU legal team.

To read an interview with a former FRU volunteer and the charity’s chief, head to the Free Representation Unit section on the LawCareers.Net website. Find out more about FRU at or by calling 020 7611 9555.

Other pro bono work

Many universities and postgraduate study providers operate pro bono clinics, which are a great chance to get involved in providing legal advice at the front line. Amanda Crutchley, head of pro bono at The University of Law, talks about the university’s schemes and their benefit to both students and the wider community: “QWE focuses on the development of essential solicitor competencies and a practical understanding of the ethics and professional conduct requirements that pervade practice. It’s essential that those wishing to enter the legal profession experience a wide range of key skills and understand them in context. Our pro bono service, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2024, designs opportunities to allow students exposure to many of the key skills noted on the statement of solicitor competence and supports students in both the development and recording of invaluable transferable skills.

“All our students are encouraged to participate in pro bono, and with a wide range of opportunities and placements available each year, students can get involved in whatever their field of interest. We offer members of the public legal advice and support through clinics in a variety of areas such as family, wills and trust and business law and we collaborate with some of the most reputable national law firms and in-house legal teams ranging from Disney to Womble Bond Dickinson.

“Our students appreciate the many benefits that flow from developing their knowledge and skills in a challenging but secure real-life setting. They grow in confidence and competence. The additional benefits to the wider community in accessing justice reinforces the positive nature of the work."

Pro bono is an excellent way for students to practise giving legal advice and also give something back to the community. A lot of firms offer pro bono services, so it’s a good skill to learn early on.

Rebecca Wilkinson, chief executive of LawWorks, adds: “I’d encourage every law student to get involved in pro bono volunteering. There are a range of opportunities available, which can help you develop your practical legal skills while also helping real people in need resolve their legal problems. Win, win.”

For more on LawWorks and what it does, visit the LawWorks section on the LawCareers.Net website. For more on getting involved with pro bono in general, see the LawWorks website.

What else can I do?

Staying closer to home, you could send a speculative application to local high-street law firms asking to shadow a partner (or a trainee) for a few days or offer to answer the phones at a nearby legal advice centre. Court ushering at your nearest magistrates’ court and outdoor clerking are suggested for those unable to get on a formal mini-pupillage.

We asked graduate recruiters how non-law graduates in particular can get a foot on the ladder if they’re unable to get onto a formal vacation scheme. All said that non-law graduates should at least make the effort to research the profession, speak to solicitors/trainees about their experiences and visit firms or attend open days. Work of all types – including retail and restaurant work – can be used to demonstrate grit and determination, as well as a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get on with the job. Many firms recruit candidates with wide interests and if you’ve experienced other careers, you can speak from the heart at interview about the reasons you’ve excluded those careers and feel propelled towards law.

Commercial experience, perhaps in-house, is also regarded as valuable. Previous non-legal work experience can help students to understand businesses or individuals that they’re working with and the challenges they face.

Students with disabilities should get in touch with the Disabled Solicitors Network. This division of the Law Society aims to achieve equality of opportunity for people with disabilities, whether they be qualified solicitors, trainees, law students, clients or members of the public. One of the things that the division does is contact firms to encourage them to offer work placements to disabled students.

When should I look for legal work experience?

It’s never too early to start. In terms of formal schemes, law students should try to secure a placement in the summer before their final year at university at the latest; non-law students should apply during the summer following their third year. In fact, more firms than ever are running schemes aimed at first years, so you need to be on the ball right from the beginning of your university career.

For informal experience, get in contact with local law firms, courts and barristers. 

How do I make the most of my legal work experience?

Formal and informal work experience schemes are an important part of the recruitment process. You can only learn so much from an application form and interview. However, a week or two spent with lawyers and support staff is the best way for both firm and student to make an informed decision about each other. Treat your applications for summer schemes as seriously as your training contract applications.

This is your opportunity to show off your skills and personality. So, while there, make sure that you do all you can to be your best possible self. That means:

  • asking questions;
  • showing enthusiasm and initiative;
  • taking advantage of all opportunities; and
  • behaving professionally.

Equally, if you’re at a firm or chambers, you should be assessing whether it’s the sort of place you can imagine working. If you’re at one of the other voluntary schemes (eg, Citizens Advice or a pro bono clinic), make sure you’re taking mental notes about how you respond to the type of work to which you’re being exposed. What sparks your interest? What makes you switch off? What would you like to learn more about? Don’t forget, it’s a two-way process.

Following up after the placement

Send a brief email thanking the recruiter for your placement/mini-pupillage/work experience. Add a personal touch along the lines of how you think the experience has helped you at the outset of your career and what you most enjoyed. You may also like to connect with people you worked with on LinkedIn.

It may be worth jotting down some thoughts and impressions of the experience to focus your mind. This will allow you at interview to talk about how it helped in terms of your future plans and overall knowledge of the legal profession.

Finally, a reality check: some firms recruit trainees directly from vacation schemes, so it’s worth getting onto a scheme if possible. In addition, you should ask family members, friends, teachers and even friends of friends if they know anyone working in the legal profession who might be able to help you get some experience.