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A first-year student’s guide to opportunities in law

updated on 22 February 2022

Read this essential advice for first-year students covering legal work experience, extracurricular activities, law fairs and more. For lots more information and advice, see our dedicated first-year student hub.

Reading time: 11 minutes

“Start early” – the key advice for a student interested in a career in the legal profession. This is especially true of commercial law, where many firms recruit their trainee solicitors two years in advance, meaning that law students who want to go straight from their degree to the Legal Practice Course or the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) and then into a training contract must be ready to apply at the end of their second year of study.

For some students it is even earlier – some vacation schemes are targeted directly at first-year students while some firms offer training contracts to first years, too.

As a first year, you don’t need to decide the exact direction you want for your career just yet. But if you are interested in a career in law, you should:

  • make the most of the opportunities to learn about the legal profession;
  • start building your CV; and
  • gain some experiences which will be essential when you come to apply.

All of the above will be useful when you come to deciding the direction you want your career to take.

There are a whole range of activities and experiences that you can be undertaking in your first year and the rest of this article will set out the opportunities available.

This article will outline the various activities and experiences on offer to first-year students. You don’t need to say “yes” to everything – be sensible, practical and realistic when you’re looking at the different opportunities available.

Law firms’ first-year student schemes

Let’s start with the formal schemes that an increasing number of solicitors’ firms have started to run in recent years. Such schemes are also available at some barristers’ chambers.

Prestigious firms including Clifford ChanceLinklatersHerbert Smith FreehillsSimmons & Simmons and Hogan Lovells all offer vacation schemes or insight programmes to first-year students.

These are valuable opportunities to introduce yourself to the firm, see what life at its offices is really like and improve your chances of securing a place on a vacation scheme, which is the most direct path to a training contract. Please note, that with the introduction of the SQE, candidates pursuing a career as a solicitor will need to complete two years of qualifying work experience (QWE) – many firms will continue to offer two-year training contracts but QWE can also be completed in up to four organisations, including law firms, law centres and university pro bono clinics.

Find out more about QWE and its requirements via the SQE hub.

But is engaging with firms really that important for first years, many of whom will not yet be applying for training contracts?

“We are always listening to the feedback that we receive from our applicants and the first-year scheme was introduced in response to requests from enthusiastic first-year students who wanted an opportunity to find out more about life in a City law firm,” explains one firm’s trainee recruitment manager. “As these students are still very much at the beginning of their legal journey, we are keen to give them an insight into the commercial world of law so that they can make an informed decision about whether this is the right environment for them. The focus is therefore aimed at finding out their motivations for a career in commercial law in the City, as well as the transferable skills that they have gained‎ in other areas of their life that would be an asset as a future trainee lawyer.

“Building up relationships with students from an early stage allows them to determine whether they are suited to a career at your firm and is particularly important now that training contract offers can be made to law students from the beginning of their second year. Engaging with students at an early stage allows them to determine whether they are suited to a career at your firm. As with all of our applications, applicants for our first-year spring vacation scheme are required to submit an application, complete our online critical thinking test and take part in a telephone interview. Both the format of the application and the telephone interview take into account the limited experience and legal knowledge that applicants will have at this stage in their career‎. Candidates that take part in our spring vacation scheme in their first year and then apply for a summer vacation scheme in their second year are not required to complete the online Watson Glaser critical thinking test or telephone interview again, but can be progressed directly to assessment day. So building up strong relationships with firms can definitely be beneficial for the future!”

But with places so limited, you shouldn’t be too disheartened if you miss out, as our friendly recruiter observes: “A place on a vacation scheme, which comes later, is still the most important thing in terms of securing a training contract. However, it bears emphasising that taking part in a first-year scheme will certainly increase your chances of securing a place on a full vacation scheme later on.”

Firms are currently identifying the best way to adopt the SQE into their recruitment processes. You should keep an eye on what your shortlisted firms are doing in this regard.

Law fairs

University law fairs take place every autumn during October and November. They are a great way to introduce yourself to firms and chambers. You should always conduct some research into the firms and chambers attending before you go. Make a list of the employers you want to talk to and think about the things you want to learn about the firm that you are unable to find out from their website. This way,  you can make the most of your time by having constructive conversations with the organisations that interest you.

Find out more about what graduate recruiters want to see from prospective candidates in LCN’s Meet the Recruiter profiles.

Don’t ask basic questions that you could find answers to on a firm’s website – aim for more interesting conversations. This will be invaluable in determining which firms suit you, your values and career aspirations. It also creates a good impression with recruiters – you can even mention your conversation and who you spoke with in a later application.

Watch this video on preparing for virtual law fairs and read LCN’s guide to networking for advice on how to make the most of the opportunities you might be exposed to at a law fair.

Mini-pupillages

The availability of mini-pupillages for first-year students and the timetable for applications differs among chambers – many are aimed at second years and above. Mini pupillages are a great way to see barristers in action and to introduce yourself to people who could remember you favourably later on. Check chambers’ websites for details of how and when to apply.

Informal legal work experience

Many of the formal work experience schemes run by larger firms follow a strict timetable and are often open only to second-year students and above (with notable exceptions – see above). However, it is possible to secure work experience at smaller, high-street firms on a much more ad hoc basis.

You could write to firms in your area or give them a call to see whether they have any opportunities. Providing office support for a day or two, or shadowing a solicitor for an afternoon, is all valuable experience that will help to improve your CV and knowledge about what you to do when you graduate. Finding opportunities like this also demonstrates excellent initiative.

Plus, with many companies introducing hybrid working opportunities following the lifting of covid-19 restrictions, there are plenty of virtual opportunities available – it might just require some digging.

Non-legal work experience

Remember, all work experience is valuable – whether that’s working at the local corner shop, waitressing in a restaurant or working in retail. It’s not only the transferable skills that you can develop in these roles, for example dealing with tricky customers, that will impress graduate recruiters but also your ability to hold down a job while studying.

On top of this, building some experience in an area where clients of the firms you are interested in operate is also fantastic. For example, if you’re interested in private client work, any customer-facing role such as working in catering, customer services or events will really help to demonstrate that you have the necessary people skills and can apply them in a professional environment. If you apply to a corporate firm, any experience in the financial sector (eg, working for a bank, hedge fund or related business) will be particularly relevant.

Firms will want to see evidence of your previous employment on your CV and applications because these opportunities will have taught you valuable transferable skills. Previous jobs – for example, in retail or the hospitality industry – should not be cut from your CV. Use them as evidence of the core skills needed in any professional environment, such as team working, customer service, time management and responsibility.

Many firms will appreciate how hard financially it can be to go to university and the need to therefore be employed in more casual jobs while you are studying, so do not worry if this makes securing the kind of work experiences set out above more difficult. Earning a living while studying for better qualifications is something to be proud of and, as said previously, many recruiters will be impressed by the commitment you have shown.

Gemma Baker, graduate recruitment manager at Willkie Farr & Gallagher UK, says: “Candidates should include examples of both legal and non-legal work experience in their applications. I am just as interested in non-legal work experience – to me, consistently working 10 to 16 hours a week at McDonalds, WHSmith or Tesco alongside your studies is more valuable than having done a week’s work experience at a law firm.”

You should always consider the alternative ways you have shown initiative and identify the key transferable skills you might have developed from previous jobs.   

Pro bono

Volunteering for a free legal advice centre, charity or organisation such as Citizens Advice is another fantastic way to gain legal work experience – you improve your CV while helping others.

It is possible to juggle these commitments with studying and any part-time job you might have, although it will cut down your free time. However, it’s worth it.

Find more information on the benefits of pro bono work via LCN look through a nationwide list of pro bono initiatives.

Mooting and debating

Joining mooting and debating societies and taking part in competitions is great for building up key skills, including advocacy, teamwork and research.

Mooting is essential for those bound for the Bar, but it is also a great activity for any aspiring solicitor to get involved in, too.

Read this Feature for more information on mooting opportunities for students or listen to ‘Episode 31: a beginner’s guide to mooting’ via The LawCareers.Net Podcast.

Extracurricular activities

There so many things you can be doing with your time, besides pursuing legal work experience. Employers like well-rounded candidates and most of the recruiters we speak to want to see evidence of extracurricular interests outside the law. That means playing for a sports team, playing in a band, singing in a choir or setting up a book club – among countless other things. These are all great activities to pursue that will look excellent on your CV.

Join your student law society

If you’re interested in a career as a lawyer, join your university’s student-run law society – whether you’re a non-law or law student. . Student law societies usually have good links with the legal profession and can help their members by organising campus visits with law firms and other employers, as well as arranging opportunities for volunteering, mooting and social activities.

On top of the activities that they offer, they’re also a great place to start building a network of like-minded people.

Read this article explaining all the benefits that student law societies have to offer.

And finally…

Make sure to do as well as you can academically in your first year. Even if your first-year results don’t count toward your overall degree classification, recruiters inundated with high-quality applications will look at your module breakdown for evidence of consistent academic ability and the right attitude.

You should also take advantage of some of the opportunities above, not least because many of them will help you to decide whether the career you are considering is right for you. That said, missing out on an open day or vacation scheme in your first year is no reason to panic. Make sure you enjoy your time at university because it will fly by quicker than you can say “Solicitors Qualifying Exam”.

Are you a non-law student? Get started via LawCareers.Net’s Non-law hub.

Olivia Partridge is the content producer at LawCareers.Net.