updated on 22 December 2020
As coronavirus accelerates the changes sweeping the legal sector, your university’s employability service can help you to understand what employers are looking for, keep up with changes to the market and the competition for opportunities, and develop the post-pandemic skills needed to secure a training contract. Here are five ways to use your careers service to make a real difference to your legal career prospects, with examples from students and the employability team at The University of Law.
It is important to book your first careers service appointment (virtual or in-person) in the autumn term. Your careers adviser should offer guidance on the legal career paths and help you understand how the process works.
When Ellen Banks confirmed her place on the GDL at The University of Law (ULaw), she had her first careers appointment “a couple of months before the first term began, to get a feel for everything I needed to do in terms of employability and getting my CV ready. It was helpful to speak to my careers adviser and plan everything I needed to do before all the work and deadlines on the GDL got intense. In my first appointment we discussed the areas that I was interested in and my decision to pursue the training contract route, as well as alternative options such as paralegal work. My careers adviser said I should use the employability service’s STEP guide to legal careers which has an online workbook for every stage of the application process, from researching law firms all the way through to interviews and assessment centres.”
Looking back at the beginning of her first year, LLB student Emily Buttrick says she “really wasn’t sure which career path was right for me, so I booked my first appointment because I needed guidance on getting started with my research. My careers adviser was really supportive and helped me to balance doing general career research with a real focus on my grades, as starting university was a shock to the system in terms of studying full time while living on my own for the first time and beginning to plan my future.”
John Watkins, director of ULaw’s employability service, confirms that “all our students develop an action plan in their first session. The transition into higher education takes some adjustment, so we don’t expect students to do too much too soon. At ULaw new students benefit from an employability session in the first week of term which maps out where you need to get to over the duration of your course. This enables those students who are already thinking along these lines to hit the ground running, while introducing the priorities and the mindset to students who are less ready so that they can develop a game plan by the time the second term starts.”
Detailed feedback on the first draft of an application from an employability specialist can make all the difference. “The employability service offers the opportunity to have your CV reviewed by a solicitor, which I took advantage of quite early on,” says Ellen. “It was so useful to receive feedback on my CV from someone in practice. Then when I started drafting applications, I emailed each one to my careers adviser and had a meeting with her before I sent it to the firm. I was then invited to attend an assessment day for a vacation scheme and had another appointment with my careers adviser. She took me through what to expect, so it was really helpful.” Ellen successfully completed the assessment day and vacation scheme, and accepted the offer of a training contract with Penningtons Manches Cooper.
Third-year LLB student Emily Buttrick has been using her careers service frequently since January to apply for vacation schemes. “My careers adviser sent me a 30-minute video providing detailed feedback on every sentence of my cover letter – what was good, what needed to be improved and what could be changed,” she says. “That led to my first interview offer, so I went back to my careers adviser for a face-to-face appointment where we discussed the kinds of questions that might be asked, which really helped me to feel more prepared – and encouraged because I was very nervous. I successfully secured a place on the vacation scheme, which was fantastic.”
John advises that “to get the most out of their employability service, students should have the first draft of a CV, cover letter or set of application form answers already prepared, because at that stage the careers adviser can really add further value. The improvements and insights from feedback on one application form can be applied to all future applications and cover letters.”
Covid-19 has changed the way lawyers and their clients work, so adapting your skillset for these fast-changing times is essential. Midway through Ellen’s GDL, everything moved online. “I didn’t feel that confident about how to interact professionally and put myself across on Zoom, so I took part in a virtual leadership experience over the summer holidays,” she explains. “It coincided with training contract interviews and assessment centres, which also all took place over Zoom. The experience was great practice for my interviews and group assessments which took place just a few days later, so I felt more prepared and comfortable. The careers service has really impressed me since lockdown. They have done so much to not only build my commercial awareness but also equip me with the skills for online working.”
Every ULaw student is offered the opportunity to participate in a virtual leadership experience outside term time over two half-day sessions, explains John: “In the last one 500 students signed up – the improvement I saw in the second session compared with the first from the students taking part was significant. Those students are now in a materially better position when they have a virtual interview or assessment centre. Employers are now going to be hiring people who are very skilled in a virtual working environment, in many cases more so than the people managing them, so the generation coming through are going to have a huge influence on the way organisations work virtually.”
To really improve your virtual working practices and get the most value out of an online meeting, turn on your camera so that you can engage face to face and develop the emotional literacy skills that are vital for working in this way. Equally, be open about your needs and communicate with your adviser, for example, about timing appointments to suit you. “A downside of working virtually is that boundaries are being broken down more and more,” observes John. “People are having to share access to limited quiet spaces where they can have meetings or interviews, and careers advisers and recruiters understand this. If something might be a problem, let us know.”
Quality support is even more vital in the economic context of coronavirus, as John outlines: “Students rightly expect a top-notch employability service and a focus on employment as a key part of completing their studies, particularly as fees have risen over the years, and covid-19 makes this added value even more important, with the prospect of employment becoming harder to secure for at least the short term. Looking out for students’ pastoral needs is as much a part of that as improving an application form. Understandably, many students are struggling with the impact that coronavirus is having, including the economic consequences. Many of our team have been through redundancies and previous recessions themselves, as well as personal upheavals, so we have a lot of life experience to draw on and can provide advice that takes the bigger picture into account.”
For future trainee Ellen, one of the most significant ways that the employability service made a difference was in developing her commercial awareness: “Coming from a non-law background, I didn’t know much about the legal sector and my careers adviser pushed me to do a lot of research into firms and helped me find the right questions to ask and places to look. Also, the opportunities to attend networking events where you get to chat to solicitors and develop your commercial awareness by talking to people in practice are such a valuable service that careers services provide.”
Whether you are starting out in your research or applying for vacation schemes and training contracts, getting in touch with your careers service this term should be a top priority.
Find out more about The University of Law’s Careers and Employability support