updated on 23 February 2021
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.
“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 from 2021 onwards, the Solicitors Qualifying Exam) 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 have to decide the exact direction you want for your career yet. But if you are interested in a career in law, you should still make the most of the opportunities available to learn about the legal profession, start building your CV and gain some experiences which will be essential when you come to apply, and will also help you to decide the direction you want your career to take.
There are a whole range of things that you can be doing during your first year and the rest of this article will set out the 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 and which are also available at some barristers’ chambers. Prestigious firms including Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills, Simmons & Simmons, Hogan Lovells and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner all offer vacation schemes or insight programmes to first-year students. Each is a valuable opportunity 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.
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.”
Taking place every autumn during October and November, university law fairs are a great way to introduce yourself to firms and chambers. Be sure to do some research into the firms and chambers attending before you go, so that you can make the most of your time by having constructive conversations with the organisations which actually interest you. 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 what may be for you, while it also creates a good impression with recruiters – you can even mention your conversation and who you spoke with in a later application. We have covered law fairs at length on LCN: 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.
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 – but they 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. Write to firms in your area or give them a call. Even providing office support for a day or two, or shadowing a solicitor for an afternoon, is all valuable experience which improves both your CV and your knowledge about what you do and don’t want to do when you graduate. Plus, with remote working still enforced there are still plenty of virtual opportunities available – it might just require some digging.
Non-legal work experience
It’s not just law placements that you should put on your CV – all work experience is valuable. It is even better if you can build some experience in an area where clients of the firms you are interested in operate. 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.
Beyond that, it really is the case that any previous employment will have taught you valuable transferrable skills. Previous jobs – for example, in retail or the hospitality industry – should not be cut from your CV, but used 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 under no circumstances be ashamed or embarrassed 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.
While gaining any type of work experience has understandably been more difficult as a result of covid-19, consider alternatives ways you have shown initiative or identify the key transferrable skills you might have developed from previous jobs.
Volunteering for a free legal advice centre, charity or organisation such as Citizens Advice is a fantastic way to gain legal work experience – you improve your CV while helping others. It is possible to juggle these commitments with study and any part-time job you might have, although it will cut down your free time. However, it’s worth it: here is more information on the benefits of pro bono work, after which you can 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 – advocacy, obviously, but also team work 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. Here is some more information on mooting opportunities for students.
There are many other things you can and should 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, perhaps more recently, setting up a virtual book club – among countless other things – are all great university pursuits which will also look good on your CV.
Join your student law society
Joining your university’s student-run law society is a must, even if you are a non-law student. Student law societies usually have good links with the legal profession and help their members by organising campus visits by law firms and other employers, as well as organising opportunities for volunteering, mooting and social activities. Read this brief article explaining all the benefits that student law societies have to offer.
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. But missing out on an open day or vacation scheme in your first year is no reason to panic – and make sure you enjoy what university has to offer!
Head to LCN’s dedicated area for first-year law students for all you need to start out.
Are you a non-law student? Get started here.
Josh Richman is the senor editorial manager at LawCareers.Net.