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How to get legal work experience

updated on 05 September 2023

Dear Oracle

How can I get legal work experience when every application form asks for prior legal work experience?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: three minutes

Details of legal work experience are often required in applications for vacation schemes and training contracts. Like with any other industry requiring previous experience, this can become a paradoxical question. If you need previous experience to apply for experience, how does anyone ever successfully apply?

The short answer is that you often don’t explicitly require legal experience to apply. Firms are looking for a wider selection of experiences, and application forms will often ask about non-legal work too. Both types of experiences are viewed as equal during applications, particularly for vacation schemes, as they appreciate that candidates may not have had the chance to access legal work experience until this point. Training contract applications, on the other hand, tend to take legal work experience more seriously because it demonstrates an awareness of the realities of the profession and a desire to work in it.

The first step towards answering your legal experience woes is to think about the term ‘legal’ in the broadest of senses. If you know someone who can help you get a few days of shadowing experience at a big firm, then good for you – but not everyone can. If you’re in the latter camp (don’t worry, the majority are), then consider whether you’ve had any interactions with the legal sphere in your everyday life. This could be through your personal or working life.

For example, think about the interaction between a part-time job in a bar and the regulations the establishment is covered by. Could you do some additional research or discuss them with management? This may seem small, but it demonstrates the same interest in the legal profession as more traditionally conceived legal experience.

Read up on how aspiring lawyers can succeed with no legal work experience.

If you’re a student, legal experience can be gained through many different outlets. There are several legal essay writing competitions aimed at students, such as the Law Reform Essay Competition run by the Bar Council. If your university has an active law society, they’re likely to run events in conjunction with firms, both local or national. Going to a bowling or cheese-tasting event with a firm may not seem immediately relevant, but attendance shows dedication to pursuing a legal career and gives you a chance to network with legal professionals.

Finally, some careers services or law societies may offer mentoring schemes in conjunction with firms. A place on such a scheme can be invaluable in giving you access to advice from people who are where you want to be in the future.

Calling all first-year students: read this Oracle to find out how you can get work experience in your first year of university.

Whether you’re a student or not, it’s always worth writing to local firms enquiring about work experience opportunities. High-street firms, for example, may not be your ultimate legal career goal but they’re more likely to offer ad hoc placements than the larger firms. This isn’t to say such firms will offer placements easily – it’s still wise to expect rejection. While being smaller means greater flexibility in being able to offer placements upon request, it can also mean that many are so small as to offer ‘meaningful’ experiences due to staff time limitations so will reject requests on principle. It’s worth writing to as many local firms or legal advice centres as possible for this reason.

Finally, remember not to panic. As discussed above, most firms will only ask about any previous legal experience as part of a wider series of questions on past experiences. There’s also a growing trend of moving away from even asking this question, as firms push for a greater diversity of applicants from different backgrounds and skill sets. Having a lack of specific legal experience can easily be offset by demonstrating other experiences that give you the same transferable skills. While having legal experience can be useful for applications – and for your own decision-making process when considering a legal career – it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.

Bethany Barrett (she/her) is a trainee solicitor at Addleshaw Goddard.