When law firms are battling to retain staff and stay profitable, taking in handfuls of eager would-be lawyers on work experience is not always top of the agenda. To get a look in, you need to think creatively - Angela Smith, careers manager at The University of Law York, shows you how!
Gaining work experience is one of the most useful things you can do, in terms of both improving your CV and genuinely discovering whether your notion of life in a legal firm matches the reality. But what do you do when firms are cutting back on vacation schemes and work experience seems difficult to come by?
The answer is to widen your horizons. There are numerous ‘lateral' activities that you can do which will increase your legal knowledge and impress future employers. Some of these you may not have considered as being helpful in terms of a legal career, but trust me, they are - and you might even enjoy them.
To begin with, you don't need to be actively pursuing a career in legal aid to get yourself involved in pro bono work, which involves the provision of free legal advice and assistance to individuals and groups. The work is hands-on, dealing with real clients who have real legal dilemmas.
The current University of Law pro bono schemes encompass such activities as providing advice to clients, giving presentations to community organisations on legal topics, writing articles and assisting clients in local county courts. You can see the array of useful skills acquired and honed - communication, research, drafting, teamwork - and if you can see them, so can employers.
Large firms are keen to display their community engagement credentials and a recent survey of HR managers in large law firms revealed that an interest in pro bono work was the most attractive aspect of a candidate's CV. This makes sense when you consider that the essential framework of any legal career - the ability to grasp and explain legal concepts to laypeople in comprehensible terms - is present in pro bono.
Other volunteering opportunities could involve spending time at Citizens Advice (particularly if you can do evening shifts) or acting as an appropriate adult for young offenders and other vulnerable individuals at police stations. Full training will be given before you have to go it alone. If that type of role doesn't appeal, there are other voluntary roles within the criminal justice system - perhaps mentoring offenders?
The national charity Victim Support is always seeking assistance from volunteers. Get involved and you could find yourself giving emotional or practical help to a victim of crime or, by volunteering with the Witness Service, offering support and information to people attending court. For insight into the practical workings of the court system, what could be better? And speaking as an ex-Crown Prosecution Service lawyer myself, I can confirm that the work of volunteers to assist with confused and sometimes distressed witnesses is invaluable.
Join the cops
Have you ever thought about being a special constable? Despite the expansion of the role of the police community support officer, police forces are still seeking 'specials' to work alongside regular officers. Similar to ordinary police officers, they are sworn in at court or before a magistrate and have the same powers in law, including the power of arrest. Specials are required to do a minimum of 16 hours per month, which could involve attending football matches or dealing with missing person enquiries and road traffic accidents.
Unusual? Perhaps, but if you are seeking a career in the legal aid sector, you will be able to show employers that you have seen it in operation from a unique angle! An added advantage is that you might be able to fit your role around existing academic commitments.
Charities such as Amnesty International often welcome student assistance in the form of representation on campus and help to organise and run campaigns and fundraising events. While not work experience in the strictest sense, involvement with these organisations demonstrates that you are not only clued up on current issues, but also commercially aware (you understand what will help bring in business and raise funds) - a vital skill for lawyers.
Also unpaid, but still worthwhile, is spending time during your holidays doing unpaid work in a small firm (these practices generally don't run paid vac schemes). In return for doing routine admin tasks, you could be invited to shadow a solicitor at court or to carry out a client interview. Before contacting firms, ensure that your CV looks good and up to date, and consult your careers service about drafting a speculative letter. And even if you don't have the time or financial ability to work in a firm unpaid, you could still ask to shadow a solicitor for a few days.
I appreciate that financial considerations may preclude using even part of your spare time to do unpaid work. For those of you with previous experience in a legal setting, try finding part-time work during the holidays in law firms in a paralegal or support role. View this type of work not as a step down the ladder, but as a valuable opportunity to demonstrate to future employers that you're serious about a legal career. Administrative jobs in a legal setting will allow you to hone vital transferable skills and provide you with valuable contacts. Thinking laterally again, paid admin work in the court sector will also be beneficial and will prove to employers that you are prepared to learn about the justice system from a different perspective, other than simply by attending court.
Find a mentor
Some course providers run mentoring schemes and if yours does, be sure to take full advantage. Many lawyers are aware of the difficulties faced by aspiring solicitors and barristers and are happy to help provide a rung on the ladder by acting as mentors. There are a number of advantages, including the opportunity to discuss your career ambitions with a practising lawyer and constructive help with your CV and interview technique. Although work experience with a mentor's firm can't be guaranteed, it often occurs and it is not unheard of for the mentoring relationship to result in a training contract.
Show off your assets
Finally, don't discount 'other' work experience. As a careers adviser at the University of Law, I frequently meet students who worry that jobs such as bar work should be omitted from their CV. My response is always to ask: "You worked long hours in stressful situations, dealing with difficult people? Took decisions and used your own initiative when the boss was away or just couldn't be found? Congratulations - you'll find yourself doing all those things as a lawyer!" Make the most of the experience you have gained, whether paid or unpaid. You will recognise the value of time spent outside purely law-related activities and your future employers will too.
Angela Smith is the careers manager at The University of Law York
Here are some real-life examples of people who’ve actually gone out there and done it.
Free Representation Unit
Kieran Brand, now a barrister specialising in crime at Maidstone Chambers in Kent, volunteered with the Free Representation Unit (FRU) after completing his BVC. “At first,” says Kieran, “it’s a little daunting. Clients see you as almost the real thing and this is the first time it matters. Obviously you learn your stuff on the BPTC and degree, but here it affects people’s lives. Most importantly, you’ve got to put your client at ease.” Kieran explains that his FRU experience helped him to secure pupillage interviews and sums it up thus: “There’s no experience like getting up in the tribunal to cross-examine a witness. I certainly feel it’s worthwhile, and it’s great to know you’re doing something for someone who would otherwise be unrepresented and wouldn’t have a voice.
Fatim Kurji, a barrister at Birmingham superset No5 Chambers, explains what marshalling involves: “The point of marshalling is to spend some time with a judge to see the litigation process from a judicial perspective. I spent my time reading the skeleton arguments and papers before the court, and then watching the trial unfold. The process is immensely insightful: you quickly learn which advocacy styles are effective and which to avoid. When it came to applying for pupillages, my marshalling experience in particular helped me to answer those standard interview questions such as, ‘What makes a good barrister?’ I would recommend it as a good introduction into seeing how trials are run and putting into perspective the roles of the advocates and the ultimate aim – that of persuading the judge.
Maxine Cole, a senior crown prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service, volunteered for about a year at the Barking and Dagenham CAB following her master’s degree. She comments: “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.