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Your first-year guide to a career in law – find out how to kickstart your legal career at this early stage
Your non-law guide to a career in law – everything you need to know about converting to law
updated on 13 March 2023
An important part of going to university is having a great time, meeting new friends and making the most of the wide variety of opportunities that being a student has to offer.
That being said, focusing solely on fun and not paying attention to your academics is likely to result in a few missed opportunities.
A healthy balance of work and socialising during your first year will have long-term benefits that you’ll appreciate later down the line.
If you’d like to learn more about striking a balance between work and social activities, listen to this podcast episode on building a long and sustainable career in law.
Fortunately, many of the activities that an aspiring lawyer should be pursuing in their first year are highly social, interesting and worthwhile in themselves, so what you need to do and what you want to do shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Here’s a brief run-down of what you need to know ahead of your first year at university.
Preparing for life as a lawyer
Yes, you’re only just starting a three-year (or longer) degree, so giving much thought to what happens after you graduate may understandably be a low priority compared to the exciting opportunities that lie in the immediate future.
But law firms start recruiting their future trainees at an almost ridiculously early stage, with some even offering training contracts to first-year students. Rightly or wrongly, this means that you’ll need to make decisions about what you want to do once you graduate and where sooner rather than later.
During your first year, you need to develop a basic understanding of the legal profession and the different subsectors within it, as well as which practice area you see your future self in. A major part of this will be researching potential future employers – all law firms are different and even those with similar specialisations may have very different cultures.
To get started, see this checklist for researching law firms and read our advice on the resources to use during your research.
Be sure to sign up to LCN Weekly, your free source of information and advice on all aspects of the legal profession.
Lawyers don’t just tell their clients what the law says – they’re trusted advisers who help to guide their clients through pitfalls and find solutions to achieve their objectives.
You can only provide good advice to a client, whether it’s a local authority or a tech start-up, if you have knowledge of the wider world around you – business, politics, current affairs and so on. This skill is called commercial awareness and it’s something you must start developing from day one. Read quality news websites and their business sections and start watching the news.
Start learning how to think about commercial issues like a lawyer by reading LCN’s Weekly Commercial Questions, written by leading law firms.
Forget what you’ve heard about first-year exams not being important – they must be taken seriously if you’re considering a career in law, even if the exams themselves don’t count towards your overall degree classification. Not only does this give you a solid foundation for the rest of your degree, but it also encourages strong study habits you’ll carry with you throughout.
Often the competition among graduates for training contracts and pupillages is so intense that recruiters will consider the individual module breakdowns of results from the first, second and third years of study when reviewing applications, so don’t let yourself down by not giving your best during the first year.
Legal work experience
Many law firms run vacation schemes specifically for first-year students. These are valuable opportunities to get a sense of the kind of environment you want to be part of in future, while formal work placement schemes are also one of the best ways to secure a training contract, as many end with a training contract interview.
Plus, with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), you can start building up your required qualifying work experience (QWE) through these experiences if they meet the QWE requirements. With the SQE, students now have more options when it comes to training, given that many law firms will continue to offer a training contract while others will accept candidates with two years’ external QWE.
A full list of law firms’ Vacation scheme application deadlines is available on LCN and you can find out more about the SQE and what’s expected of you via LCN’s SQE hub.
Meanwhile, aspiring barristers should pursue mini-pupillage opportunities, which are the only way to experience what life as a barrister is really like, while also being a great way to make valuable contacts.
It’s also recommended to seek work experience at smaller, high-street firms that welcome students on a more ad hoc basis. You can 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 that improves both your CV and your knowledge about what you want to do when you graduate.
If you’re unsure whether to go for City or high-street firm, watch this webinar on ‘Training at a regional firm’ or read this Feature on ‘Is a career at a City law firm for you?’.
The third highly valuable form of legal work experience is volunteering (which can also count towards QWE if requirements are met) for a free legal advice centre, charity or organisation such as the Citizens Advice.
This is known as pro bono work, which is a fantastic way to gain legal work experience and improve your CV while helping others. It’s possible to juggle these commitments with study and any part-time job you might have, although it’ll cut down your free time.
However, it’s worth it: here’s a nationwide list of pro bono initiatives.
Non-legal work experience
So far we’ve only discussed legal work experience, but non-legal work experience is also highly valuable – not to mention necessary in terms of making ends meet for most students. Any previous employment will have taught you valuable transferable skills.
Jobs in pubs and supermarkets shouldn’t be cut from your CV but used intelligently to provide evidence of the core skills needed in any professional environment, such as team working, time keeping and responsibility. It’s 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 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.
To find out how beneficial non-legal jobs are, read this LCN Says on ‘How aspiring lawyers can succeed with no 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, performing in a band or singing in a choir – among countless other things – are all great university pursuits that also look good on your CV.
One activity that’s definitely recommended is getting involved in your university’s mooting or debating society. Taking part in debating competitions is great for building up the key skills needed to be a successful lawyer – advocacy, obviously, but also team work and research. Mooting is essential for those bound for the Bar, but it’s also a great activity for any aspiring solicitor to get involved in too.
Listen to this LCN Podcast episode on the benefits of mooting.
You should also join your student law society. These societies are excellent organisations and are usually the best way to learn about social and careers events, as well as upcoming activities such as mooting competitions.
Law fairs and open days
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 organisations attending before you go, so that you can make the most of your time by having constructive conversations with those that interest you.
Don’t ask basic questions that you could find answers to on a firm’s website – aim for more interesting conversations.
Check out our Meet the Recruiter profiles for information on what you can do to impress recruiters.
This will be invaluable in determining which firm or pathway 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.
You can learn about upcoming fairs and other events by consulting the LCN Events page.
Meanwhile, lots of law firms run open days and presentations throughout the year, and you should certainly apply for a place at two or three. These are invaluable opportunities – whether in person or virtual – to network, be shown round a firm’s offices and ask questions.