What you need to know

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, but focusing solely on fun and not paying attention to the other things you need to be doing will result in missed opportunities. A healthy balance of work and letting your hair down during your first year will have long-term benefits that you will appreciate later on.

Fortunately, many of the activities that an aspiring lawyer should be pursuing in her or his first year are highly social, interesting and worthwhile in themselves, so what you need do and what you want to do shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Here is a brief run-down of what you need to know ahead of your first year at university.

Preparation for life as a lawyer

Yes, you are only just starting a three-year (or longer) degree, so giving much thought to what happens after you graduate may understandably seem to be low priority compared to the exciting opportunities immediately before you. But law firms start recruiting their future trainees at an almost ridiculously early stage, with some even offering training positions to first-year students. Rightly or wrongly, this means that you will need to make decisions about what you want to do once you graduate and where before you know it.

During your first year, you need to develop a basic understanding of the legal profession and the different subsectors within it, as well as where broadly you might see yourself in the future. 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 our advice on the resources to use during your research. Be sure to sign up to LCN Weekly, your free source of information, advice and news on all aspects of the legal profession, from application and work experience tips to analysis of the key issues you need to know about. And if you’re stuck, have a question or need some one-to-one advice, remember that you can ask the LCN Oracle.

After all, lawyers don’t just tell their clients what the law says – they are 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 both – business, politics, current affairs and so on. This skill is often called commercial awareness and it is something you will need to start developing from day one. Read quality news websites and their business sections and start watching the news. You can also start learning how to think about commercial issues like a lawyer by reading LCN’s weekly Burning Question.

Exams

Forget anything you have heard about first-year exams not being important – they need to be taken seriously if you’re considering a career in law, even if the exams themselves don’t count toward your overall degree classification. Often the competition among graduates for training contracts and pupillages is so intense that recruiters have to look at 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 and non-legal work experience

Many law firms now run work experience schemes aimed specifically at first-year students. These are valuable opportunities to get a sense of the kind of environment you want to be part of in the future, while formal work placement schemes are also one of the best ways to secure a training contract, as many end with a job interview. A full list of law firms’ work placement application deadlines is on LCN. Meanwhile, aspiring barristers should pursue mini-pupillage opportunities, which are the only way to really experience what life as a barrister is really like, while also being a great way to meet valuable contacts.

It is also recommended to seek work experience at smaller, high-street firms, which welcome students on a 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.

The third highly valuable form of legal work experience is volunteering for a free legal advice centre, charity or organisation such as the Citizens Advice Bureau. This is known as pro bono work, which 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 a nationwide list of pro bono initiatives.

So far we have 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 transferrable skills. Previous jobs in pubs and supermarkets should not 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 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.

Extracurricular opportunities

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 or singing in a choir – among countless other things – are all great university pursuits which will also look good on your CV.

One activity that is 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 is also a great activity for any aspiring solicitor to get involved in, too.

You should also definitely 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 which 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. You can learn about upcoming fairs and other events by consulting the LCN Diary.

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 great opportunities to network, be shown round a firm’s offices and ask questions.