Gaining work experience is one of the most useful things you can do, both in terms of 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?
Widen your horizons
There are numerous “lateral” activities you can do, which will increase your legal knowledge and impress future employers. Some of these you may not even have considered as being helpful in terms of a legal career but, trust me, they will help. 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. When you consider that you are likely to be dealing with real clients who have real legal dilemmas, the “hands-on” nature of the work becomes apparent.
Our current pro bono scheme encompasses such activities as providing potentially disadvantaged clients with advice face to face, on the telephone and by letter; giving presentations in schools and prisons on relevant legal topics; writing articles and attending the local County Court to assist with clients.
Just in that brief description you can see the useful skills being both acquired and exercised – communication, research, drafting, team work. And if you can see it, so can employers. Large firms are keen to display their community engagement credentials and a recent survey of HR managers in large legal firms showed that an interest in pro bono work was the most attractive aspect in a candidate’s CV. This makes sense when you consider that the essential framework of any legal career is present in pro bono – the need to grasp legal concepts and be able to explain them to laypeople in comprehensible terms.
Other voluntary options might include Citizens Advice Bureau advice work (particularly if you are able to do evening shifts) or acting as an appropriate adult for young offenders and other vulnerable individuals at police stations. Full training would be given before you have to “go it alone”, and if that type of role doesn’t appeal then you could consider other voluntary roles within the criminal justice system – as a mentor, perhaps, for offenders both young and old.
The national charity Victim Support is always seeking volunteers to assist with their work – you might find yourself giving emotional or practical help to a victim of crime or giving support and practical information to people attending court by becoming a Witness Service volunteer. As an insight into the practical working of the court system, that could hardly be bettered!
Have you ever thought about being a special constable? Despite the expansion of the role of Police Community Support Officer, “specials” are still being sought by police forces to work alongside regular officers. They are similarly sworn in at court or before a magistrate and have the same powers in law, which include the power of arrest. Specials are required to work at least 16 hours a month but that work could involve not only attending at football matches but dealing with crime prevention, missing person enquiries, road traffic accidents and of course, dealing with all aspects of crime.
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. There is an added advantage to such work in that you may be able to fit your participation around your existing academic commitments.
Other charities such as Amnesty International always welcome student assistance in the form of representation on campus, helping to organise campaigns and running fundraising events. While not “work experience” in the strict sense, involvement in such activity demonstrates not only that you are aware of such issues but that you possess commercial awareness – what will and won’t succeed in terms of bringing in business and raising funds – a vital skill for lawyers.
Another unpaid (but still worthwhile) option: smaller law firms, who don’t run paid vacation schemes, may well welcome students who are prepared to attend their offices for a couple of weeks in the summer/Christmas /Easter breaks. In return for doing routine admin tasks you could ask for the chance to shadow a solicitor at court or carrying out a client interview. Ensure your CV looks good and up to date and consult your Careers Service about drafting a speculative letter in those terms. Even if you don’t have the time or financial ability to offer unpaid work to a firm, ask whether they would be prepared to allow you to “shadow” a solicitor for a few days.
For those of you with previous experience in a legal setting, seeking part-time work during the holidays as a paralegal (even for a short period) should not be seen as a “step down” the legal ladder but a valuable opportunity to convince future employers that you are serious about a legal career. Taking what might appear to be “only” admin jobs in a legal setting will still allow you to hone those vital transferable skills, not to mention affording a number of useful networking contacts. Thinking more laterally again, paid work in the court sector in an administrative capacity is a good way of demonstrating that you are prepared to learn about the justice system from a different perspective than simply attending court.
If your legal course provider runs a mentoring scheme, take full advantage of it! Many lawyers are aware of the difficulties that face 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 to becoming a mentee in such a scheme – the opportunity to discuss your career hopes with a practising lawyer, possible practical help with your CV, discussion of interview technique etc. Work experience with your mentor’s firm can’t always be guaranteed, but often occurs, and it is not unknown for the mentor/mentee relationship to result in the offer of a training contract.
Everything is relevant
Finally, don’t despise “other” work experience. Students often worry that time spent doing such jobs as bar work should be omitted from their CV. However it’s important to ask yourself “Did you work long hours? In stressful situations? Did you deal with difficult people? Had to take decisions and use 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 what you have done, whether it’s paid or unpaid work experience, and you will recognise the value of time spent outside purely “legally” related activities. And so will your future employers.