The Importance of Legal Work Experience

Legal work experience is one of the most important things law firms look for in applications for training contracts. It demonstrates to a firm a keen interest in the law as well as providing some evidence of real-world practical experience.

The more connected the work experience is with the type of firm the applicant is applying to, and the areas of law it works with, the more weight that work experience is likely to have with that firm.

It should also be remembered that many law firms use their formal vacation schemes as a way to pre-select candidates for interview for their training contract positions. A vacation scheme gives the firm much more time to assess you than an interview affords and it also gives you much more time in which to make a positive impression.

Types of Legal Work Experience

Many of the medium to large-sized firms have formal law vacation schemes, where candidates will spend a week or more working at the firm.

As well as vac schemes, there are alterative types of work experience that will be viewed positively by legal recruiters:

  • Pro bono
    • Law centres
    • Citizen’s Advice Bureau
    • Charities
  • Work shadowing legal professionals, for example private practice solicitors, in-house lawyers, district judges, barristers.
  • Attending the courts – it’s possible to sit in the public galleries and follow cases
  • Attend law firm open days

It should also be remembered that non-law related work experience can be valuable too.

Particularly where you were given a good level of responsibility and developed your skills and competencies or the experience helped increase your commercial awareness.

Using Legal Work Experience to Make Informed Decisions

As well as adding power to a CV, legal work experience also gives candidates a chance to get to know specific firms better before deciding whether or not to apply for a training contract with them. They also provide a more general insight into how law firms work. This is often key for law students as the reality of practise is often quite different from the study of the same areas of law.

On a work placement, you will get a much better sense of the culture of a firm and the people who work there. This is invaluable information when it comes to deciding whether you want to apply to work there in the future.

Many students find that they had originally wanted to work for one type of firm but after doing a vacation scheme with that firm, or another firm for that matter, they changed their minds based on this practical experience.

Making Vacation Scheme Applications

Applications for vacation schemes are often even more competitive than for training contracts because candidates will seek to do more than one placement. With training contracts, however, successful candidates will only accept one position and reject any other offers they receive thus giving others the chance of receiving them.

Therefore, taking the time to get your applications right is crucial. Far too many candidates do not take the application process seriously enough and try to rush off multiple applications which will have a very limited chance of success.

It is much better to spend some time researching the firms you want to apply to, what they are looking for in their vacation scheme candidates and putting together a well thought out and well-presented application. Quality rather than quantity is definitely the key here.

You should also ensure you take time over the presentation of your documents and get others to read over them for you to avoid simple mistakes such as spelling and grammar mistakes.

Aim for Variation

Unless you absolutely know that you only want to work for a magic circle firm, try to add some variation into the work experience you go for. This will help you with the decisions you make about where you ultimately want to train and work.

Unpaid Legal Work Experience

The Law Society’s Junior Lawyer Division receives regular reports of junior lawyers being asked to work for free for an extended period of time.

This is certainly a sensitive area and one which is far from black and white.  My opinion is that unpaid work has its place and will very much depend on a variety of factors, such as the stage the person is at in their legal career/studies, how long the period of work is to be, what type of work is to be undertaken.

At one end of the spectrum, if the work is to be for several months and the person has legal skills that are to be utilised solely for fee earning work then alarm bells may start to ring.

However, if the work placement is for a much shorter period and involves basic legal research and administrative support together with a chance to work shadow qualified solicitors then I would encourage this as a way to increase experience and improve the CV.  Obviously, if payment can be arranged (even just for expenses) then this would be preferable.

As with many of these things, it depends on the individual circumstances and each person should make their own judgment about the situation.

If you find yourself in this situation and are unsure about it you can always put a call into the Junior Lawyers Division helpline to discuss things.

And Finally…

It really can’t be overstated how important it is to get a place on a vacation scheme or gain some other form of work experience, given the current high level of competition for training contracts.

I’ll leave you with this video of a University of Leicester graduate who discusses his legal work experience placement with Shepherd Wedderburn LLP and what he got out of it.

He gives various reasons why getting some legal work experience is so important, including helping with your decision-making and acting as a gateway through which you can secure a training contract.

Matt Oliver

Matt is a former FTSE 100 in-house lawyer, an experienced legal career coach and MD of Trainee Solicitor Surgery. He provides entry level law careers advice to students and graduates through his writing and mentoring. He also offers private one to one coaching to those struggling with training contract, vacation scheme or paralegal applications and interviews. Find out more about Matt's 1-2-1 Coaching >>>>

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