The legal sector is a competitive area, and one that is not immune to the “experience trap.” While a training contract should give you the kind of real world experience you need for your subsequent legal career, prior work experience can be invaluable in beating out the competition to secure that contract in the first place. Some degree of work experience can even be a big help at the very earliest stages of your career, when applying for a law degree or conversion course.
So what kind of work experience is out there in the legal sector, and how do you go about getting it?
Formal work experience opportunities, paid or unpaid, may be advertised by firms of various kinds. These tend to be advertised in much the same way as any other job, through online job boards or in the press, and have similar recruitment processes involving a CV or application form followed by an interview. Not all opportunities are advertised at all, so you might want to send a CV speculatively to some firms that are especially relevant or conveniently-located just to see if they will consider giving you an opportunity or have anything coming up in the near future.
Some of these may be vacation schemes, designed for degree or conversion course students. These are of various lengths and are even more diverse in terms of the kind of work they might involve, depending on the type and size of the firm offering the opportunity. However, they are timed to coincide with university holiday seasons as they are specifically designed for current legal students to gather industry experience between semesters.
You might also undertake pro bono work, using the skills and knowledge you have already gained in your studies to help out with real cases. This is naturally more demanding and is unpaid, but is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to the profession while dealing with real cases and having direct contact with clients.
If you are interested in a career as a barrister rather than a solicitor, you may be able to undertake a mini pupillage. This involves a short period – usually just a week or two – spent shadowing a barrister in chambers.
Informal opportunities may be of interest to those who are already studying law, but are arguably more useful for those who want to gather some experience of the legal profession before starting their degree (or their conversion course, as the case may be). The experience will look great on your UCAS application, and will also be a great way to find out first-hand about what a legal career entails and make sure it is right for you.
This kind of work experience involves shadowing legal professionals or providing basic assistance with their work on a voluntary basis. It is essentially similar to the work experience you were probably required to do for a week or two during secondary school. On some levels, the experience you gain is basic but it still represents a useful real-world insight into the legal sector. Opportunities are almost certainly unadvertised, requiring a speculative and proactive approach on your part, and will almost certainly be unpaid.