Written by Rachel Shepherd, Editor, Graduate Prospects, November 2012
Work experience highlights the different options within the profession and increases your legal knowledge. More importantly it demonstrates your commitment to a career in law
Placements with the biggest firms are usually in the Easter and summer of law undergraduates' penultimate year or the final year for non-law students. Schemes tend to last for between one and three weeks, with a few continuing for a whole month.
At a medium-sized firm placements may be loosely structured, requiring you to exercise initiative to benefit from the experience. At the big firms the large numbers taking part have their time fully planned. There will be talks and other activities to provide an overview of the firm as well as involvement in the work of one or two departments.
Because placements are so important, applications are highly competitive. Some firms automatically treat work experience candidates as applicants for training contracts. Others ask students to apply separately for training contract places.
Work experience applications need to be plentiful, well researched and targeted meticulously at each firm. Even then, it is possible that you will not get a placement. This is not the end of your hopes of working at a large firm. You can still make separate applications for training contracts a few months later.
Gaining experience in small firms is also valuable and students don't have to wait until late in their degrees to try this. Arrangements are often informal so it's a matter of being persistent and asking. Find out the name of the appropriate partner to contact. An email or letter followed up with a phone call can be effective. Do not expect pay in these placements, at least to begin with, or a round of social events. The benefits are considerable both in finding out about the nitty-gritty of legal practice and to strengthen CVs. Many firms would not dream of appointing a trainee without experience.
Many of the larger firms open for applications in the autumn and may have pre-Christmas closing dates for Easter and summer vacation work. Increased competition for places in recent years means that schemes may be brought forward to catch the very best applicants early.
Traditionally, deadlines for summer work experience tend to fall between January and April, several months ahead of training contract application. However, the best advice is to research early to avoid missing the deadlines. Firms may be quite specific about what sort of applications they want and when, such as final year non-law students at Easter and penultimate year law students in the summer. Find out more about applying for jobs.
Vacation placements are your opportunity to develop new skills and demonstrate your potential to the firm. Listening and asking plenty of questions will show you are interested. You may also be asked to carry out some tasks - perhaps reading and commenting on files or doing some research. It is essential to perform any work to the best of your ability even if it means staying late.
The social aspect of vacation placements is also important. Enter into the spirit of whatever is going on - but remember you may find yourself being called upon to make intelligent conversation with a senior lawyer so drinking too much is a bad idea.
The big firms make a considerable effort to put their best side on display during their vacation schemes, leaving the long hours of hard work to come later. However, you will still leave with much more realistic knowledge of the individual firm and commercial legal practice then you had when you arrived.
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