Work experience is important to show your commitment to a career in law, and can also help to improve your skills and legal knowledge
Placements with the biggest firms are usually at Easter, Christmas or during the 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 month.
A London placement can be an expensive commitment and, beyond the big firms, they're not always paid for. It's therefore a good idea to aim for locations where you can stay with friends or family.
Placements at medium-sized firms may be loosely structured, requiring you to exercise initiative to benefit from the experience. At the bigger companies, your schedule is planned out for you. There'll be talks and other activities to provide an overview of the firm, as well as involvement in one or two departments.
Advantages of law vacation schemes
Vacation placements are your opportunity to develop new skills and demonstrate your potential to the firm. This is important, as many firms wouldn't think about taking on a trainee without any 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 means that schemes may be brought forward.
Deadlines for summer work experience placements tend to fall between January and April, several months ahead of training contract applications. However, the best advice is to research early. 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.
Listening and asking plenty of questions will show that you're interested. You may be asked to carry out some tasks - perhaps doing some research, or reading and commenting on files. Ensure that you're enthusiastic and show an interest in all tasks - even those that don't really interest you.
How to apply for law vacation schemes
Some firms automatically treat work experience candidates as applicants for training contracts, while others ask students to apply separately.
Work experience applications need to be well-researched and targeted meticulously to each firm. Even then, it's possible that you won't get a placement. This isn't the end of your hopes of working at a large firm, however - you can still make separate applications for training contracts a few months later.
Work 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 often a matter of persistence.
Non-law students also have a chance in small firms, particularly for 'clerking'. This involves going to court for the firm's cases and keeping notes of what's said. Another way of getting inside a small firm is to shadow a solicitor for a couple of days. Search for vacation schemes and law training contracts.