How to get experience at a law firm
National Accident Helpline’s Legal Director Jonathan White gives his top tips for students looking to get work experience placements in law firms. Check out his advice on the application process, common mistakes and how to avoid winding up your colleagues!
I’m a final year student looking for a summer work placement in a law firm. How can I make my application stand out from all the others?
“I would say that the key thing is to make it clear that you have done your research on the firm you’re applying to and to make your experience as relevant to that firm as you can, so that it looks tailored and doesn’t look as if you’ve mailed the same application out to a hundred firms. This demonstrates that you’ve taken time and effort to research the firm and that your skills match their requirements.
“I think mentally you need to view your application as if it’s the only one that you’re doing. Treat each one individually. If you’re just making bland, standard applications, they’re far less likely to be successful. People will notice if you’ve done your homework and that’s critical.”
Should I apply to lots of firms or just a select few?
“There’s a sensible middle ground here. There’s no right or wrong number, but there’s no point sending random applications out to dozens and dozens of placements. You need to check the criteria for the application and only apply to firms where you stand a reasonable chance of getting in. I would tend to make a smaller number of targeted applications rather than taking a scatter-gun approach. But there’s no harm in making quite a few applications, providing that you’ve put the right level of effort into them.”
What’s the best or most unusual thing you’ve seen on a law graduate’s CV?
“Probably the most impressive thing I saw was when someone had set up a charity designed to give legal advice to the community. That really stood out.”
Would you agree that securing work experience is about who you know and not what you know?
“In any medium or large firm, who you know shouldn’t make any difference, because the firm will be driven by internal procedures which won’t allow nepotism. In a smaller, high street practice, I think it’s more likely that they’ll be running schemes for smaller numbers of people and will rely on personal references more than schemes that follow a formal process.”
How can companies create a level playing field for candidates who may not be well connected?
“It’s about having a consistent and transparent process. They should have a policy and a procedure to follow and be conscious of the risk of discrimination.”
What are your top three tips for work experience candidates?
“In terms of making the applications and getting the work experience, don’t miss the deadline, don’t make any grammatical mistakes or careless errors on the applications and do something that makes you stand out from the crowd and tailors your application to the firm.”
“Probably the most impressive thing I saw was when someone had set up a charity designed to give legal advice to the community”
What do you think stands out about the best work experience candidates once the work placement has begun?
“The thing that makes the best candidates stand out is the quality of questions they ask. It’s the people who are curious and ask sensible questions, show interest and enthusiasm and are there to learn. This is the key thing which makes them stand out.
Open-mindedness is really important. Students who are arrogant and think they know it all come across really badly!”
What should work experience students not do in their placement?
“Don’t forget all the basic stuff that you’d expect. Turn up when you’re meant to, look smart, be polite, be enthusiastic and ask the right questions. Don’t come with stereotypes or pre-conceived ideas.”
Do you have any work experience horror stories to share?
“I’ve seen quite a few people who come into work experience with a very clear and fixed idea of what type of law they want to practice and what type of lawyer they want to be.
“Lots of people at university are absolutely committed to being a corporate lawyer, advising businesses, when in fact they know nothing about it at all. They’ve expressed those opinions and views to people in all the other departments and have wound everyone up! I’ve seen that a couple of times, with work experience students telling colleagues ‘I want to be a corporate lawyer. I’m not really interested in spending time a day in the family department.’”
So it’s important not to belittle the people you are with?
“Precisely. That is the worst thing you can do.”
Any final advice for somebody applying for work experience?
“Check out the firm, check out their criteria. Don’t waste your time applying to firms when you don’t think you’ve got a realistic prospect of getting anywhere. Another key point: find out the person running the scheme and if there is an opportunity to ask questions or get in touch about it, then take that opportunity.”
Attention law students – register for Future Legal Mind
Visit this page to register your interest in Future Legal Mind for your chance to win a week’s work experience at Colemans-ctts, a £5,000 prize and the chance to see your work published on the Lawyer 2B website.