Making Work Experience Work For You
Lessons I’ve learned:
Whilst my career path now is full of wonderful opportunities and admired by some, this wasn’t always the case. During my summer holidays at university, I wasn’t able to take on unpaid work experience or vacation schemes: coming from a low-income background, I had very little support to meet the costs of university living and so I had to prioritise earning money over the need to get legal experience on my CV. I was also struggling with an undiagnosed chronic illness at the time that had a profound impact on my studies. By the time I finished my degree with a 2:2 and not a days’ experience to my name, I thought my career in law might already be at an end.
Not wanting to admit defeat, I contacted local firms in a bid to gain some unpaid work experience. One firm responded offering me a one week stay and I was determined to make the most of those 5 working days, in any way I could. That one week of work experience in Family Law transformed into a 3 month temporary contract in Post-Completions, which turned into a full time Legal Assistant role in Private Client, which later developed into my Training Contract. The firm even supported me through my LPC as a ‘thank you’ for all my hard work over the years.
So, what is the key to turning your work experience into tangible career success?
Work, work, work, work, work…
I don’t mean for you to work your fingers to the bone (balance is important), but always be proactive. If you complete a task, ask to help with something else. If the person you are working with doesn’t have anything else for you, suggest that you are happy to help any other colleagues who might require assistance. Don’t sit there twiddling your thumbs while you wait for the next task.
If there is a letter that needs a response, or a simple piece of drafting, why not ask if you can ‘have a go’ at preparing it yourself? In the worst-case scenario, the fee earner has to prepare the document from scratch (which they would need to do anyway, if you hadn’t tried), but in the best-case scenario you could save the fee earner precious time and earn brownie points in the process. When taking this approach, it always helps to have an example of something similar in front of you, so that you can match tone and style.
Be attentive and ask questions! You might find that you aren’t placed in the most fascinating area of law – but get involved. Especially if you are invited to sit-in on a Client meeting. What would happen if the Client didn’t take your advice? Why did you suggest this course of action? Is there anything else the Client could do?
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If you aren’t invited to attend a meeting, you can still ask lots of questions of the people you are working with. What route to Law did you take? What advice would you give a junior lawyer starting out? What do you like most about the area of law you specialise in?
By speaking up, you are more likely to be noticed by other staff members, it demonstrates as sense of assuredness, and it ensures that your colleagues are engaging with you. Whilst this might sound like obvious advice, too many are too nervous to speak and fail to leave an impression.
I can’t count the number of times I have asked someone on work experience if they would like to take notes and for them to decline, only to forget crucial steps later. Even if the process seems simple, take quick, accurate notes that can help guide you. You might recall all the parts of the process immediately, but what if you were asked to repeat the task several days later? It will take less time for a fee earner to wait for you to jot down some instructions than it will for them to explain the process a second (or even third!) time. Plus, you’re much more likely to impress if you demonstrate that you’re able to work more independently.
If you undertake work for a firm be sure to connect with the people you interacted with on LinkedIn. If you don’t yet have a profile, make one! This way, you can keep up to date with the latest firm news and job opportunities – as well as giving them visibility to your plans and progress. I can’t emphasise the value of your network enough: as a junior lawyer, your network will be essential to landing key opportunities and clients. As well as finding role-models you can learn from, it is also good to have connections in a similar position as you, to share experiences and advice, so be sure to attend networking and junior lawyer events.
Whilst this advice might seem obvious to some, it is surprising how often people on work experience miss the mark. So, if you are able to master the above, then you stand a real chance of setting yourself apart and converting short unpaid work experience into long-term paid positions.
Law Firms – We Need YOU!
Do you offer work experience to aspiring lawyers? If not, now is a great time to start. This can be a great way to support junior lawyers and it can also promote (much needed) greater diversity amidst the profession; providing a route to law for talented individuals who might not otherwise be considered for training contracts or legal positions using ‘traditional’ pre-requisites. If you are unsure how to kick-start your work experience offering, contact LawSkills today for advice.
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