Meet law student Abigail Black, who is working with us until the autumn. She has already secured a training contract with a major USA law firm based in London; from what I have seen, she will go far.
Abigail was telling me about some of the challenges faced by law students in search of good work placements, and I suggested that she write a “guest blog” about her experiences. We hope that her advice will be of use to other students.
Forget the endless university exams, the demanding coursework and the time-consuming dissertation; one of the biggest challenges facing law students today is working out where to go and what to do after graduation. Faced with an increasingly saturated and competitive legal marketplace, it is becoming more and more difficult for law graduates to make informed decisions about which type of law firm holds the key to that elusive career.
I must admit that until recently, “work experience” was a phrase that struck dread and dismay into my heart. I undertook my first placement after my GCSE exams. Two weeks later, I had established a firm friendship with the photocopier and could recite the tea and coffee preferences of every member of staff – but I had learned little else.
Fast forward a few years and, armed with a 2:1 law degree, I was excited but nervous when the opportunity for work experience at Stowe Family Law arose. My expectations were high – but I feared that, once again, I would find myself left none the wiser at the placement’s end. Fortunately, this hasn’t been the case.
What follows is my own personal guide to gaining the most out of legal work experience. Perhaps my “top tips” can enable other law students to enjoy the same types of opportunities that I have been able to.
- Research, Be Selective and Do It!
A popular myth amongst law students is that by the time you graduate, you must know exactly what kind of solicitor you want to become. Wrong! However valuable those 9 am Contract Law lectures were, they don’t enable you to make informed career decisions. Your degree provides the academic foundations for a legal career; however, before you begin laying the bricks, it’s a good idea to draw up some plans.
This is where work experience comes in. There is no quick and easy substitute for first-hand experience, so it is imperative that you make the most of every opportunity available to you.
I am not suggesting that you should take out your Yellow Pages and pick a local solicitors’ firm at random. A selective approach, which involves thorough research, is essential.
Following Sir Paul McCartney’s high-profile divorce earlier this year, I decided that family law was an area that I would like to explore in further depth. I applied to Stowe Family Law, because it is a practice regarded amongst the national elite in this area. I researched the firm carefully and read an interview with Marilyn Stowe, who struck me as someone from whom I could learn a great deal. By exploring my options and applying to a firm with an excellent reputation in my chosen area, I could be confident that my work experience placement would be productive.
- First Appearances Count
The importance of making a good first impression cannot be underestimated. Think long and hard about how you wish to present yourself and the impression that you intend to make upon the firm.
Law firms will not judge you on your fashion sense or your hairstyle, but remember that you are going to be representing that firm to clients. So dress smartly! This will help you to fit in. If you look the part, you will feel the part: it is much better to feel like a prospective trainee solicitor than just another “work experience student.”
Do your utmost to appear confident and enthusiastic. Although nerves are normal when you’re starting at a new place of work, remember that you’re there because you impressed the firm upon application. Now it’s time to show them what you can do!
On my first day at Stowe Family Law, I arrived at the firm’s Harrogate office at 9 am prompt, wearing my smartest outfit. I was slightly nervous, but I took a deep breath and decided to go for it. I reasoned that there was nothing to lose – and absolutely everything to gain. The greeting I received was rather overwhelming. Within minutes I was sitting at my allocated desk, surrounded by the firm’s solicitors and getting stuck into real work. My first day whizzed by. Members of staff were friendly and made an effort to get to know me; they asked me why I wanted to be a solicitor, what my interests were and what my career aspirations were. I did my best to get to grips with how the office functioned.
I’m certain that the welcome I was given had much to do with the way I presented myself. I did my best to show that I was dedicated, professional and ready to learn.
- Make Yourself Known and You Will Reap the Rewards
You are not there to sit like a shrinking violet behind a desk for two weeks, waiting shyly for someone to approach you and ask you to do something. You are there to learn, and the best way to do that is by getting involved.
By the end of my first week I was completing work for some of the firm’s senior solicitors and I was sitting in on client meetings with Mrs Stowe, taking attendance notes. These responsibilities gave me my first valuable insights into what I will eventually be doing as a trainee solicitor. The experiences served to strengthen my confidence in my approach to my career.
Be the one to offer to help, to contribute to discussions and to ask for work. If you feel that you are are gaining too little from your placement, say so. There is no point in wasting such a valuable opportunity. If nobody knows you are there, how will they be able to keep you in mind when those good opportunities arise? My own experience has taught me that if you are enthusiastic and keen to get stuck in, your colleagues will be more inclined to send good opportunities your way.
I am certain that it is because of this “can do” attitude that I have been able to derive the maximum possible benefits of my work experience placement at Stowe’s. One highlight was when I was asked to accompany two of the firm’s solicitors to London, to meet with a client and one of the country’s top family law barristers. This was a prestigious opportunity, for which I remain extremely grateful.
A second highlight was when I accompanied Mrs Stowe to Manchester, to view the firm’s new office in Hale. We discussed Stowe Family Law’s expansion plans and ambitions, and I gained some useful – and unexpected – insights into legal practice management.
- Acting Skills Will Take You Far
As much as you’re there to learn about a legal career, you’re also there to get a good idea about the sort of work you would be doing as a prospective trainee solicitor at the firm. Of course, a trainee’s work is not always glamorous. There will probably be times when you must grit your teeth and help out with tasks such as filing, legal research and proofreading. This may not be the most riveting work in the world. However, even the most basic tasks play a vital part in the larger legal process. I encourage you to put those rusty acting skills into use: put on your most convincing smile, show enthusiasm and…happy photocopying!
I have been rather fortunate at Stowe Family Law, in that I have not been asked to complete many routine tasks. However, I think it is important to approach every task on the understanding that the legal profession operates on a “work your way up” basis. Another lesson I have learned is that a small “thank you” can go an awfully long way. Whenever I spent time doing the less exciting work I was always rewarded with a heartfelt “thank you” and that was more than enough to keep me motivated and make me feel appreciated.
- Questions Will Give You Some Answers
My final piece of advice is to find out as much as you can while you are with the firm. Stopping just short of turning into a young Sherlock Holmes, make sure you ask lots of questions; the answers can only serve to help you in your career. Questions such as “Why did you choose this firm?” and “What do you enjoy about your work?” will give you an inside view of other’s career choices, and may help you to confirm your own thoughts and rationale.
However, you must also remember that you’re trying to impress this firm, so make sure that your questions are intelligent and considered. If you know relatively little about that particular area of law, demonstrate your eagerness to grow and your enthusiasm to learn.
During my first couple of days at Stowe Family Law, I was slightly hesitant to ask too many questions for the fear of becoming the “office pest”. However, I soon discovered that my new colleagues were receptive to questions – in fact, they expected and encouraged them. I gained a lot by spending time with the firm’s current trainees. As they had recently been students themselves, they could relate to what I was hoping to gain from my placement. One memorable conversation was when I chatted to a trainee about my limited understanding of family law. Within half an hour she had delivered a pile of her old law school text books onto my desk, to help me gain a deeper understanding of the subject! I was overwhelmed by the amount of help and support I was offered from within the firm. By my second week there I had no hesitation in firing questions at any member of staff, including the firm’s principal.
In retrospect, had I not seized the opportunity to ask, discuss and challenge the firm’s staff members about different issues, my work experience would not have been as valuable. I encourage all work experience students to get past that initial hesitance – and to fire out those questions!
Although I have been fortunate to gain a work placement with such a friendly firm, I believe that the principles I have outlined can be applied successfully across various sectors of the legal profession. My time at Stowe Family Law has been a refreshingly steep learning curve – despite my initial nerves – and I don’t doubt that my determination to get the most out of my placement will prove invaluable in the future.