Getting in and getting on in law

There’s no doubt that being a solicitor or barrister can be an incredibly rewarding job – both intellectually and financially. But if you are planning to take your first steps into a legal career, make sure you have carefully thought it through first

A career in law can sound quite glamorous, can’t it? Striding around the courtroom, putting bad guys in prison… television programmes like Law & Order and Silk have certainly done their bit to inspire the next generation of Martha Costellos and Clive Readers.

There’s no doubt that being a solicitor or barrister has its high points and can be an incredibly rewarding job – both intellectually and financially. But if you are planning to take your first steps into a legal career, make sure you have carefully thought it through first. As a qualified barrister and legal recruiter, I’ve met too many law students who haven’t given enough consideration to their career plans, or what specific steps they need to take to achieve success. Students who don’t know what pitfalls to avoid can end up in non-legal roles with a significant student debt to show for it.

It’s a competitive environment out there, and law firms and chambers expect high standards from their trainees and pupils – perhaps more so than ever before. Before you set out on your journey into law, consider the below points and incorporate them into your planning to give you the best possible chance of success.

Tip 1: Academic ability is important
There’s no getting around this: a 2:1 (or higher) in your degree is the preferred entry level for legal practice.

If your A Levels aren’t quite what you hoped for, don’t be disheartened. While it will be challenging for you to be recruited by a top-set law firm at the outset, you can still embark on a fulfilling and challenging legal career. You must however be strategic in your approach – are you better at exams than practical work, for example? If so, choose electives that are assessed in this way.

Be open minded about where you study, and what kind of role would best suit you. Proving yourself by undertaking paralegal work or similar is an excellent way in to a career in law for those who don’t have the grades to go straight into legal practice. But it can also be a rewarding career in itself with its own unique challenges. Most importantly, find the balance that is right for you.

Tip 2: What if you’ve dropped a grade somewhere along the line
Although grades are important, you can carve out a rewarding and challenging career in the law, but you’re going to have to think carefully and strategically about your work plan. While grades are one of the first filters, the interview is considerably more important. Start thinking about your interviews now, there are ways to impress the interviewer with a five star performance other candidates will not have considered. For example, having a detailed knowledge of the sector will show you’ve done your research.

Closely linked to interview skills, evidence of people skills – whether that’s a previous stint of volunteering or even a retail job where you worked with customers – will show that you can function well in a ‘real-life’ environment. Firms are looking for robust characters who will have stamina, particularly with the long days that many legal jobs require, as well as proof that you can manage your own time with little extra help. Your university may be able to help with ideas – at Kaplan Holborn College, we offer an Employability Award that’s designed to equip students with the skills, attitude and behaviours that are required to become ready for the workplace.

Tip 3: You’re expected to know, or have a sense of, where you want your career to go
No one will be demanding a five year plan from you on the first day of your degree, but a sense of where you’re going and how you want to get there is important – in my view, the sooner the better. Many law students are just beginning to get into their stride coping with the work-load towards the end of the second year so this is an excellent time to gain some experience in the field. Do you have a sense of what it is you want to do? Do you aspire to work in a city law firm, a regional firm, or perhaps you’re aiming for a support role? Having an idea at this stage will help you throughout your degree and beyond.

Endeavour to secure an internship or work experience in a smaller firm during whichever breaks you can. They will be less concerned about your lack of legal knowledge than most of the city firms. This will give you an excellent advantage and you’ll identify areas of law that interest you and, more importantly, rule out those that don’t appeal.

Tip 4: Understand the routes in place to help you – and use them!
These days, there are lots of resources out there to give you a head start on your job hunt. At Kaplan Holborn College, we’ll help you identify key firms suited to you, and show you creative ways to secure temporary work at them. The legal sector also has a variety of initiatives to help you find work – try contacting professional bodies such as the Royal Society of Law to find out how they can help, or try your local CILEx branch for any work shadowing opportunities.

Above all, do your own research and be proactive. If you find a firm you like the look of, give them a call to ask for work experience. If you don’t hear back, keep calling, but do so with charm and enthusiasm, not pushiness. Employers like seeing tenacity and determination, and also good manners. If you want to qualify and succeed as a lawyer you’ll need all of the above a lot of the time.

Tip 5: Recruiters probably won’t find you your first job in law
Recruitment consultants generally cannot help fresh law graduates secure work. The degree is the academic stage of training, but it is the professional studies courses – such as the Legal Practice Course and Bar Professional Training Course – that provide the practical experience required to be useful in a law firm or chambers. Plan ahead and be prepared to do some leg work yourself in order to secure work after your degree.

At this stage it is also hugely worthwhile to spend some time thinking about your core strengths. Identifying these and working to them will increase your chances of discovering precisely the right job for you – and most importantly, finding a role where you will be happy and fulfilled. Good luck!

Simon Cairns has spent the last 15 years helping professionals with their career goals. He is currently a consultant for Kaplan Holborn College where he is responsible for the employability functions for Kaplan law undergraduates and other professional courses.