This query comes up quite regularly with legal job applicants coming into the profession. So many times I have been asked by graduates and students why we have ignored their applications for specific vacancies that require say ‘2 months legal experience’.
The conversation usually goes:
Caller: “But I have 2 months legal work experience.”
Me: “No you don’t – that is work for the CAB as a generalist adviser.”
Caller: “Yes but that’s legal work experience.”
Me: “Yes, I appreciate it could be argued that it is legal work experience, but unfortunately the law firm will not see it like that. They want actual experience in a UK solicitors firm. Sorry.”
Caller: “But that’s not fair. I volunteered for 2 months to get that experience.”
Me: “That’s life. You may want to consider trying to volunteer to work in a solicitors firm – it will get you further.”
The main points regarding voluntary work are as follows:
- Voluntary work, such as working for the CAB as a gateway assessor, receptionist or admin person, is all very well and good, but it is not going to get you very far when making job applications for paralegal or training contract posts with high street and non-commercial law firms. I suspect most employers look at voluntary work as something that ticks a box of good intentions, but doesn’t tick any boxes for gaining actual and specific legal experience and being an asset to a law firm from the outset (in the way that experience in an actual solicitors’ firm does).
- Work of any description in a law firm is the main thing to be aiming at. This is what gets training contracts if not going down the commercial law firm route.
- Vacation placements are the main thing to be aiming at if going down the commercial law firm route (and you have the right academics to enable you to do this).
- Voluntary fee earning roles in Law Centres and the CAB are great, (ie where you are acting as the legal adviser in person rather than a facilitator or referrer of work to third parties). However, the type of work being covered will be LAA funded (or formerly LAA funded) and this does not really add anything to an application for non-LAA funded solicitors firms and non-LAA funded types of law. As most training contracts and paralegal work are now with non-LAA firms and this is going to get even more so over the next 2-3 years, think carefully about doing this work rather than looking to get experience in non-LAA funded firms.
- Some graduates and students seem to hide behind charity work to avoid the hard work of going out and getting solicitor firm experience, which is difficult, stressful, involves rejection, lots of effort, getting over the fear of failure and dealing with terrifying law firm secretaries when making speculative approaches! It is after all usually much easier to get work experience as a volunteer in a charity or NGO than it is to get experience in a solicitors firm. This comes across specifically when we provide advice on taking off a lot of information on the CVs about charitable work experience. Some people seem a little surprised when I put a line through extensive descriptions of non-legal work or law firm experience and strongly encourage them to start making applications to solicitors.
- The key when preparing applications is to see the CV and forms from the employers’ perspective. If they have a training contract available for someone and they deal with conveyancing, wills and probate and family law, chances are they are going to get applications from candidates who have work experience in one of more of these fields. If you were the employer, with a very limited budget and time for training, would you seriously consider an application from a candidate who has any length of time experience in a law centre as a receptionist, plus a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award, when you may also get 10-15 applications from applicants who have 2 weeks conveyancing experience in a law firm, 3 weeks wills & probate experience in another law firm and a weeks experience in a law firm dealing with family law if not considerably more? Chances are you are going to go with the latter because they are already going to have an understanding of the procedures you follow and the workings of an office on a daily basis.
- Naturally if you do not have relevant law firm experience then you need to fill up the CV with something and then there is no reason why you cannot refer to voluntary work in as much detail as you like. However your main aim must be to get work experience in solicitors’ firms as this is the Holy Grail of job searching in the legal profession. Without this experience I think your CV will always be second class against others who have more relevance to offer.
- Acquiring skills through voluntary work etc.. is great if going for commercial firms of a larger size or local authorities – descriptions detailing voluntary work, university law clinics etc.. is good for these, but anyone looking at the high street law firms needs to bear in mind the above advice. Work experience in law firms gets jobs, anything else apart from client following (eg family links to estate agents), outstanding academic achievement or some sporting or social link that is of interest to the firm does not do a lot for applications…
Jonathan Fagan is a solicitor, qualified recruitment consultant and Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment. His LinkedIn profile can be viewed here – www.linkedin.com/in/jbfagan