Seven skills that will land you work experience at a law firm

Building a successful Law Career - Part 8

Seven skills that will land you work experience at a law firm

Following on from the suggestions of how to decide what area of law is right for you in the 7th article in this series, I wanted to share some tips about how to get temporary posts that will allow you to experience real legal work in a law office.

I can’t stress how important it is to understand what you’re getting into when you choose the area of law you are going to make your career in. It’s really important to have some practical work experience of that area of law before you commit to it, so you will know if it suits you. This is why temporary job posts, whether through vacation schemes, temporary placements, or internships, are really valuable to newly qualified, and about-to-be qualified, lawyers.

You should improve your temporary workplace application to demonstrate practical skills and wider awareness if you want it to be successful. Like a lot of legal writing later in your career, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the employers and consider what they are hoping to see in your application. Then you have to put these things in the application so that they can see you have what they are looking for. An extra 30 minutes polishing the application to include the points in the following list will make a difference and the application will become something that might land you the position.

All of the temporary work posts you can apply for during your student day's Vacation schemes will provide the widest amount of experience in the shortest period of time, usually a period of two to four week’s work experience. They can even be a stepping-stone to a training contract, but the application forms are complex and probing, and deter many law students. There is no ‘best formula’ for writing a good application but firms are looking for certain skills. You can demonstrate some of these in your application. Try and follow these seven suggestions:

1. Analytical and evaluative skills

Every legal problem requires analytical and evaluative skills. Clients present their lawyers the fact, and expect the lawyer to analyse it and compare the possible legal solutions, and then advise of the respective merits of each.

A lawyer needs to know exactly the right questions to ask. Being able to appreciate the small details when constructing and thinking about the big picture is essential for a lawyer. Universities know this and are always organizing mock court trials and pro bono work for students to help show – and hone – these skills in a legal context. These activities offer the perfect chance to start applying your theoretical knowledge in practice and demonstrate an interest in and commitment to law. Joining a debating society is a must for any law student getting to grips with the big issues facing society, as well as providing valuable practice in the art of public speaking – a very valuable legal skill.

2. Teamwork

Teamwork is important if you want to work in international commercial or corporate law because the type of work you will do is so big in scale and complexity that you’re unlikely to be working on a project by yourself.

Often, entire departments will be tasked to solve one legal problem, and it’s vital for a lawyer to draw on all the expertise and talent available and bring the best out of whoever they’re working with. In your application, draw analogies with productions and team-work you’ve undertaken, anything that shows you can work with a team – amateur dramatic groups, music groups, challenges you’ve faced in sports teams and events you’ve organised as a part of society. HR managers are looking to see that you can fit in with the team and not cause friction in the office. They want an easy life and do not want to import prospective ‘difficult’ employees to disrupt the harmony of the existing teams in the office.

3. Written communication

Legal writing is all about communicating ideas, concepts and information with the greatest possible clarity. 70% of what a lawyer writes is usually intended to persuade and the most persuasive texts are those which the readers can understand. A large proportion of a lawyer’s life will be spent drawing up documents. The art of being a good commercial lawyer is being able to convey information in an easily understandable manner. Albert Einstein said ‘One type of genius is the ability to explain a complicated idea in a simple way’. That is what lawyers have to do all the time. You must be able to demonstrate that you understand how, and when, to alter a written text, whether to be concise or, for purposes of clarity, to fully explain a complex legal issue to a client. You must also show that you can write formally and in a structured manner to opposing lawyers, or for a judge.

No matter what subject you write on, writing articles for your university’s student newspaper or publications are a great way to show your writing ability, and also your ability to time-manage, work in a team and meet deadlines.

4. A global mind-set

The work of many lawyers is cutting-edge, involving many major deals, crossing international borders. Clients can be giants of the international business world and your work can include site visits, client meetings and deal closures anywhere and everywhere.

Mention trips and expeditions you’ve been on, include foreign holidays, the more exotic the better! – it’s useful to show that you are able, and willing, to survive in remote destinations around the world. Being an expert on a particular culture could even give you an edge that other students don’t have. Make sure you mention your foreign language skills but don’t worry if they’re non-existent. Speaking another language fluently is an advantage but not essential.

5. Business sense

For law students, understanding and demonstrating that they understand and practice the concept of commercial awareness can be very difficult. The phrase ‘commercial awareness’ is itself very vague and abstract. Law firms, however, want to see that you understand the concept

Commercial awareness is about recognising two ideas: first, that a law firm itself is a business (and wants to make a profit) and second, that all the problems of the business world drive your client’s legal needs so you must be able to understand and help them to react.

Try to keep track of general developments across the business world: new deals, changing international legislation and emerging global markets. Right now, can you tell me whether the economy in Brazil is going up or down? How will the new EU rules on data protection affect the way you companies store and use customers' details? This is the sort of thing you should have an opinion on. You need to be able to demonstrate that you understand the wider political and economic implications of a transaction or case – in other words, you know what is happening in the wider world outside your university.

6. Organisational skills

Once you become a qualified lawyer you are going to be very busy. You will be going to court, drafting contracts, meeting clients, networking to gain new business, conferences to attend and new cases and law to keep up with. If you can show that you can arrange your time to juggle different activities, this is a very positive sign to a law company. Mentioning any events you’ve helped organise, or your membership of a society committee, is a great way to demonstrate that you possess these skills.

7. Passion for the law firm

There are lots of law firms out there, many of which offer student lawyers holiday placements. Law firms know it’s highly unlikely that you’re applying only to them. Whilst you may be the very best candidate academically, firms still want people who are genuinely interested, even excited, about working with them – if they are thinking that they might offer you a job then your probation period is probably going to be very tough as they want to see that you have the determination to succeed – they may even be thinking ahead to the possibility of offering you some sort of future training contract at the end of a successful vacation placement.

Obviously, therefore, only apply to firms you genuinely want to work for and can show that know well. A ‘machine-gun’ approach to sending out your CV and applications may work for a few, but usually it is a time-wasting, labour-intensive exercise that may not even produce a single interview. Show your passion for the firm through sincerity, by demonstrating a knowledge of the firm. An application full of empty statements and declarations of ‘loving what your firm does’ will not fool the HR Department – show them that you understand exactly what they do and want to do AND then tell them why you want to be a part of that.

Part 1 - Some general basics
Part 2 - Growing  your own professional client base – Networking Events
Part 3 - Essential skills – The Ability to speak in Public
Part 4 - Writing a successful CV
Part 5 - Giving a successful Interview – What to do and what not to do
Part 6 - Letter writing skills
Part 7 - Deciding which area of law to work in
Part 8 - Seven skills that will land you work experience at a law firm
Part 9 - How to move your career into top gear – Winning quick promotions
Part 10 - The Key to moving ahead in your career – Mastering Legal English!