The Do’s & Don’ts of Securing Informal Work Experience

give-me-a-jobIn a world where a 2:1 degree, strong extra-curricular activities and a regular attendance at law fairs and career events has become the norm, it is increasingly important to gain as much legal work experience as possible. This is for one obvious and perhaps two less obvious reasons:

(1) as a way to boost the CV and to stand out from the crowd,

(2) in order to gain an insight into the practice of law and the commercial realities of life in a law firm,

(3) as a way to make contacts within the seemingly impenetrable walls of a law firm.

I found it hugely challenging trying to secure legal work experience when I was a law student. A constant flow of rejections (largely a result of a poor application technique) led me to change tack and adopt a more informal approach. The informal approach I took was to develop mentoring relationships which ultimately led to work experience. An approach which I would be the first to encourage students and aspiring lawyers to adopt.

However, as a regular mentor to law students and aspiring lawyers it never ceases to amaze me how many times I am outright asked for work experience within minutes of meeting somebody.

The informal approach I describe and recommend above can work wonders but one must realise that this is all about “relationships”. To be successful with this approach there absolutely has to be a working relationship between the student and the lawyer in the first place. This is for the following reasons:

1. Asking for work experience within minutes of meeting somebody looks bad. Picture this – your conversation is going very well. You have learnt depths of really useful information. You finally understand what “commercial awareness” means. The lawyer you are speaking to has just offered you a second coffee. Then you jump in with a request for work experience. Regardless of your intentions for this interaction or how well it has gone – it can’t help but come across that the reason for you wanting this ‘meeting’ is for the sole purpose of getting legal work experience. Don’t undo the great work you have done.

2. It is surprising and unexpected. Meeting for a coffee is exactly that. With a coffee comes a chat but nothing further and this should be the absolute expectation. When you dive in with a work experience request straight away, it pushes things out of kilter. The lawyer isn’t expecting this request and neither should they be. As a result, you are putting them on the spot in terms of firm policy and process for example, is there a firm procedure for this? Does it require sign off from a partner? Is there availability within the team to supervise a work experience student? Don’t tempt a rejection by rushing.

3. You reflect on them. When a legal professional brings you in for work experience they are often doing so on an informal basis and outside the conventional vac scheme routes. It is very likely that they would have had to run this past somebody else in the firm – whether that be their team head, a partner of a member of HR. How you come across and how you behave will therefore reflect directly upon them. For this reason it is crucial you build up a confident and trusting relationship before you make a work experience request. Would you risk your professional reputation on vouching for a complete stranger?

Image: Sean MacEntee

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