Law is a competitive industry, so it pays to put in some preparation time. Amy McLellan explains how to get a head start

To succeed in the highly competitive legal profession you need to arm yourself with a thorough understanding of the industry and a CV that demonstrates your passion for the law. It pays to get a head start, so before even embarking on your legal training - whether that's a first degree in law or a conversion course further down the road - spend time researching your next steps and seek out work experience opportunities.



"The earlier you start, the better because many firms now use the summer vacation scheme [for university students] as the first point in the recruitment cycle," says Lynn Johansen, the graduate recruitment partner at leading law firm Clifford Chance. "It's very competitive and to get a place you have to be fairly advanced in your thinking and knowledge."

A little homework

To the outsider, the process of becoming a solicitor or barrister may seem long-winded and complex with a language all of its own. But spend a little time online and you will soon find plenty of information about how the profession is structured, the timeline for different qualifications and what to expect from a career in law.

Get some front-line experience

Formal work experience placements are geared up for undergraduates, but it's still worth contacting local law firms to see if you can get some first-hand experience of legal life. Even if it's just filing papers or shadowing a senior lawyer, you will soon get a flavour of the office culture, the type of work involved and whether this is the job for you. It is also an opportunity to build some early contacts that could prove invaluable when it comes to arranging vital summer placements later on.

All stand

Make the most of public access to the judicial system and attend sessions at your local county, Crown and magistrates courts; if you are in London you could even attend sessions at the High Court. It will give you a taste of the type of work undertaken by both barristers and solicitors.

Pathways to law

This joint initiative between the Sutton Trust and the College of Law is designed to attract fresh talent into the legal profession. It targets state school pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students are selected when they are 15 or 16 and are provided with guidance on university applications, mentoring support and contacts in the legal world.

Apply yourself

Solicitors and barristers need a wide range of skills and aptitudes, including an analytical and enquiring mind, top-flight communication skills and good people skills. Try to build your skill base early: study hard to get the grades that will impress, join the debating society to build confidence and take on voluntary work that will develop your social and leadership skills.

Investigate

Familiarise yourself with the industry. Read the Law Society Gazette and the law pages of The Times to get a feel for the issues facing the profession and the movers and shakers behind the headlines. To learn more about the main players, it is worth checking out industry surveys such as The Lex 100, or investing in a guide to the profession such as the 2008 Chambers UK student guide. Show an interest in the world around you: legal stories often make headline news, from widening the scope of anti-terrorism laws to restricting the movements of convicted sex offenders.

Be resourceful and proactive

Sixth-form and further education college careers services can be fruitful sources of information, and can make for a useful first port of call. Ask to speak to former students who did law at university and find out what advice they can give you. Attend university open days and speak to tutors about their law course and the destinations of their graduates. "The secret of success is to be proactive, ask questions and find out as much as you can about the profession," says Johansen. "The good news is that there is plenty of information out there freely and readily available, as the industry takes its commitment to widening access very seriously."

WEB WATCH

Chambers and Partners

Find out about life at leading law firms and read chambers reports, www.chambersstudent.co.uk

Future Lawyers Association

A free information resource for anyone over the age of 14, www.college-of-law.co.uk/a-career-in-law/future-lawyers.html

Sutton Trust

School and university projects, www.suttontrust.com/projects.asp

The Law Society Gazette

The latest news from the industry, www.lawgazette.co.uk

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