Before deciding on your career route it's crucial that you select the right type of firm and your specialist area, says Rachael Bayliss

When considering a career in law it is important to select the right type of firm. There are a variety of firms to consider, including large commercial firms, niche firms or general practice or high street firms. Once you have made a decision on the type of firm you wish to join you then need to decide which specialist area you want to operate in, whether this be banking and finance, crime, employment, family or sport. The types of clients firms work with are dependent on this specialism and can range from football clubs to investment banks. Law offers good international opportunities with international training seats, cross-border work and secondments being offered.

There are two routes into law depending on whether you complete a law or non-law degree. If you opt to complete a law degree your next step is to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC). This then allows you to start your training contract. If you follow the non-law degree route you will need to complete the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) and then complete the LPC. In essence if you chose to complete a non-law degree you need to do an extra year of study prior to starting your training contract.

There is also the opportunity to apply for vacation schemes which offer university students an insight into the legal profession. Taking place during the Easter and summer vacations, these schemes introduce students to law firms, their structure, main practice areas and activities. The Easter scheme at Clifford Chance is two weeks and the summer scheme is four weeks. If you have the relevant language skills the firm's European summer scheme gives students the opportunity to spend two weeks in the London office and two weeks in a European location, where you will experience the firm's international network first-hand. Students take part in the kind of project work, skills sessions and pro bono (legal work undertaken for free) activities that will help enhance valuable skills such as team working and communication, as well as developing commercial awareness.

Working with the prestigious College of Law, Clifford Chance has developed a new LPC, designed specifically for Clifford Chance trainees. This course combines a general grounding in the legal knowledge and skills required for commercial practice with an approach more tailored to the specific nature of the firm's work. It will enable trainees to draw on experiences and challenges taken from the firm's business, bringing training to life and better preparing individuals for their work at Clifford Chance.

Once individuals have completed the Clifford Chance LPC they will be ready to start their training contract with the firm. Training contracts are structured around four six-month placements, known as seats, each in a different practice group. Over the two years of this contract, individuals training objectives will be achieved through a balance of formal training and experience. These complementary elements are as essential as each other, working together to form a coherent programme that develops and expands individual talents, applying them to the role of a qualified and effective legal professional.

Legal firms recruit up to two years in advance and are currently looking for graduates to start their training contracts in 2008 and 2009. This means that students wishing to apply for vacation schemes need to do so in the first year of their university course. For training contracts, applications need to be made in the penultimate year for law students and the final year for non-law students; firms welcome applications from graduates of any degree discipline. Indeed, around 45 per cent of Clifford Chance trainees graduate from non-law subjects. Magic circle firms (Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters) look for candidates with consistently excellent academic records, normally with a minimum of 320 (26) UCAS points at A-level or equivalent, and who expect to achieve a least a good 2:1 (or equivalent) at degree level. Candidates must also possess great drive, demonstrating a clear commitment to their career, and be able to communicate fluently and accurately.

If candidates are successful in their applications they will be invited to attend an assessment day where they will be interviewed by a partner and a senior lawyer from the firm, join other candidates to participate in a group exercise and be asked to complete a verbal analysis test. The day will also give them the opportunity to talk informally with current trainees and qualified lawyers.

Rachael Bayliss is the HR adviser at the legal firm Clifford Chance