Rowena Forbes: As candidates continue to outnumber opportunities, legal experience is essential

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The Independent Online

THE CHALLENGE, diversity and status of a legal career, not to mention the potential for highly remunerative salaries, continue to attract many students. Recent Ucas figures reveal that law has retained its status as the most popular subject for UK undergraduates, with over 86,000 beginning a law degree this year.

However, competition remains incredibly stiff as candidates far outnumber the barrister pupillages and solicitor training contracts available. A recent Bar Council survey revealed that more than half of the Bar Vocational Course students who applied for pupillages this year didn't even get an interview, while half of those interviewed did not receive an offer of a place. Aspiring solicitors have it just as tough, with some firms reporting around 2,000 applications for their training contracts.

Relevant work experience, viewed merely as an advantage just a few years ago, is now practically a requirement. It is almost impossible to secure a pupillage without evidence of legal work experience, or mini-pupillages, while large solicitors firms may offer their traineeships to students who undertake summer placements with them, subject to a positive performance in interview.

Other work experience is also desirable. Commercial awareness is increasingly important; many solicitors firms want trainees to be "work ready", while future self-employed barristers need to understand business principles. Some institutions, such as the College of Law, now offer bespoke Legal Practice Courses (LPCs) for aspiring solicitors, with significant emphasis on commercial skills development; and training contracts are expected to change so that the level of skills achieved is prioritised, rather than the duration of the training. Work experience could provide a head start on developing these skills.

While most students tend to relax in their first year, for those wanting a legal career, the pressure is on to work hard and play hard from the beginning. Law students apply for summer placements in the first semester of their second year, and non-law students at the same time in their third year. Good first year exam results are therefore important, as is evidence that candidates are well-rounded, high achievers who participate - even excel - in extra-curricular activities, such as sport, student societies, or volunteer work.

Decision-time comes around quickly. Students must decide early on whether to become a barrister, solicitor, legal executive, or another associative role. Points to consider include the size, location and type of work covered by a prospective employer; or perhaps the implications of self-employment at the independent Bar.

Students may feel pressurised into applying for placements with solicitors firms before they are certain that this is the right career choice, simply because that's what everyone is doing. However, waiting for another year may be the wiser choice.

Legal training is, after all, a costly affair. LPC fees alone cost around £7,000 - £10,000 (excluding living expenses). Sponsorship from a large solicitor's firm may cover much of this; however, what happens if the graduate later decides they don't wish to work for them? The drop-out rate for newly qualified solicitors is tellingly high. Conversely, smaller firms are less likely to be able to offer sponsorship, in which case the student may need to cover all costs - and should therefore be sure of their career ambitions before taking this route.

Researching career options early will help undergraduates make these decisions. University careers services are often the best place to start, with plenty of paper-based resources and legal-related careers events that offer opportunities for fact-finding and networking. Resources such as www.lcan.org.uk and www.lawcareers.net are informative and comprehensive, while advice from tutors, careers consultants, potential employers and representatives from legal bodies, such as the Bar Council ( www.legaleducation.org.uk) and Law Society ( www.lawsociety.org.uk), is invaluable.

Joining Pro Bono and debating societies can focus ambition, and relevant volunteer work could also help. For example, around 300 students volunteer at The University of Manchester's Legal Advice Centre every year, working for and alongside legal professionals to gain practical understanding of how the law is applied to real cases in the community. International students may need to be more pro-active, using alumni and any other networks at their disposal to search out opportunities for legal work experience in their home countries during summer vacations.

The Manchester Law Fair on 23 November is one of the biggest legal careers events in the country, with 99 organisations attending. Open to students and graduates from all UK institutions, and from any degree discipline, it's an excellent opportunity to gain extensive information on career options in a short space of time. And, who knows, it could be a chance to make that all-important positive first impression on a potential future employer.

Find out more at www.manchester.ac.uk/careers/events/fairs

Rowena Forbes is marketing and communications executive, Careers and Employability Division, The University of Manchester

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