Recruiters are pretty unanimous in what they look for. Leading commercial firms will expect applicants to have a consistent academic record, i.e. 2:1, predicted or attained, and AAB/ABB grades at A-Level. Many firms are now using contextual recruitment tools as a way to better understand each candidate's achievements in context. As firms have increasingly used vacation placements as a means to hiring trainees, they are paying greater attention to grades achieved in first year exams. Other firms outside of the leading commercial group may have slightly lower academic requirements, but all are agreed on the need for applicants to show:
- Appropriate knowledge and motivation.
- High ethical standards and an understanding of the role of law.
- Evidence of good interpersonal skills.
- A variety of sustained interests which reveal a high level of achievement.
- Evidence of use of initiative, taking responsibility and resilience.
- Evidence of commercial awareness (all law firms are businesses).
- Knowledge of the firm and justification of your suitability for it.
- Technical - increasingly lawyers will be using technology in many facets of their job and will need to be comfortable at using whatever systems or software are developed in their environment to bring about efficiencies, increased accuracy and cost savings. For now, make sure that you are the the best you can be at any technology you are currently using for e.g. on line research tools, learning platforms, cloud facilities and basic packages such as Word. Make use of the fantastic courses offered at extremely low cost (or free) through the the University's new online portal Molly
- Language skills and cultural awareness are a plus.
- Provided other criteria are met, scientific or engineering knowledge/thinking may also be highly valued.
How do you decide whether you want to be a solicitor, and, if you do, what kind? Much is written on the subject and a list of useful publications and online resources can be found at the end of this briefing in the resources sections. Employers will expect you to have fully researched this career option and for you to be sure of your motivations. Perhaps the most important way to find out what a solicitor does and whether it suits your skills, interests and motivations is to arrange some kind of practical activity where you can talk to solicitors and see them at work. Here are some ideas, any of which can be used on your applications:
1. Formal Vacation Schemes
Sometimes known as vacation placements or work experience schemes, vacation schemes are becoming an increasingly important part of the process to securing a training contract (PRT).
Schemes are often available during all three term breaks and traditionally have often been targeted at specific student groups. This is changing, and we are seeing some firms becoming much more flexible about the makeup of their vac scheme cohorts. In previous years the Christmas ones have tended to be targeted at non-Law students in their final year, but now some firms open these freely to penultimate year non-lawyers or indeed to all students (law and non law). Closing dates for Christmas schemes tend to be in late October (some as early as 9th October), while official closing dates for Easter/Summer placements are often between mid/end of December and early/mid January - they are getting earlier. It is vital that you check the deadlines with each firm and clarify whether they interview applicants ahead of their closing dates. Some firms definitely do screen applicants before the closing dates. We do not advise that you leave you application to the night before the deadline!
Vacation Scheme applications will require similar effort to complete as the official training contract (PRT) applications. Some firms may allow you to complete one form for both a vacation scheme and a training contract (PRT) whilst others will only allow you to apply for either a vacation scheme or a training contract (PRT). You need to be convincing in your prior research and motivation, e.g. why you are interested in being a solicitor, why you are exploring this type of practice and why this firm. It is important to get this right, as these applications are often your first formal contact with a practice.
Most firms test, interview and/or run assessment days for their schemes, sometimes upon receipt of application before the official closing date. The most common test is the Watson Glaser critical thinking test or a situational judgement type test. If you get onto a vacation scheme, assume that you are being scrutinised for your suitability for a permanent position as a trainee. Some firms will recruit 40-50+% of their trainees from their vacation placement cohorts, so securing a placement does put you in a strong position to be offered a training contract interview (and then hopefully a training contract) at the end of the placement. In some firms, a much higher proportion (up to 100%) of trainees may be recruited from the vacation scheme. It is therefore wise to try and work out, through speaking with the recruiters, how important the vacation scheme is for them as a route to entry as a trainee in their firm. Importantly though, these schemes provide you with a golden opportunity to get to know the practice, its people and work, so that you are well-informed. These schemes are usually between 1 and 4 weeks in duration and are paid.
If you are unsure about the sort of firm you would like to work for, then you might consider applying for a variety of different types of vacation scheme to help you decide. Entry for these schemes is very competitive, so follow the usual guidance for making a top quality application.
Now many large London firms are offering mini vacation schemes to first year law students for the Easter Vacation. Please do not feel that you are "missing out" if you are not ready or just not wishing to apply for a first year scheme. There are ample opportunities to apply for schemes in your second year and beyond. Vacation Scheme opportunities and deadlines can be found on websites such as lawcareers.net and The Lawyer Portal but please still do check final dates and deadlines with firms as changes can occur.
There are also a number of organisations and schemes for students with a minority or disadvantaged background and those with a disability, e.g. Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) London and Employ-Ability.
Virtual Internships - over the last year or so we have also seen an expansion in firms offering virtual schemes. Usually these are open to all and are free. Many are hosted by the platform Inside Sherpa and they can be an excellent way to understand a firm, its practice areas and to explore the life of a solicitor by completing a series of exercises over 5 or 6 hours.
If you do not secure a vacation scheme do not despair! If this happens (which it does, even to Oxford students), focus your energies on finding out about the profession in the ways mentioned below. Come and talk to a Careers Adviser about your tactics and your applications and we will be happy to help. Please do not assume that this means that you cannot get a training contract (PRT) and become a solicitor.
In the vast majority of firms you can still apply for a training contract (PRT) with a firm even if you did not do a vacation scheme with them – but you will need to show strong motivation and evidence for wanting to be a solicitor.
2. Law Firm Open Days and Workshops
Many firms provide opportunities to visit them on one of their Open Days and Workshops. Sometimes these are targeted at certain student groups - for example, first year lawyers are often invited during Trinity term - while others are open to all. Firms also often invite students who narrowly missed out on a vacation scheme place to these other events. These are excellent ways to investigate firms, talk to practising lawyers and to get useful tips and hints on applications, commercial awareness and other areas.
3. Arrange your own informal work shadowing/work experience
Why not try and approach your local firm, a law centre, an in-house legal team (of a company or local council) or visit your local courts? Any of these are possible alternative means of building your knowledge of the legal sector and life as a solicitor. When approaching contacts, start out by asking for something small; perhaps a visit to the office or an hour to chat to a solicitor about their work. After being able to meet face to face you might find that you hear about other opportunities but even if not, you will have learnt more about the profession.
4. "Meet" the firms in Oxford or at their online events
There is always plenty of opportunity to meet law firms, trainees, associates and partners. This year, the "meeting" is likely to be at an online event. The Careers Service will be running a series of events with law firms and these will only be open to Oxford students. Take a look at our online calendar and then sign up for events on CareerConnect. Included in our programme is our Law Fair - which will be on 21st October and will be held virtually. You can also join the University’s Law Society or your College’s Law Society as they will provide further opportunities for you to talk with solicitors, to find out how firms differ and to acquire hints and tips for applications. And/or you might like to sign up the the Law Faculty's careers email which will let you know about their events - this is open to law and non law students.
This year there will also be a very wide variety of sessions covering all aspects of becoming a solicitor available to you through online events offered by law firms, legal publishers and legal education providers. This will include the chance to attend even more law fairs! These events are likely to be mainly open access to all students in the UK and overseas so you will be able to sign up for whatever is of interest to you.
5. Utilise the Oxford Network
We estimate that approximately 10% of Oxford students pursue a career in the law each year. This means that there are plenty of Alumni in relevant jobs to help and guide you too! The Law Faculty operates a Law LinkedIn Group – both law and non law students can ask to join this. Many colleges run their own contact databases from their Alumni offices. If you are considering working abroad you can consider using the Oxford alumni contacts that exist round the world. Use the Oxford University website and the alumni portal to find relevant groups or make enquires at the Law Faculty Development Office.
The Law Faculty runs talks and lectures, many of which are open to all students and often led by Alumni. It is well worth exploring these avenues so that you can talk to solicitors who were once in the same situation as you.
6. Get related work experience
For today’s solicitors, it is vital that they know and understand their clients and the environments in which the clients operate. Depending on the type of firm or organisation in which you would like to practice, securing some related work or volunteer experience would also be valuable. For example, if you are considering corporate law, then some experience working in another business (a retailer, bank, or sales and marketing company) would be useful. Equally, if you are thinking of heading towards private client or community based law, then volunteering in an advice centre (e.g. Citizens Advice Bureau, or a local charity helping & advocating for individuals in distress) would be sensible.
This experience doesn’t have to be via a formal, paid placement in a large organisation. Employers can be just as impressed by students who have initiated their own work or volunteer work either in and around their community or by taking part in University / College activities.
Remember also that during these current times it will be more difficult to secure traditional experiences but that law firms will be interested if you have done volunteering during the pandemic, found and online job, managed to secure temporary work in a retailer or anything similar. These are all ways to show your initiative and your resilience. Don't forget that the Careers Service also has a full programme of virtual Summer and Micro work experiences and other programmes to help you develop appropriate skills.
You might like to apply to the one of the Bonavero Institute's Student Fellowships - these are open to final year undergraduates, law alumni (within 12 months of leaving), graduate law students or graduate students of other disciplines who hold undergraduate law degrees.
7. Extend your network
Utilise The Law Society of England and Wales and other Legal Associations to extend your network.
The Law Society has a Junior Lawyers Division that looks after the interests of students, trainees and young lawyers. They run events and conferences which may be open to students and which provide good networking opportunities. The Law Society has a wide range of specialist groups, which provide opportunities for further research/exploration of the work that might interest you and also networking opportunities.
Other very useful groups are the Young Legal Aid Lawyers, the UK Law Student Association, the European Law Students’ Association and the University and College Law Societies that exist within Oxford.