Time for action
31 May 2011 | By Laura Manning
12 February 1997
6 February 2012
3 May 2011
11 October 1998
A gap year is a great idea, but lazing around and taking it easy just won’t cut it. Make the most of this valuable opportunity.
Most students look forward to donning a mortarboard and gown and progressing from fresh-faced fresher to fully fledged graduate. But for many, the excitement of not having to do another exam ever again will be short-lived as they face the prospect of entering the big, bad world beyond the university campus without a job to look forward to.
Despite slightly better economic conditions, job prospects in the legal sector continued to look pitiful last year, with at least 11,500 law students on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) chasing around 6,000 jobs.
Given such depressing statistics, it might be worth thinking about taking some time to ride out the storm and take part in an activity to help boost your CV?
Alternatively, if you are one of the many students who are concerned about the cost of legal education, why not delay starting the LPC or BPTC by spending a year in paid employment? As well as being able to save towards your course fees, you will gain plenty of useful skills to impress graduate recruiters.
Despite the benefits, many budding lawyers fear that taking a gap year will damage rather than support their chances of securing a training contract or pupillage. But according to graduate recruiters, students who have done something unique or challenging on gap years are more likely to get noticed.
Dechert graduate recruitment manager Victoria Widdows explains that doing any external project before embarking on a career in law can make an application more interesting. She claims that trainees at her firm who have done voluntary work have an inner strength and maturity, while being appreciative, focused and more humble.
“Having a focused year out can’t be a negative thing as long as you apply the skills you’ve learnt to your application,” asserts Widdows. “I always think life experience is good and can make you a more rounded person, but it’s down to the individual what they make of their year out.”
Think it out
Before you start rolling up your sleeping bag and strapping on your walking boots, you should consider whether you have the determination not only to earn moneybut also to devote time, initiative and lateral thinking to make your year off worthwhile.
The possibilities for gap years are endless, and can give even the most organised person a headache. Although jetting off to exotic destinations and sipping mojitos on the beach may seem like the ideal way to spend your year, getting involved in a project or staying in the UK and getting some work experience under your belt are great ways to gain extra skills and add a little extra spice to your CV.
This is not to knock backpacking. Although achievement in a legal career may rest largely on your academic performance and necessary legal skills, the traits that can make you stand out and grab that training contract are often not taught in the classroom.
Getting off the beaten track can be an enormous challenge and develop many attractive qualities, such as the ability to understand and inspire people, to recognise one’s own shortcomings and to be able to talk to anyone and build trusting relationships.
Learning to live on a tiny budget is one of the most important life lessons to be learnt, even for cash-strapped former students who consider themselves pros. It may sound tedious, but it can be a lot of fun when you are with a group of friends who are in the same boat.
Herbert Smith head of resourcing Peter Chater believes that candidates should take the opportunity to take a gap year as it can be a “life-defining experience”.
“Doing something you’re passionate about can round you out as a person,” he says. “It’s still a challenge to hire enough fantastic people every year. If we found an outstanding candidate who wanted to take time out before joining to do something beneficial, we’d support that.”
If living off Pot Noodles and sharing a dorm with 10 other people is not your cup of tea, perhaps you’d be better suited to getting some work experience and saving money in the UK.
That is what Riannah Gayle and Chantal Percival decided to do, each choosing to work in a legal-related field during their gap year. Gayle is working as a genealogy and probate researcher, handling unclaimed inheritances by looking at entitlement claims to an estate or tracing beneficiaries. (See profile below)
“It often takes a lot of thinking to put together the puzzle of a person’s life,” says Gayle. “It’s been a privilege to work alongside such experienced researchers in the field, one having more than 40 years’ experience. I will mostly take away the knowledge I’ve gained from colleagues from such varied backgrounds, and from all corners of the country.”
Prior to starting her LPC this September, Percival, who graduated in June last year, has been working as a paralegal at a small law firm that specialises in the special educational needs sector.
Percival was keen to gain legal experience on her gap year after failing to get a training contract, and also wanted to save money for her course. Incidentally, at the time Lawyer 2B went to press, Percival scooped a free place on BPP Law School’s LPC after winning the Lawyer 2B/BPP essay competition.
She says: “After going through interviews and rejections I was pretty downhearted and just wanted to do the closest thing I could to a training contract in my year out.
That, to a degree, is what being a paralegal is. “I think that if you don’t have a training contract, doing a paralegal or legal secretary job is important, as a law degree is completely different to working in practice.”
Percival plans to complete five weeks’ travelling before embarking on her LPC at BPP Law School, where she intends to study part-time while continuing to work at the law firm.
Combining work and travel can have its benefits, as going into work can be a bit of a culture shock. But such work need not be law-related. Anything that enhances key skills transferable to a career in law is just as valuable.
Jessica Vella, who is juggling her LPC with a job as a receptionist combined with evening pro bono work, spent her year out teaching English in Vienna.
“I wanted to do a gap year because I didn’t feel I had gained enough experience [during university] to apply for training contracts, and I knew that going to Austria would add something to my CV in terms of life experience,” she says. “I just wasn’t confident I would get anywhere at university.”
Vella believes that jumping in at the deep end by going to another country with very little money and no grasp of the language can test you as a person. “You grow up a lot moving away,” she says.
“I definitely feel more confident in myself and have become more open-minded and objective”.
Doing any gap year has its risks, whether in terms of being safe in the place you are visiting and the activities you take part in, or whether you gain the skills you want.
But the benefits can be enormous, and taking the gamble has the potential to make your job prospects much brighter. All you need is the courage to take that leap of faith.
Current employer: International genealogy and probate research firm
Position: Trainee researcher
How was your gap year? Shortly after finishing college I went on a trip to Holland to participate in a 100-mile, four-day march with a regional cadet group - probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life to date, challenging me physically, mentally and emotionally. After that I came home feeling as if I could do anything. I’m not one to sit around for long doing nothing so I enjoyed my summer for about two weeks before getting into the job hunting. An international genealogy and probate research firm based in London offered me a position as a trainee researcher, specialising in tracing missing heirs and beneficiaries when people have died intestate - with no valid will or next of kin. It’s not like any other job. No case is ever the same as the next, and no day is the same as the next.
What’s the best part of your job? The company is featured in the BBC1 TV series Heir Hunters. The cameras come and film the hectic research process on a Thursday when we work on the cases released by the Treasury. It’s sometimes difficult to concentrate with a camera over your shoulder but I’m really looking forward to being in the show. People will get to see how I spent my year.
Would you encourage or discourage students from doing a gap year of this sort? Definitely encourage. So far, I’ve been abroad, worked and volunteered, doing things that I would not otherwise have had time to do. However, if you’re planning to take a gap year for a break or to do nothing, forget it - you may as well be studying. Your time is valuable so make the most of it. Be proactive and get involved in as much as you can.
What skills and personal qualities has your gap year given you? The number one quality has been independence. It’s gratifying to know that you’re economically
self-sufficient. It will be difficult to go back to being a full-time student, but it’s the path I’ve always intended to take. Second, I would say initiative. You can be taught and trained until the cows come home but it’s down to you to apply that knowledge to achieve the desired results.
How do you think doing a gap year such as this would be a benefit in a career such as law? Having knowledge of intestacy law plays a vital part in my role. It also involves regular trips to court and local and national archives to conduct research. I’ve gained great experience in managing my workload, conducting casework and compiling and organising case files. Research is important, not only when studying for a law degree but also for law in practice.
If you could change one thing about your gap year, what would it be? So far I would not change a thing, but the year is not over yet. I just wish there were more hours in the day.