If you are considering a career in the legal profession, you are probably debating whether to become a solicitor or barrister and what sort of law you want to practise.
In a profession that is increasingly competitive, both to enter and to succeed in, it is important to narrow down your choice to certain aspects of the law and to consider what type of firm or chambers would suit you best.
There are two major topics to think about when planning your career direction – employer's requirements and your own inclinations. And it is important to think about them in good time to reconcile the two.
On one hand, you must consider how to maximise your chances of success and establish credibility with your chosen employer. On the other, how to keep your options open in a fast-moving world.
At a time when solicitors and barristers seem to be moving closer together, there is increasing divergence and specialisation within the solicitors' profession, while the "one-stop shop" offered by some accountancy firms raises the prospect of multi-disciplinary partnerships. How can you appear the marketable, flexible and adaptable lawyer the next century will demand?
Because the legal profession is so varied, firms and chambers use very different criteria when selecting trainees and pupils. You have to decide what you want to do and where you are most likely to be successful.
For some employers, particularly commercial firms and chambers, academic record is an important factor. Others put relevant experience as a higher priority. Look at your CV in relation to the qualities employers are looking for and remedy any weaknesses. For example, if your CV lacks extra curricular activities or positions of responsibility and you know your chosen employer will look for this, get involved with an activity and contribute to it in a way that will enhance your CV and develop skills. And if your targeted firm or set will not look at candidates without a 2.1 degree, work hard to get one.
One of the best ways to determine your suitability for a certain type of work while simultaneously raising credibility with future employers is to do relevant work experience. In today's competitive market for training contracts and pupillages this cannot be over-stressed. If you are considering the Bar, a mini-pupillage or time marshalling for a judge is expected – your application for a place on the Bar Vocational Course, an Inn scholarship or a pupillage will look odd without this on your CV.
Ideally, at least one mini-pupillage in different types of chambers will help, but avoid simply accumulating them for the sake of it. Like many solicitors, chambers will smile on those who have work experience in a law centre and when you are eligible it is a good idea to get involved with a free representation unit.
Potential solicitors should try to obtain work experience with the kind of firm that most appeals to them, or, if unsure, with different types of firm. Many of the larger commercial firms have very sophisticated vacation schemes, some well paid, which can be both informative and beneficial.
The Government Legal Service also runs a similar scheme and you may be able to spend some time with the CPS if you come successfully through the usual stiff competition. And if you don't secure a place, don't panic – other firms may be happy to take you on for a few weeks, especially if you have office skills to contribute. You may be able to do some outdoor clerking during the summer for a criminal firm or voluntary work in a local law centre.
Some firms and chambers like to see a variety of work experience including that outside the usual office environment. Working for a refugee organisation, charity or even a political organisation may impress some employers, while if you are interested in commercial work, look at it in other contexts such as a firm of chartered accountants, a bank or an insurance company. Sometimes even becoming a treasurer of a club or society or doing some fundraising for your favourite charity can be a useful way of demonstrating commercial awareness. And do not forget to maintain a broad range of outside interests – employers like to know that you can talk about things outside the law.
Securing a training contract or pupillage demands a high degree of motivation, commitment and focus. But these are qualities you will need in abundance to work in the legal profession of the future.