Vacation schemes and work experience

Getting legal work experience: advice for first years

25 Jan 2023, 13:37

Fact: recruitment for aspiring solicitors begins earlier than other professions so it pays to be organised about legal work experience from the start of your degree.


Firms use different terminology for their first-year programmes: insight days, insight programmes, first-year vacation schemes, insight workshops, first-year workshops and springboard schemes.

If you’re in your first year at university, you may feel that you have all the time in the world to think about your career in law. After all, you’ve only just started your degree course. But, with application deadlines looming in your penultimate year, the sooner you start getting some work experience under your belt, the more committed you’ll seem when applying for vacation schemes (internships for aspiring solicitors) and training contracts (the vocational training needed to become a qualified solicitor).

Insight days: structured work experience for first-year students

Solicitors’ firms have provided vacation schemes or placements for second-year students for many years – they are a well trodden path to getting a training contract. In the last ten years, however, many commercial law firms have started offering initiatives for first-year law students and, increasingly, for first-year non-law students.

Firms use different terminology for their first-year programmes. For example, we’ve come across insight days, insight programmes, first-year vacation schemes, insight workshops, first-year workshops and springboard schemes but they all have the same aim – to provide a taste of life as a solicitor and help first years to go on to make strong applications for firms’ vacation schemes and training contracts.

What will you do on a first-year programme?

Some firms offer week-long spring vacation schemes for first-year law students but most insight experiences last between one and three days typically. First-year schemes usually involve:

  • an office tour
  • meeting members of the firm, from trainee solicitors to the most senior partners
  • workshops offering application and interview advice from the graduate recruitment team
  • talks on life at the firm and typical work undertaken
  • group exercises, giving a taster of the skills needed to work in the firm
  • work shadowing lawyers.

In this article, we write about employer events as if they are going ahead in a face-to-face environment. However, if firms do switch to virtual events, much of the advice we give still holds true. On a virtual insight day, talks and networking sessions will be held over a digital platform and you may be provided with a video tour of the office.

How to apply for first-year programmes and insight days

Firms tend to select attendees based on their application form only (plus, in some cases, a telephone interview) but see the law firms' employer hubs on this site for details of individual firms’ initiatives and application processes. 'The application process was straightforward and consisted of a short online form,' explains Claudia Greig, a law student at the University of Bristol who participated in a first-year programme at Taylor Wessing. 'The most challenging bit was writing convincingly and succinctly about why I wanted a place on the insight programme.'

Why apply for first-year schemes and workshops?

Adding these first-year experiences to your CV is another way to demonstrate your commitment to law and to research your career decisions thoroughly. ‘The differences between students who have taken up opportunities during their first year, and those who have not, can be seen at both the application and interview stage,’ observes the graduate recruitment manager at Dechert. ‘I find candidates who have taken up first-year opportunities have a better idea of what they are looking for in subsequent years, and may take more time to apply to the types of firms they have already identified as suiting their career aspirations. They tend to show a less scatter-gun approach to applications, and can often distinguish between firms and describe what they are looking for better than students who have no legal work experience.’

‘The most surprising aspect was the availability of work shadowing while attending the insight day,’ explains Eleanor Murphy, a law student at Cardiff University who did a first year scheme at Macfarlanes. ‘I spent a couple of hours in the competition group with a trainee, who was happy to give me valuable insights into an area of law I had not yet considered. We also took part in a competitive group negotiation exercise, chatted to many of the partners and trainees throughout the day, and spent an hour focusing on application skills, which was extremely useful and insightful.’

‘First-year schemes have been fantastic in helping me build relationships with firms and gain experience. I’ve also learned about different areas of law and what firms look for in applicants,' continues Claudia. 'I think spending time at different firms is the only way to truly understand what working there could be like.’

Proving your commitment to law through events

Law-related campus and employer events provide another way to gain an insight into the profession and network with recruiters and lawyers.

Events by targetjobs: Inside City Law

This event gives students the chance to gain an insight into the life of a City lawyer. First-year law students and second-year non-law students can spend the day with City law firm RPC, and have the opportunity to network with lawyers, trainees and graduate recruiters.

Ad hoc work experience in smaller firms – for law and non-law first years

Not all law firms have the capacity or resources to run structured, expensive insights days or open days. Sending off a speculative letter enquiring about work experience or work shadowing opportunities to smaller firms can prove worthwhile – whether you’re on a law or non-law degree course. You may already have your mind set on working for a global law firm, but experience within a small high street practice shows recruiters that you have researched the wider profession and made informed decisions about where you want to base your career.

Temporary work – for example, holiday cover for legal secretaries or receptionists – may also be helpful. Ask at your university careers service for advice about applying through recruitment agencies and making speculative applications.

Use your university law society to develop your skills

You can build all sorts of skills relevant to law by joining a committee, such as working collaboratively or managing a budget. Most student society committee roles are taken up by second years and finalists, rather than first years – but taking an active interest in law society events now could result in a stint as the law society president, treasurer or secretary next year. ‘Many recruiters are looking for recent evidence of balancing university commitments with extra-curricular activities, such as being elected onto a society’s committee, or captaining a sports team,’ says the graduate recruitment manager at Baker McKenzie LLP.

Mini-pupillages: ruling the Bar in or out

A mini-pupillage should be on your hit list of experiences if you’re not sure whether to become a solicitor or a barrister. Lasting between three and five days, mini-pupillages are a chance to experience life in a set of chambers and to speak to individuals at different levels of their career. Unlike the rigid deadlines associated with vacation placements, mini-pupillages are offered all year round by chambers – and to all years. Mini-pupillages are a good way of showing your commitment to a career in law and that you’ve researched the various options. Remember that work experience is a useful tool for ruling career options out as well as ruling them in.

It’s worth embracing these opportunities offered to first years but do make sure you leave enough time in your life for study. It’s difficult to get into the legal profession without a 2.1 or first, and you’ll need to show recruiters consistently high academic results in A levels and all university exams. Not only does this show you have the intellectual ability to be a lawyer but it demonstrates that you have the time-management skills to juggle all parts of your life.

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