First for knowledge

With freshers’ week over, it’s time to knuckle down and realise that every year counts if you want to secure a training contract

No work and much play is the motto for scores of freshers, deluded by the widespread, albeit misguided, rumour that your first year at university does not count towards your final degree grade.

But aspiring lawyers who wait until year two to consider the world beyond university will soon realise that top law firms will not only look at first-year grades, but percentage levels, A-level results and evidence of a commitment to a career in law.

So once the freshers’ week haze has cleared, it is time to start putting into practice that pursuit for a perfect career.

Setting your standards

Laura Yeates

Laura Yeates

For law firms a 40 per cent mark in your first year just will not cut it, with the majority of graduate recruiters expecting first-year undergraduates to achieve a 2:1 minimum.

“If you’re sure you want to be a City lawyer you should try to attain a 2:1 in your first year,” emphasises Hogan Lovells associate director of legal resourcing Clare Harris. “We receive around 1,500 applications for around 70 training contracts each year, and those who get through to interview all have a minimum of 2:1 grades – many have higher.”

Other law firms also believe that in the first year of university a student should be on track for high academic achievement.

On the whole, recruiters are generally looking for consistency in academic performance, especially in the transition from A-levels to a degree. Indeed, large sways in your first-year grades may send alarm bells ringing that you struggle to grasp concepts and information quickly and accurately – this is not a good sign for an aspiring lawyer.

“It’s important to get a good solid set of first-year grades, as many recruiters will ask for these on application forms, even if they don’t count towards the final degree classification,” advises Clifford Chance graduate recruitment and development manager Laura Yeates.

Pinsent Masons graduate recruitment manager Edward Walker says his firm is pragmatic about how it assesses first-year grades, as there is a realisation that universities mark first-year essays and exams in different ways.

“Some mark very strictly as they want to ensure students realise the standard expected in their final exams and to prevent coasting,” he explains. “Others assess the student on the basis of what might be realistically expected from a first-year student, many of whom will be studying their degree subject for the first time.”

The bigger picture

Breaking into the legal profession is no longer just about strong academic grades – you need to start applying for open days or insight programmes before your first set of grades are available.

Work experience opportunities for first-year students are a fairly new thing. Traditionally a law firm would target penultimate-year law students and final-year non-law students to ensure those who joined the firm for a week or more of work experience would have some basic knowledge of the legal industry.

However, law firms have now realised that by excluding freshers from the process, they are potentially missing out on a host of raw talent, and getting first-years in for work experience is an opportunity for firms to sell themselves to students at an earlier stage.

Linklaters, for example, in 2011 launched its “Pathfinder” two-day insight programme in a bid to identify savvy aspiring lawyers among first year law students. [NB Contrary to the information contained in the table below, Linklaters does not offer places on its vacation schemes to first-years.]

Other firms also offer insight days to freshers. Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) is the latest firm to launch a three-day insight programme.

“We saw that more and more first years are going to law fairs and getting a lot savvier,” says BLP graduate recruitment adviser Sarah Burson. “This scheme is an opportunity for first-year students to make an impact at an early stage and help us build a pipeline for future vacation schemes.”

Applications for these schemes often open, and sometimes close, within the first term and normally require good A-level grades and something that demonstrates practical skills that are transferable into a career in law.

Therefore the summer holiday preceding your first term at university should be utilised, as it is a great opportunity to boost your CV.

Summer learning

“I think it’s important for people to use their summer holidays wisely, but this doesn’t necessarily mean getting legal experience,” says DLA Piper graduate recruitment officer Puneet Tahim, who runs first-year insight days across five UK offices from mid-June to late July. “Lots of applicants go travelling, have part-time jobs or do some sort of volunteering activity.”

Harris of Hogan Lovells, which launched a week-long vacation scheme for freshers last year, agrees. “If you can find relevant legal work experience, that’s always helpful, but any commercial, business-related work is good,” she recommends.

“If you can get exposure to dealing with people, working to deadlines, taking responsibility for yourself and others, finances and generally managing your time effectively, all that will help when you come to apply for formal vacation schemes and training contracts.”

However, if you have not managed to gain any work experience during the post-A-level summer break, do not panic, as there will be plenty of time in your first term at university.

Simmons & Simmons graduate recruitment partner Alex Brown says that, as well as A-level grades of AAB or above, Simmons wants aspiring lawyers to possess a number of attributes.

“We’re looking for candidates to demonstrate several competencies, including self-management skills, drive, determination and the ability to build relationships. Students can demonstrate these in many different ways, such as work experience, outside interests and activities.”

“Anything that shows they can mix academic work and attain good grades, with extracurricular activities that show they’re well-rounded individuals who have a range of interests,” explains Harris. “This may be sports, music, drama, charitable work, college societies or the student law society.”

The Christmas and Easter holidays are also great opportunities to gain more ticks on your CV.

“Work experience, pro bono work and research into law are all good ways to use time in holiday periods, ready for when students are eligible to apply for vacation schemes and training contracts in their second year,” says Herbert Smith head of resourcing Peter Chater.

Tahim agrees. “It’s not all about legal work experience, they should also take part in wider activities,” she enthuses. “We see a lot of applicants who’ve taken part in programmes such as Camp America, volunteered at the Citizens Advice Bureau or who’ve done other corporate work experience in different industries to develop their commercial awareness.”

That said, a number of top 20 firms do offer first-year-specific events and schemes that take place over the Christmas and Easter periods (see table). These opportunities are not to be missed, as they are a chance to showcase your abilities at an earlier stage.

“Individuals who are lucky enough to secure work experience are able to acquire and develop skills that the rigorous selection processes used in the recruitment of graduate positions look to identify,” insists Yeates, who organises a two-day insight programme for freshers. “For many the opportunity to complete a few days, or a few weeks, in a commercial environment will allow them to gain a deeper insight into the demands of the careers.”

If, however, you do not succeed with applications such as these, do not despair. Often the best experience gained is through ad hoc opportunities at small, high-street law firms. Students are therefore encouraged to contact law firms in their local area to see if they can undertake some informal work experience for a week or so. This may be admin-heavy work, but it will also give you the chance to see what life is like in a law firm.

Enjoyment value

Law firms are aware of the importance of the social side of the first year of university and encourage students to get involved in as many activities as they can.

“I feel there’s an argument to say that students should spend time enjoying being a fresher while also getting involved with extracurricular activities that genuinely interest you,” says Yeates. “The ability to successfully juggle multiple commitments is one of the key skills recruiters look for. We’re interested in identifying individuals who can bring to life, with examples, their ability to build successful relationships, lead and manage projects and problem solve with creativity and commercial insight.

“It’s also worth thinking about how you can stand out from the crowd by taking on additional responsibility within the activities you’re involved in and, equally importantly, showing commitment to your involvement over the longhaul.”

For the first term at university, the majority of law firms recommend involvement in certain legal activities, such as mooting, debating or negotiation competitions alongside other extracurricular activities such as sports.

“Involvement in teams, societies and voluntary work are good ways to gain positions of responsibility and demonstrate leadership, teamwork and organisational skills,” says Chater.

The start of something big

As an aspiring lawyer your first year of university is the time to discover if a legal career is definitely the right path for you, to start getting some good experience on your CV and to demonstrate your academic ability. But it is also a time to learn a lot about yourself, develop some independence and hopefully have some fun during the process.

“Although it’s never too early to start thinking about your career, enjoy your course and time outside of study,” insists Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer graduate recruitment manager Jessica Booker. “You should enjoy your time and make the most of it – trust me, it all goes far too quickly, so make sure you have some fun along the way.”

TableFreshers