Gap door

While you may take a gap year out of necessity rather than choice, with the right planning the 12 months out provide the perfect chance for you to make your CV more attractive to employers. By Ben Moshinsky


Dont fret if you have not got a training contract by the time you finish your LPC. It could well turn out to be a blessing.

Instead of sitting at home and tearing your hair out, you can consider the wealth of constructive ways to use the time until the next round of training contracts.

Recruiters are looking for people with initiative and filling a year with activities that build a variety of skills is an effective way of demonstrating this.

You can pick and choose your future, from teaching English abroad, volunteering or undertaking foreign language courses and summer work placements, while your legal education colleagues have their noses to the grindstone in data rooms.

The choices open to you may be overwhelming to begin with, but it is not what you do that is important, it is what you learn from the experiences.

You are not the only one in this predicament. Most graduate recruitment officers now see gap years as the norm rather than the exception.

The number of available training contracts available has remained almost static for the past five years, despite growth in the number of students taking the LPC. In 2000 there were 5,280 places and in 2005 there were 5,732, according to figures from the Law Society.

If you can take a gap year, try and learn something different. Mark Matthews, graduate recruitment officer at Richards Butler, says: Were looking for someone who went on a gap year and can demonstrate the extra skills and experience that they wouldnt have normally got through academia.

There is an advantage in taking time off and getting experience in the real world.

Matthews and other graduate recruitment officers say they look at gap years on a case-by-case basis. This means that it is down to the individual to prove they spent the time meaningfully, and there are no hard and fast rules about what looks good on a CV.

So it is fine to go trekking around South America, as long as you can explain what you got out of it. Similarly, recruiters will frown if you spent your year working in a large company, but cannot tell them what skills and knowledge you picked up.

That said, if you want a job at the end of your gap year, working is one of the best ways to get it.

Stephenson Harwood HR manager Nicola Heath says: If you have to take time off, you havent missed the boat. Work experience in a bank or financial institution stands you in good stead the next time round. Work experience shows client-facing skills and commercial awareness.

If you want to have a CV that is glowing with promise then you need to match up your gap year work experiences with the specialist areas of your chosen firms.

Olswang head of graduate recruitment Victoria Edwards says: If people are doing a gap year because they havent been successful then wed like to see legal-related work experience. Experience in a commercial environment, particularly if it complements our practice areas, is a bonus.

Olswang is particularly well known for its real estate and media practices, so any evidence of time spent in those areas would stand out.

Summer placements can be a good way of notching up a few weeks in a business environment and most law firms offer several places to law students.

These are paid placements up to 270 a week at some firms so you will not have to worry about the extortionate price of your Pret a Manger sandwich.

A place on the summer scheme could also lead to a training contract offer, with some firms hiring four out of five trainees from their vacation scheme.

If you end up in a bank on a summer placement scheme and you really want to work in media law, you should outline on your application form how the skills you learnt there would be relevant to the kind of legal practice you want to work in.

A summer placement on your CV shows initiative and a willingness to learn about the practical aspects of law, but you can only benefit from doing lots of different activities.

Paralegal work

Another way to gain valuable law firm experience is paralegal work. This is harder to come by without completing the LPC, but is worth looking at as a way of getting a foot in the door of the legal profession.

Stephenson Harwoods Heath says: Paralegal work is a great way to pick up the right law firm skills.

For those of you with the relevant qualifications and a thirst for practical experience, the best way to get a job is to go through specialist agencies such as Legal Prospects (www.legalprospects.co.uk), Totally Legal (www.totallylegal.com) and Paralegalnet (www.paralegalnet.co.uk).

Temping is a worthwhile alternative to paralegal or summer internship work. If you are looking for temp jobs, keep an eye on community websites such as Gumtree (www.gumtree.com). Some smaller law firms look for candidates online rather than go through an expensive recruitment agency.

But try to avoid falling into the trap of doing an entire years paralegal work, wearing yourself out in the process.

Heath advises: Dont feel you have to do a whole years work. When you join the firm, we want you fresh and ready to start.

Overall, your gap year should include other activities to balance the work, you are there to enjoy yourself as well as pick up experience, so do look at travelling, teaching English as a foreign language and other activities.

Ideally you will manage to find a balance with gaining work experience and enjoying time off constructively.

Stephenson Harwood HR and training director Jeff Marlow says: The aim of the gap year should be to make a more rounded person. Theyve seen the world and got a better perspective as a result.

Summing up, he adds: The perfect gap year has real variety.

TEFL
Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) abroad is a handy way of mixing travel with learning a language at the same time as boosting your skill set.

Be sure to show it off on your CV TEFL shows an aptitude for communication and human interaction which all law firms love.

Five top TEFL training tools:

  • Intensive TEFL Courses
    www.tefl.co.uk
  • JET – Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme UK
    www.jet-uk.org
  • Oxford House College
    www.oxfordhouse.co.uk
  • Saxoncourt Teacher Training
    www.saxoncourt.com
  • International Teacher Training School of English
    www.teflcertificatecourses.com

LANGUAGE COURSES
You might have had a terrible time struggling with French or German for your GCSEs, but your gap year is the best time to try to learn a language.

You may well reap the rewards when it comes to applying for training contracts.

Stephenson Harwood HR manager Nicola Heath says: Languages definitely stand out. When Im working on seating allocation, Ill talk to partners. We had a partner with a German client so I placed a German-speaking trainee with him.

A gap-year course also gives you the opportunity to look beyond the standard canon of languages.

European languages are quite helpful, such as German, Spanish or French. In terms of our client base Greek and Mandarin are also useful, says Heath.

Look at emerging countries, because the big firms need people with good language skills in their far flung outposts. Be adventurous Mandarin, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese will make you more valuable.

Those with training contracts should ask their firms about travel and language bursaries. Most of the top 50 firms with international networks have budgets to spend on language training.

I have a small amount in the budget for language courses. We do tend to sponsor somebody each year to do a residential six-week language course, says Heath. We look at it on an individual basis.

You will definitely have the time to do a course, and the funding as well if you are lucky, but it is up to you to bring the dedication. Bonne chance!

Instituto Cervantes
Instituto Cervantes is a Spanish government-funded cultural centre, providing language classes.

SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies)
SOAS is part of the University of London and runs courses on a number of exotic languages, including Mandarin and Arabic.

The Russian Language Centre
The Russian Language Centre in London does exactly what it says on the tin.