Making the most of your careers service

Your university careers service is a key tool to achieving your ambitions. Christian Metcalfe meets the advisers at some of the UK’s top institutions

As an aspiring lawyer, university careers services are a fount of information when it comes to developing your CV, tailoring your applications and honing your interview technique. Regular career talks, workshops and presentations, not to mention the all-important links to the legal industry, are just some of the ways a careers service can help. Lawyer 2B editor Christian Metcalfe asked a panel of experts drawn from the careers services of some of the UK’s top universities and a graduate recruiter to give students some handy pointers on how to get the most out of this valuable resource.

What are the key things students should do in their first, second, and third years to improve their chances of success?

Vicki Tipton

Vicki Tipton

Vicki Tipton, careers consultant, Queen Mary, University of London: Queen Mary Careers is part of The Careers Group, University of London:

Year 1: build your knowledge of the legal career paths, build your skills through mooting, volunteering and part-time work to help get other work experience in year 2. Investigate placements and work shadowing in the legal field – this is vital to help you get vacation schemes in year 2.

Year 2: apply for vacation schemes and mini-pupillages. If you’re not successful, think broadly and creatively – how else can you demonstrate a high level of relevant skills and commitment to a legal career to future employers? Work on a pro bono project, apply speculatively to small firms and apply for non-law commercial internships if you’re going down the corporate route. Remember to build networks through your work experience and career events. Reflect on skills and learning developed throughout all of your experiences, so you can demonstrate this learning in your training contract applications. Develop your application- and CV-writing skills by using workshops on campus and get your applications checked before submitting.

Year 3: if you haven’t been successful with a training contract in your second year, keep going; consider what you could usefully do in the year after graduation to further showcase your skills and commitment. Ask for support from a careers adviser to review and refresh your job-hunting strategy. If you haven’t already done so, build a LinkedIn profile to maintain and strengthen networks.

Juliet Tomlinson, careers adviser, The Careers Service, University of Oxford:

In your first year I’d recommend that you get immersed in your studies and in everything that university life has to offer. Follow your interests or try new activities, get involved and make a contribution to student life if you can. Towards the end of your first year check out what support your careers service has to offer and, if you’ve decided that law is an area of interest, perhaps attend some of the introductory activities for the legal sector such as open days, where you can visit firms to find out more. If you have exams in your first year make sure you get the best grades you can, as future employers may be interested in these when you apply later.

In your second year, researching your legal career interests must start in earnest if you wish to follow university with your professional qualifications without a gap.

This may involve deciding on which branch of the profession suits you, investigating and applying for relevant work experience, researching the employers, attending events and keeping up to date with key events and news in the legal sector.

Talk to your careers adviser about accessing relevant information, work experience, jobs, CVs, interviews and much, much more. Keep up with your extracurricular activities and don’t neglect your studies.

In your final year, continue your research and applications as appropriate, reflect on any of your work experience to make sure you’re happy with the plans you’ve put in place for yourself. Work hard on getting the best grades you can.

Caroline Everson, careers consultant, University of Manchester:

We recommend becoming involved in a wide range of activities so you can boost your CV and stand out from the crowd. For example, take part in extracurricular activities such as student societies in order to develop leadership and teamwork, and gain as much work experience as possible (both legal and non-legal) to develop employability skills and commercial acumen. Make the most of your careers service from your first year. They can help you with CVs, applications, interview technique and much more. Finally, attend fairs and any relevant employer events on campus.

Sue Clarke, head of employability, Nottingham Law School (Nottingham Trent University):

Of course, maintaining your academic achievements is important. Employers are looking for academic strength in depth, including in the first year. In addition to this there are a number of ways to improve your chances of career success. Organising relevant legal work experience is vital and taking on positions of responsibility shows employers that you’re hard-working and proactive.

Students should consider the skills that legal employers will be seeking, such as customer service, team-working and commerciality and obtain relevant work experience, not only in the legal services industry, which will help with this.

Getting involved in student law society activities can also be beneficial and provide you with extra experience. You can also pick up extra knowledge, tips and connections from presentations by law firms or chambers organised by your careers service or law department.

Clare Harris, associate director of legal resourcing, Hogan Lovells:

In your first year, if you haven’t thought about your career it’s a good time to start researching it. The careers service is a good starting point. If you know you’re interested in law attend the law fairs and see what first-year opportunities are on offer (Hogan Lovells offers a first-year work experience scheme). Check out any of the websites for your preferred firms and see what they offer first-year students. Talk to final-year students who may have already been through the recruitment process and who can offer advice. If you’re interested in law join the student law society.

In your second year, make sure you attend the careers fairs, target the firms you’re most interested in for vacation schemes and training contracts and make applications accordingly. Get as much information from representatives of the firms that you’re interested in. See if mock interviews are available at your careers service, talk to people in the year above to find out what their experiences were, check with the careers service to see if they have alumni contacts at your preferred firms (some firms will have this data on their websites). Researching is key at this point.

In your third year, if you’re a non-law student do all the things outlined above for the second year (most law students apply in their penultimate year). If you’re a law student who was unsuccessful in the second (or penultimate) year, ensure your academic grades meet the selection criteria and do everything as for the second year.

Do you have any top tips for developing good contacts within the legal profession?

Tipton: Who do you know already? Who do the people you know know? Are any of them lawyers? Can your careers service put you in touch with previous graduates now working in the law? If you have a part-time job, does the business you work for have a legal team or a company lawyer? Push your network as far as possible. A warm contact is always more likely to pay off.

Start with a telephone chat or email conversation. Ask them for a coffee. Never ask for work experience until you’ve built trust between you. When you meet up with people, always prepare questions in advance. Listen carefully to their answers and show real interest in their experience. Finally, make your own opportunities – apply for work-shadowing or work experience at smaller firms or with in-house lawyers to build your knowledge of the sector.

Juliet Tomlinson

Juliet Tomlinson

Tomlinson: One of the best ways to reach people within the industry is to contact alumni from your university who may have gone into the profession. Many careers services or alumni offices will be able to help put students in contact with solicitors, barristers and other legal professionals who were once in the same situation as you and who’ll happily talk with you about their jobs and employers.

Everson: Here are our top tips: (1) Jot down the names of people you meet at open days, employer drop-ins, campus presentations and fairs etc, so that when you write to or meet them again you’ll be able to build on previous conversations; (2) Adopt a networking mindset when you’re out and about and you may find that your neighbour, dentist or friend of a friend can put you in touch with a relevant contact; and (3) Extend your network via social media; some trainees and graduate recruiters are happy for you to follow them on LinkedIn or Facebook with their permission. (Note – apply caution when using Facebook and set your privacy settings at the highest level. You may not want your future employer to see photos from your night out on the town).

Clarke: Successfully completing relevant legal work experience is very important, as is undertaking as many placements as possible. Firms will remember them in the future if you’ve worked hard and made an impression – word of mouth shouldn’t be underestimated.

As before, if you’re well prepared then attending law fairs is a great opportunity to make contacts. The Junior Lawyers Division runs a whole range of events, from social evenings to careers seminars and training, and getting involved with their activities can provide good contacts for the future.

For BPTC students, becoming a member of an Inn really helps with making connections. Attending their events and using their facilities will get your face and name out and about among both your peers and senior law professionals.

Again, going along to presentations by law firms or chambers organised by your careers service or law department can be a good way to network with local and regional employers.

Students should also try to network by using Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. However, great care should be taken when setting up a personal profile, as many employers will look at a student’s profile before offering an interview.

Harris: Check for alumni links for your university or college at the firms you’re most interested in. Visit law fairs and make a note of contacts you speak to, or get their business cards; ask them if they’re happy for you to email them directly. See if you can attend open days or work experience events at the firms you’re most interested in. Join the student law society and attend any events hosted by law firms. Visit the careers service and check out when employer presentations are taking place and sign up. When you attend try to talk to as many people representing the firm as possible.

How can students research and differentiate between law firms?

Tipton: Law firm rankings are a good place to begin, as well as size, turnover, practice areas covered and whether they’re US, UK, regional etc. It’s also worth thinking about training contract structures and retention rates of newly qualified trainees. The Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook is a good starting point and then firm websites, but remember to find out more about them in industry publications (or pop their name into any good search engine and you’re sure to find some interesting news and information).

It’s really important that you establish your own criteria with which to select firms to go on your list – for example working culture, types of clients etc.

Tomlinson: There’s a huge amount of information available for researching law firms – everything from online client directories to comprehensive, student-friendly guides to websites and blogs. Your careers service will know about these and will probably have free copies of many of them. Read as much as you can, but also take every opportunity to talk to employees of the firm when they visit your university or through vacation schemes and visits.

Meeting employees and visiting firms should hopefully give you a sense of both the type of work done and the culture of the organisation to help you decide if this is the kind of place you want. You can also look at factors such as practice areas, location of offices, international opportunities, training and supervision, trainee retention rates, salary and grants towards training costs and so on.

Caroline Everson

Caroline Everson

Everson: It’s easy to differentiate between law firms in terms of size, types of clients, niche areas, location etc. In order to learn more about the culture and unique characteristics of a firm, however, it’s important to do deeper research. Look beyond the recruitment pages to discover more about a firm’s work, ethos, mentions in the news, awards etc. The best way to learn about a firm is, of course, to speak with representatives at careers fairs, campus presentations and open days. Ask them what they think makes their firm different from the rest.

Clarke: Researching and differentiating between law firms takes time. Students need to first think about what type of firm they’re interested in and where their own strengths lie, rather than just approaching every firm possible. They need to decide what criteria are important for them when selecting firms, and then compare and contrast them by referencing their websites and legal directories. Keeping up to date with the legal press and law-related news can also help students to become more aware of certain firms and their specialities.

Harris: Attend law fairs and campus presentations and try to speak to as many representatives as possible. Apply for open days or work experience programmes and look at objective guides, such as The True Picture guide in Chambers.

What is the most common mistake students make when using their careers service?

Tipton: Don’t worry about arriving at the door of your careers service without a clear sense of how they can help. A careers adviser is used to this and will assist you in clarifying your thinking and goals and will support you in your next steps.

Tomlinson: Often students don’t realise the extent of the help that’s available from their careers service or they think they need to have a definite career plan before talking to us. This isn’t the case. Please come along and find out more.

Everson: The three most common mistakes students make are: (1) not making the most of the range of services offered by the careers service (for example practice interviews, mentoring schemes etc.); (2) firing off lots of applications without having them reviewed by a careers adviser first; and (3) leaving the job search too late and visiting the careers service for the first time at the end of the final year, or even after graduation.

Sue Clarke

Sue Clarke

Clarke: There are several. Students shouldn’t assume that the careers service will provide them with ready-made answers to application form questions. Although the careers service is there for support and advice, applying for jobs requires a lot of input and dedication from the student. Students should check their spelling and punctuation and that they haven’t done a ‘cut-and-paste’ job with their answers.

Students also tend to assume that the careers service will check over a CV or give them a practice interview at 24 hours’ notice. At busy times a careers adviser may not be available for several days.

Harris: Probably not being realistic about what the careers service can provide. The careers service is there to give advice and provide resources such as mock interviews, CV advice and access to employer information. There’s still a lot of work the student needs to do, because ultimately they’re the ones who have to go out and get the job. So take the advice you’re given, act on it and be prepared to work as hard at getting a job as you would at getting good grades on your degree.

What is the question you most like to be asked by students?

Tipton: “How many firms should I apply to?” It’s a good question to ask because it’s hard to know whether you’ve done enough, but it’s so important that you don’t overdo it by sending a mountain of poorly researched and badly planned applications. It can take a day (and even more) to get a good application ready, so make sure you prioritise carefully which firms to apply to.

A student once told me that in her second year she’d made 50 training contract applications; then in her final year she made 15 well-researched and tailored applications. Success in the form of a training contract came her way after adopting this tactic.

Tomlinson: I like it when they ask if they can become part of our network of online mentors who help students with careers questions, as it usually means they’ve been successful with their own job hunt.

Clare Harris

Clare Harris

Everson: The question would be, “How can I market the skills and experience I gained from my part-time job?” We find that many students dismiss their part-time jobs and wrongly believe that employers won’t be interested to learn about them. The reality is that, alongside legal experience, part-time jobs can be very valuable for demonstrating commercial awareness, customer service experience, teamwork and maybe even leadership if woraking in a supervisory role. It also demonstrates commitment, a good work ethic and can offer an insight into juggling competing priorities.

Clarke: “Which of these two training contract/pupillage offers should I accept?”

Harris: “Why do you like working for Hogan Lovells?”

How can non-law students best demonstrate an interest in law?

Tomlinson: By thoroughly researching the type of role that they would like and the industry in which it operates. In my experience, most employers want to see that you really do understand what you are letting yourself in for, especially if you are coming from a non law background. This means having an appreciation of the the work involved, the “ups and downs” of life in this role, and the sorts of skills and attributes that are valued. Keeping up to date with what is happening in the legal world and how the firm/chambers operates within it will also demonstrate an enthusiasm and keenness for joining the legal community in the future.

Everson: You will have to demonstrate a very good understanding of what a career in law entails and provide evidence to show a real passion and commitment to a career in law. Activities can include gaining relevant legal work experience, such as a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage; undertaking work shadowing and/or volunteering activities; arranging a court visit to observe a trial; keeping up-to-date with legal news; and finally, attending employer presentations on campus, open days and networking events arranged by your university careers service or school of law.

Harris: By doing careful research into the legal profession and finding out which aspect of law attracts them most (eg large international law firm, regional firm, the Bar). Research can be undertaken by going to their careers services, joining the student law society, attending recruitment events, talking to people in the year above them, attending presentations led by employers, applying for and going to open days or undertaking work experience. It is also a good idea to read the legal press and get familiar with what is going on generally in the legal profession and the business world.

What kind of help do you offer to students wanting a career in law?

Tomlinson: One-to-one individual guidance sessions (up to 45 minutes) in the careers service and in the law faculty; comprehensive on-line career guides to becoming a solicitor, barrister, working in international law; careers library with relevant books and free take away publications; on-line jobs boards for full time legal roles and vacation placements; an online alumni data base for informal e-mentoring and information gathering; law Fair – 65 firms, 15 chambers and legal education providers and other legal organisations; about 30-40 law firm and chambers presentations; talks on: “Applying for vacation placements”, “Law for non-lawyers”, “Applying for Pupillage”, “IP law”, “Solicitor roles outside the City”, “Moving on to study law”, “Preparing for the Law Fair”; mock interviews for vacation schemes, training contracts and pupillage; and careers talks in the law faculty for first and second year students.

Students can also join the University Law Society or Bar Society who frequently run skills sessions and talks from legal experts.

Everson: We offer students a wide portfolio of services, including workshops on applying for the LPC or BPTC, one-to-one appointments to discuss career options and how to differentiate between firms, as well as practical help with application forms, CVs and covering letters. We also offer mock interviews to help students improve their technique and interactive sessions on psychometric tests and how to succeed in assessment centres. We organise a wide range of employer events on campus, including our annual law fair which is open to all students and graduates.

Harris: We have a very comprehensive website at that gives an enormous amount of useful information and case studies. We offer interview skills and application tips courses at a range of universities. We attend careers fairs and run presentations at a wide range of UK universities and we also assist doing mock interviews when invited to do so by careers services.

What is the most underused resource available to students?

Tomlinson: I think probably the online alumni network is the most under used resource even though it is one of the most valuable!

Everson: As we are very student-demand led service, if a resource is underused, we tend to discontinue offering it. As a result, all our resources are incredibly well used. It is frustrating however, occasionally to meet a final year student, or a new graduate, who regrets not making the most out of their time at University or not taking full advantage of our programmes on offer, such as our careers mentoring scheme. I would say that some of the biggest mistakes some students make are not starting their career planning early enough and not trying to gain work experience. Doing both helps students’ career development a great deal.

Harris: I don’t think there is any one thing that is under used, rather a question of students not necessarily using all the resources that are available to them or using the many opportunities that are available to meet employers in the most effective way. Following some of the advice outlined may help in this regard.

Gemma Baker

Gemma Baker

Sponsor’s comment: Gemma Baker, head of careers service, Kaplan Law School

Having worked for nine years as a graduate development and recruitment manager in two City firms, I turned to the ‘other side’ and became the careers service manager at Kaplan Law School in London, where I could put my knowledge to good use.

One of the first things I tell students is, listen to my team, we’re here to help. I would urge you to do the same and read the advice given by the panel.

Some advice is oft-repeated, not because your advisers have nothing else to add, but simply because most applicants fall at the first hurdle. Careers advisers can help you make sure that you are remembered for the right reasons. 

“How do I make an application stand out?” is one of the things careers advisers and graduate recruiters are asked most often.Rather than being ‘wacky’ (a word that makes me shudder), simply be thorough, knowledgeable and concise: don’t send firms a well-written, generic covering letter and think that graduate recruiters won’t spot it. It may be the case that “the firm’s international reputation for exceptional quality of work in medium-sized corporate deals and general commercial litigation, its impressive client list, expertise in handling multi-jurisdictional disputes and numerous prestigious accolades” are factors in your decision to apply, but that could be said of around 40 firms in London alone.

Research the firm or chambers and find out what makes it stand apart; try to gain an understanding of what they consider to be their USP; know which practice areas are their strongest; know what awards they have won; know whether they have opened any new offices or merged recently; and know what deals or cases they have been involved with lately. These will all help to show a real insight into life at the firm or chambers and the type of work it is involved in.

Also, most importantly, you must be realistic. Spend your valuable time making applications to firms or chambers whose academic requirements you meet.

Make sure your drive and motivation comes through in your application; recruiters want to hear about other achievements and they are all relevant. These can range from sport, mooting, music and drama to involvement in activities such as the Air Cadets, pro bono and voluntary work. Be specific as to your involvement – make sure that graduate recruiters and chambers are made aware of your contribution and commitment.

If you have truly exceptional achievements – such as playing sport at a national/international level, winning academic scholarships and prizes, taking part in highly competitive schemes and programmes – mention them. The application form is your chance to show off.