The gap band

A gap year is a great way to gain extra skills and experience before settling down into your career. By Rhian Owen

Are you worried about securing a training contract during an economic downturn? If so, why not take a gap year while law firms find their feet? But instead of drinking beer and soaking up the sun in Oz for the next 12 months, consider the wealth of ­constructive ways in which you could use the time until the next round of training contracts.

The choices open to you are enough to give you a headache. But Victoria Wisson, graduate recruitment officer at law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, reckons an interesting gap year can be a great way to stand out in the application process.

“Answers to the competency questions shouldn’t go back to when you were in school, as this is where you were more hand-held,” she says. “And we think, ‘What have you been doing in the past few years?’”

To wangle some extra brownie points, ­demonstrate that you know how to commit to working. “It’s often better to spend half the year travelling, the other half working,” Wisson adds. “Going into work can be a bit of a culture shock, so getting that kind of experience can be worthwhile.”

Andrej Jonovic, a trainee at magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, was a legal ­assistant for the defence team at the ­International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague during his gap year. Jonovic was interested in exploring international criminal law and believes the experience developed his understanding and ability to cope in a working environment. “I handled some rather responsible tasks. We did our best and managed. It pushes you to various capacities,” he says.

Paul Cruise, a trainee at Herbert Smith, worked for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Ghana. Cruise took a gap year after his undergraduate degree. “I was fairly sure I was going into law, so I wanted to do something that would give me some relevant experience,” he explains. “On a gap year you’re surviving off your own wits and organising yourself. It also teaches you how to work in an office ­environment. This seems obvious, but you actually learn a lot and these are all ­transferable skills.”

That said, it is fine to go trekking around Australia, as long as you can say what you got out of it. Paula Ade, a trainee at Camerons, did a ski season in Argentina then travelled around Argentina and Chile with the new friends she made. “The most beneficial part was learning Spanish,” she says. “If you do something constructive, such as learning a language, you’re going to benefit. It’s something you can definitely talk about in an interview.”

So while you may have had an awful time learning how to conjugate Spanish or French verbs in school, your gap year is the perfect time to renew and improve those lost skills. You may well reap the rewards when it comes to applying for a training contract.

Teaching English as a foreign language (Tefl) is also a handy way of mixing travel with learning a language and expanding your skill set. Amy Tudor, a trainee at Burges Salmon, taught ­English in a secondary school in Tanzania. “I had to go to an assessment day and then to a training weekend where I learnt teaching skills. But it was all good practice for training contract ­applications,” she recalls.

However, Tudor advises against taking on gap year projects solely on the basis that they will look good on application forms. After all, if you are not going to fully immerse yourself in your gap year, how can you expect to benefit from it?

Chris Oliver, a trainee at Weil Gotshal & Manges, worked on a game reserve in South Africa. He assisted with general conservation work that included relocating lions. “I’ve always had a sense of adventure and I like working with animals. Where better to do it than Africa?” he says. “I wasn’t scared of doing something ­different, rather than going to Thailand on a gap year like everyone else. Going to Africa took me out of my comfort zone. But it’s not for everyone. It’s a lot of hands-on work. Cleaning up after ­animals is probably not going to be the best thing if you don’t like them.”

Whatever your eventual destination, you are certain to bring back stories – the epic and the war kind alike – and it all contributes to making your applications unique and worthy of note. Katy Edge, recruitment manager at Burges Salmon, says: “I always tell ­graduates to just enjoy themselves. Gap years are brilliant for developing people skills and character building.”

Recalling her standout memory from her time in Argentina, Ade says: “We went whale-watching in an inflatable boat and the whales were swimming underneath us. We could almost touch them. It was an incredible experience.”
Similarly, the bad bits – or if you are a glass half-full kind of person, the ­exhilarating ­encounters – also have their place. They may help you strengthen problem-solving skills and confidence, or at the very least make for a great homecoming story.

As Oliver recalls: “We were ­transporting five lions – one male and four females – in pick-up trucks. One of the females ­started to wake up. We stopped the truck and the lion tried to attack the rep. But she was, fortunately, sedated again.”

Opportunities are endless and it is often a case of grabbing the bull by the horns. “I had been in The Hague and I got in touch with people who worked there,” recalls Jonovic. “When they needed ­someone, I was contacted. The ­tribunal is still open and they always need people.”

But when should you take a gap year? Well, graduate recruitment advisers think it is best sandwiched between completing an undergraduate degree and the LPC. “Coming straight from the LPC, students have it all still fresh in their minds before the training contract begins. So that’s preferable,” says Edge.
Ade agrees: “In hindsight, I’m glad I took a gap year between uni and doing the LPC instead of after the LPC. It’s been good to do the LPC and go straight into work.”

The trainees all offered advice about gap years. It seems that cash flow was their main concern. Ade urges people to spend their money wisely. “It gets expensive,” she warns. “It lulled me in as everything was so cheap. I spent a lot of money.”

So, you have exchanged some money, your passport is in date and your travel insurance is covered. But do not get so caught up in the pre-travel excitement that you forget to do one of the most valuable things. All the trainees say they should have done more research into the ­countries’ customs before setting off.

<strong>VOLUNTEERING: points to ponder </strong>

Volunteering can be a fun and fulfilling way to spend a year. However, you have heard the gap year rip-off stories and volunteering companies carry a lot of that stigma. But fear not: ­international development charity Voluntary ­Service Overseas has provided Lawyer 2B with the following checklist of points to consider:

1. Will you be given a defined role and purpose?
2. Will you meet face-to-face with your provider and attend a selection day to assess your suitability for the volunteering opportunities and gain detailed information about the structure of your placement?
3. How much will volunteering cost and what does this pay for?
4. How will you be supported with training and personal development needs before, during and after your placement?
5. Is the work you do linked to long-term ­community partnerships that have a lasting impact? And how do volunteers work in ­partnership with the local community?
6. Does the organisation you are going with have established offices overseas that work in partnership with local people?
7. Can your organisation guarantee round-the-clock health, safety and security assistance?
8. Does the organisation have a commitment to diversity among its volunteers?
9. How does the organisation encourage
long-term awareness of real development issues?
10. How will your work be monitored and ­evaluated so that others can build on what you have done?

<strong>The TEFL option</strong>

Teaching English as a foreign language (Tefl) abroad is a sure way of making those application forms glow with promise. Tefl experience shows an aptitude for communication and human interaction, which all law firms love.

<strong>Top Five TEFL training tools</strong>

– International Teacher Training School of English (www.teflcertificatecourses.com)
– TEFL courses with placements throughout Asia and Europe (www.i-to-i.com)
– Intensive course in Prague with job ­opportunities worldwide on graduation
(www.teflworldwideprague.com)
– JET – Japan Exchange and Teaching ­Programme UK (www.jet-uk.org)
– Teachers Latin America offers intensive courses in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Central and South America (www.innovative-english.com)

<strong>LANGUAGE COURSES</strong>

Gone are the days when GCSE French was forced upon you – it is now up to you to learn a language. And what better way to do it than to spend time in a foreign country where learning the language is essential to communicate? You will have the time to do a course – it’s just a ­question of mustering the determination and ­commitment. Here are a few selected courses worth considering.

<strong>The Russian Language Centre</strong>
The centre runs numerous courses, from intensive immersion courses to tailor-made courses to suit. These run in the UK or you can do a summer course in Moscow.

<strong>Don Quijote</strong>
A well-known Spanish ­language school in the centre of Barcelona, there are ­several different Spanish classes and social activities run regularly, so you can get fully involved in the life of the school.

<strong>The African Language School</strong>
Based in London, the school runs courses in African ­languages including Twi and Zulu.

<strong>Link Chinese Acadamy</strong>
Has six locations in London: Soho, Liverpool Street, ­Camden Town, Hammersmith, Hounslow and West Ealing.