Law students and summer placements: a quick summary
As sunshine makes its first appearances of 2015, Rob Marrs looks at the summer placement for law students and explains who should apply and who should steer clear for now.
One of the few depressing aspects of my job is that when I represent the Society at student law fairs, the law students seem to be getting younger. That’s the way of the world I suppose. My mother used to complain about how young policemen were.
The thing is, students at law fairs are getting younger. Such fairs used to be attended by third years looking for a summer placement and fourth years looking for a traineeship. Now, first and second years routinely attend – and not just to get free stuff.
My advice to first and second year law students would be to do something else between first and second year and second and third year. I’d still attend the law fairs (to find out a bit more information about law firms), but you’ll have two more bites at the summer placement cherry and, in reality, the firms aren’t interested in you. They’ll be much more impressed with you doing other work – in a bar, in a department store or whatever – in those summers anyway.
No one believes me when I say this, but it’s worth repeating – recruiters often find non-legal work experience much more impressive than an internship.
Those first two summers are likely to be your chance to do something different. And that ‘something different’ – whether it’s an internship in a different industry, some travel or voluntary work – might set you apart at the application or interview stage.
The value of a summer placement
For those of you in third year and above and who want to work for a larger firm, a good way to get an insight into what they do is to get a summer placement. There’s a bit of a myth that a summer placement equals a traineeship (it doesn’t), but it’s certainly a positive indicator on your CV. Even those who have their heart set on a criminal defence traineeship may consider applying for the larger firms – if nothing else it can help rule in, or rule out, options.
It is very easy in a professional degree to get yourself on a path. I often ask law students why they want to be a solicitor or why they want to work in a certain sector and the answers aren’t always illuminating. Simply put they want something they have no experience of. A summer placement might not be perfect but it does allow you an extended peek behind the curtains of the practice.
How to get a summer placement?
Law fairs typically happen in September and October each year. Although recruitment practises will differ between organisations, summer placements will usually be advertised either side of the Christmas holidays. Do your research, visit the law fairs, speak to the organisations you’d like to apply to, and then make sure you follow the process (usually advertised on their website). For smaller organisations, the process will usually be ad hoc and rely on contacts you’ve made or, potentially, via speculative applications.
What might you be doing?
Tasks will vary from firm to firm, but research will likely feature. You won’t be looking up the law for any academic reasons but to deal with a real-life issue for a real-life client. It’s probably the first time you’ll realise that in law school the facts are clear and the law isn’t, but the opposite is true in practice. The problems that a client faces are rarely neat. It’s rare that there’s a logical and clear answer to the problem you’re faced with. The only way you’ll learn this is by seeing it happen. A deeper dive on this subject can be found on Malcolm Combe’s blog.
This is astonishingly basic, but do try to remember that the people you’re working for know about the law and will assume you do too. They’ll be more impressed if you can explain legal concepts simply.
It’s not just an opportunity for you
The summer placement should be seen as a two-way street. On the one hand, you’re getting an insight into what the law is like and how one particular firm operates (bearing in mind that no two firms are the same). On the other hand, the firm is getting a look at you. Rather than the 30-minute interview, they get to see you in the workplace for a few weeks. It’s an astonishing opportunity to sell yourself to a potential employer. It’s also an astonishing opportunity to mess things up entirely. As I said in a previous post: watch, listen and try to appreciate the culture.
My advice to trainees was that it was difficult to overstate how inappropriate the title ‘’support staff’ is. Remember this. Secretaries, paralegals, IT staff, and librarians can make your life easier. They can also make your life a lot harder. They may not have a say in whether or not you get hired in due course but if you annoy them, they’ll make damned sure that their opinion finds its way to HR.
If you are asked to do the bun run, do it. Qualified lawyers do it. Don’t get it wrong. If you can’t be trusted with remembering four different coffees and a few yum yums, then what does that say about you?
A closed mouth catches no flies
More seriously, it can be exciting to be privy to a law firm’s work. Don’t talk about this outside the firm. Ever. You’ll get this drilled into you on your first day but, well, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard snippets of transactions or gossip from law firms on the Glasgow to Edinburgh train.
It’s easy to think, particularly as an intern at a big firm, that you’re one of the gang. You aren’t really – you’re there for a few weeks. Remember that the people you’re laughing and joking with, and the people that you go on a night out with, may have a hand in deciding whether or not you get a traineeship.
You may be one of a number of summer students. These people, and your supervisors, may be the beginnings of your professional network. There’s a political difficulty inherent within this. Those other summer students will likely be competing with you for a smaller number of traineeships in due course.
There’s no point going all ‘Goldman Sachs Elevator’ and trying to undermine, or embarrass, other summer students. Karma is, as they say, a bitch. Just make sure that in your short time you give the best possible impression. Remember that Scots law is a village and a particularly gossipy village at that – rumours of poor performance, bad behaviour or general shoddiness will spread.
Well, we know what firms want from a future trainee. But a good bit of advice is: be yourself. Ultimately, if they don’t pick you then that doesn’t mean you won’t be a lawyer. It just means that the firm in question was looking for something different.
How else can you get the most out of interning? At various points during your internship, sit down and consider what you’ve learned. Think what went well, what didn’t go so well, why certain things happened, what you’d do differently if you found yourself in the same situation.
I know educationalists like me always bang on about reflective learning – and I know the mere mention of it will turn people off! – but it really is a great way of ensuring that you get the most from your placement.
That should, in due course, put you in much better stead when it comes to starting a traineeship.