I received an email yesterday from a student who had decided to become a lawyer, has signed up to do their graduate diploma of law and legal practice course and was wondering what to do next. She said she was feeling a bit overwhelmed as to what she ought to be doing in the meantime. Apart from the obvious advice that we always give, which is to make sure you really do want to be a lawyer before signing up to do these courses and spending over £12,000, that is to get some experience in exactly what it is a solicitor does in practice.
However now is the time to be thinking about what you ought to be thinking, so the same advice. The first step I advise everyone to take when considering a legal career is to go and get experience in exactly what it is a solicitor does in practice, and how their work fits in with everyone else’s. For example, you do not need to necessarily go to a solicitors firm and get work experience (which is very hard to get these days anyway) as you could simply go to your local court and see some law in practice anyway. There are lots of different courts you can go and experience law in. The first one, of course, is the Crown Court, which will contain specimens of barrister and solicitor standing before a grumpy judge, dealing mostly with criminal cases. Crown Courts are very easy to get into, and you can usually wonder about without anyone asking you any questions or terrifying you (every law student is terrified of anything to do with law in practice and I recall only too well how frightening courts and law firms are).
If you’re feeling particularly brave, you could also go to your local employment tribunal offices and go and watch an employment tribunal. This does involve speaking to someone as it is a good idea to actually phone the tribunal first and find out when they have any full hearings anticipated as opposed to adjournments or short hearings.
Incidentally the same applies to Crown Courts. If you go to your local Crown Court and speak to one of the ushers (they usually wear a black gown and hang around outside courts with a clipboard), they should be able to point you in the right direction for an interesting case involving a trial or sentencing hearing.
You can also try the Magistrates Court. The Magistrates Court are not so interesting, but if you are thinking of being a solicitor and dealing with criminal law, for example, this is where you will spend most of your working time when at court. It is a good idea to go and sit and experience what a morning at the Magistrates Court is like, as it can be quite soul destroying in its monotony.
Other options include going to look at the local land registry office and this will involve telephoning land registry and asking if you can either get a day’s work experience or a week or just have a look round and see what work they do or speak to your local authority and ask if you can visit the legal department for the day. Crown Prosecution Service have always been very helpful when it comes to work experience, and are happy for you to spend a week shadowing the prosecutors to see what work they do. On the commercial side, if you were thinking of earning money and see what commercial lawyers do, this is slightly harder in that a lot of the law firms have structured work experience placements that you have to apply for and be lucky enough to receive. There are opportunities to go and experience some of the work though. If you are near London or one of the areas with a commercial court (for example, I think Nottingham has one), you could go and see the workings of the litigation side and experience a bit of commercial litigation for a morning. I suspect on the whole this would be very boring, but will give you a good indication of the level of intellect that is usually required to do this type of law. Also a significant amount of patience, I suspect would assist as some of it is mind numbingly boring.
Other options include speaking to any large PLCs near your home (for example, Proctor and Gamble or Ford Motors) and asking if you can go and spend a few days in their legal department to see what work they do. It will give you commercial experience and would not involve a work experience placement which is what you will need to get if you are looking at law firm.
All of this is fundamentally important, and every time I speak to anyone about getting into law, I can go on for hours about the need for work experience. Work experience is the spark on your CV that makes the difference between you and the vast majority of your colleagues on your various courses. The vast majority of people do not get experience and as a result are unable to show anything different on their CV when they apply for jobs. If the lawyer simply has their academic background to look at as evidence that the person has thought very carefully about where they want to work and know exactly what it is. So if you are feeling completely overwhelmed in one way that is good because it may spur you into some sort of action to get experience.
Apart from getting legal experience another good thing to do if you are starting law from scratch at post graduate level is to go and buy the GCSE and A-level text books.
Learn the terminology and in particular the structure of the courts and the difference between a barrister and a solicitor. It is amazing how many LPC graduates do not know that a Crown Court is higher than a Magistrates Court or the High Court is lower than the Court of Appeal. In fact it is frightening to think that someone could have gone through all that training and spent all that money only to not know the very basic things about the English legal system.
The legal practice course and the graduate diploma of law were not intended to explain the basics to you. You must go and find these out yourselves, and this particular bit of advice coupled with the requirement to get work experience are the two main pieces of advice that I could give anyone planning to set out a career in law.