First term of law school: Things I wish I knew
Between getting to grips with your timetable and grappling with the clubs and societies all competing for your attention—not to mention trying to find a good work-life balance—the first term of law school can be daunting. Here, we get tips from people who’ve already been there, so you can make the most of the experience.
Caroline Bagley, caseworker at Latitude Law
Caroline studied law at the University of Liverpool and now works at a specialist business-immigration law firm, advising companies and individuals on labour movement, immigration rights and requirements, and licensing. She is also completing the LPC part-time at Liverpool John Moores University.
When I started my course, I didn’t join any societies as I already had a group of friends going into uni. But since leaving I’ve regretted not joining one, as you have a lot more time to put into things like that while you’re studying—and it’s free!
Law fairs are important too. First years should attend, and have a think about what they want to gain from them before they go. If you go without a plan, you can end up just chatting to people and getting free stuff. Have a think about any potential career plans you have and direct your attention to the employers that offer work like that.
I didn’t take advantage of any career opportunities until the end of my second year, then panicked a bit when I realised how much there was to do. It’s a good idea to get involved in these things, and build up your CV as you go along. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to practise until quite late in my degree, when I did a practical law clinic module.
When it comes to study, organising your time is the most important thing to remember. You can fit everything in if you plan properly and actually do the work at the times you say you will. Don’t procrastinate—it just wastes the time that you could be going out.
Revision works differently for everyone, but I always found that reading the university’s own notes before any textbooks was a good starting point. Their own notes direct you to what they are going to examine you on, whereas the textbooks just contain so much information—sometimes too much to take in. In order to get to grips with the different topics, I make revision notes, diagrams and lists.
It’s also important to take time to relax—I’ve always managed to balance the workload and social life quite well. It’s good to remember that your first year is an introduction and the marks you get don’t count overall, so don’t be too hard on yourself and make sure you get out and make friends.
I wish I’d known that there are more paths into law than just through vacation schemes and training contracts. Depending on what area you want to work in, there are a lot of opportunities for work after university without already having everything sorted, so don’t worry too much if you haven’t secured one and other people have.
Victoria Moffatt, managing director of specialist legal PR consultancy LexRex Communications Ltd.
Victoria gained a BA in history from the University of Manchester in 2003, before going on to do a GDL at the College of Law (now University of Law) in York, followed by the LPC. Now she works in the PR side of the law industry, demonstrating how law courses can lead to a wide variety of careers.
When it comes to all the societies and clubs on offer in the first term, I would advise students to really think about their interests and their personality. I now realise that—as somebody with slightly introverted tendencies—there was never any chance of me heading out to societies every night of the week. If I were to do it again now, I would probably choose one or two areas I was really interested in and commit properly to those.
On the study side of your course—if you've made it to law school, you probably have a few years' revision experience under your belt, so just try and use the systems that have worked previously. Or, ask your friends, and use this as an opportunity to try out a few different things. While it’s still really important to get good grades in first year, now is the time to look at a range of ways of working and really get to know what works for you.
I found university as a history student quite isolating—because my contact hours were so few, I tended to float about a lot. Once I went to law school as a graduate, having quite a strict, self-imposed structure for my days actually really helped.
It can be tough to get the right work-life balance, though. Again, with a few years of work now under my belt, I find that being really strategic and organised with my time helps an awful lot. Planning what to do and when can be very empowering and can prevent you from getting overwhelmed.
I left my job search until I had completed the LPC, as I was looking for a role with a smaller, regional firm, and the route into those firms tended to be through ad hoc paralegal roles. In hindsight, my legal career might have benefitted from a training contract with a larger firm, but to be honest, so much depends on each individual's circumstances. Two trainees within the same firm might have vastly differing experiences during their training contract and beyond.
I did, however, undertake a range of training experiences during my time at law school. These involved working for free within the holidays and between jobs. I usually contacted the firm I was interested in, and asked whether I could come in and get some experience, typically for a week—which was usually the most I could afford in terms of not working.
I never regretted getting this experience, and I was lucky enough to also be approached for a vacation scheme with a firm where one of the participants had dropped out shortly before it commenced. That was also very useful experience.
It's important to know yourself and understand what helps you to be productive, and—just as importantly—happy.
James Kitching, corporate solicitor at Womble Bond Dickinson LLP, currently on secondment at LV=.
James studied politics and American studies at the University of Nottingham, which included spending a year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon studying politics and history. He completed his GDL and LPC at Bournemouth University. He also sits on the executive committee of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales.
It's really important to attend law fairs, but make sure you do your research properly and know something about the firms you intend to talk to. There is nothing worse than somebody going up to a stand for a regional firm and asking about where the international offices are or asking those at a property firm about their criminal or charity teams.
Law fairs are a great opportunity for law firms to identify individuals that stand out—they will be making notes on those that do so they can keep an eye out for them among vacation-scheme and training-contract applicants. Every interaction with a law firm is a chance to impress, and law fairs shouldn't be underestimated in importance in securing a placement with a firm. In your first year, they are great opportunities to find out about open days, summer work experience, and can also help you get a better understanding of how different kinds of firms work and operate—something that will be important as you progress through your degree and start to think about who you should apply for.
When it comes to clubs and societies, the key is finding the ones that interest you and in which you think you could have an impact. It’s definitely worthwhile joining your university's law society—even if it's just to get yourself on the mailing list for upcoming talks, events and opportunities to meet with firms—but it’s more important to have a proper engagement with something important to you. Whether these are sports-related, charitable or otherwise, if you’re able to truly engage with something and make a difference by being involved with it, you’ll find that you have far more to write about on application forms and to talk about at interviews.
For example, I loved student politics and so was involved with the Student Union, but I also love travelling and so headed up a group that organised charity hitchhikes to Morocco and Prague. These may seem far away from law, but they were great things to talk about at interviews and I was able to show how I made an impact during my time at university.
If there’s one thing you have to keep in mind in your quest to become a lawyer, it’s that the absolute minimum that’s expected of you is a law degree and an interest in law—it is everything else around your degree that will make you stand out and help you move forward.
With career decisions, try not to get too focused on a particular area of law too early on. We all start out claiming we'll be human rights (me), criminal or charity lawyers, but most of us end up as property, commercial or corporate (also me) lawyers in the end. This isn't necessarily because our values have changed, but rather because there are very few jobs available in these areas of law. Keep an open mind and recognise that the way in which law is practised is very different to the theory that you study.
Remember that it’s never too early to get work experience. Time spent working in an office, even if you can't secure legal work, is useful because many of the skills will be transferable. Make the most of the long university holidays to gain new experiences and in the process enhance your employability.
Also, don't get disheartened: the average age of qualification is now 29. Just because you haven't secured a training contract by the time you’ve finished your degree doesn't mean that you won't become a solicitor. Look at what other roles are out there; the more experience you get working in a professional environment, the easier you’ll find it to eventually get a place to qualify.
Rather than completing the LLB, I studied politics and American studies and then went onto the GDL before the LPC—a route comparable to about 50% of those who become solicitors. While I was studying the GDL and LPC—which I did full-time—I also worked full-time, so that left little room for a work-life balance. As such, I have no regrets about taking the time during my degree to focus on more than just the work.
In any degree, law or otherwise, your first year is the best chance you have to get involved with more than just your course. A First is not a prerequisite for getting into law, so don't waste all your energy on securing one. Make sure to enjoy your time and, as I‘ve already said, do get involved with university life and the other things around you. It's that point again that a law degree is expected; it's everything else that will make you a candidate worth hiring.
Sam Jubb, caseworker at Latitude Law
Sam studied law at the University of Liverpool and now works at a specialist, business-immigration law firm, advising companies and individuals on labour movement, immigration rights and requirements, and licensing.
Looking back, I wish had done more with the law society. I would say to any first years, keep in with your law society and try and secure a role within it, such as treasurer or social secretary. Take part in as many extra-curricular activities as possible—even if you’re not interested, it’s always good to bolster your CV.
Email everyone to try and get work experience, such as firms, solicitors and barristers. Aim for an area of law you want to pursue, but failing that, just email everyone! I think it’s impossible to know what career path you want to pursue in first year, never mind first term. You don’t begin choosing options until your second or third year, so you won’t know what areas interest you until then.
In terms of work-life balance, the first term of LLB law is fine. Universities allow you a lot of time to focus on making friends as they are equally—if not more—important than your lecturers. Get a good group of friends who study the same course and you can all work together when things are more difficult later on.
Don’t stress about the future in first year. You are eased in very gently; enjoy yourself.
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