As any discerning law student knows, training contracts and vacation schemes are super competitive – and that means you have to do more than ever to impress. Enter first year opportunities: a chance to build your experience and gain some insight into law firms early in your university education. It can be tricky to figure out what’s available, as in general first year schemes are less standardised than traditional vacation schemes, so we spoke to Kesh Kularatne – a Trainee Recruitment Advisor at Norton Rose Fulbright – to find out more about the benefits of their First Step programme.
The benefits of getting involved early
During your first year at university you’ll most likely be juggling a lot of things – academic work, societies and hopefully a thriving social life. Perhaps the last thing on your mind is work experience – “there’ll be time for that later” you might think, as you divide your time between deadlines and socialising.
Wrong! Law is more competitive than ever these days, and the earlier you start, the better you’ll stand when you’re attending interviews further down the line. Anyone who has a first-year work experience placement or scheme under their belt will demonstrate a long-term commitment to a law career.
“Getting first-hand experience is great for anyone to get an idea of what a global law firm would look like,” says Kesh Kularatne from Norton Rose Fulbright. “For first year students who are still quite early on in their academic life, the scheme provides a unique opportunity for them to get some experience under their belt, and to make an informed choice before they start to apply for training contracts.”
It’s also a great way to contextualise your academic study and the experiences you’ll no doubt be having as a member of a society or extra-curricular team. A first-year scheme is a great thing to refer back to as you progress through your studies, and it’s likely you’ll gain skills from the scheme that you will build upon over the course of your university career.
Skills gained from first year schemes
Your first-year scheme is going to look different depending on which firm you are in, but it’s likely to combine shadowing, tasks and workshops with networking opportunities and social events. To give you an idea, Norton Rose Fulbright’s first year scheme consists of group presentations, skill sessions, socials, and a round table discussion with the firm’s managing partner. “There’s a lot of opportunity to really get involved and make the most of it whilst students are here”, said Kesh.
Although most first year schemes last no longer than a week, during that time you will be immersed in a corporate environment, interacting with people whose career path you may one day share. In that short time, the skills that you can gain are numerous. At Norton Rose Fulbright’s scheme, you can expect to be given similar responsibilities to a trainee: “Students are given similar tasks to trainees”, says Kesh. “such as research or drafting, and also have the opportunity to attend court. Whilst the students are on the scheme it will help them develop the core key skills that we look for in a trainee.”
Whilst there are many elements within a first-year scheme that resemble a vacation scheme and even parts of a training contract, it will ultimately function as an introduction to the world of law. There will be different opportunities based on what kind of firm you’re completing a scheme at. For example, Norton Rose Fulbright “operates as a sector-focused firm. We see ourselves as business advisers as well as solicitors. Attendees on the first step programme should then be able to get a better understanding on how the solicitors at the firm operate. This will hopefully highlight the importance of developing their commercial awareness as they progress through university."
Networking is something that can seem incredibly daunting – the very word conjures up images of making small talk at events! But in reality, learning how to network can provide a valuable boost to your career. And if you make a start on a first-year scheme you’ll be in good stead to continue making professional connections as you move through the world of law.
In a way, participating in a first-year scheme is like being part of a ready-made professional network.. At Norton Rose Fulbright “participants of the scheme will have a supervisor, who will be a partner, an associate or a senior associate, and they will have a trainee who will act as a buddy”. However, while this network is an easy way to access law professionals and get to grips with the corporate world, there is also scope for you to make your own connections. Kesh advises being proactive: “We encourage participants to be active in their areas of interest and explore these – if they are focused on tax, for example, it’s great to approach someone who is working in that area and ask if they want to go for coffee and find out a bit more about that area. While the students are here, they need to make those connections.”
A first-year scheme is useful because, more often than not, it will be your first time inside a corporate law firm. The word ‘corporate’ alone is filled with misconceptions and myths, and it’s hard to decide whether a role in corporate law will suit you until you’ve seen how it all works. So, a first-year scheme is a great chance to explore any questions in a supportive environment. "It may take time to adjust to being in a law firm, especially as you will have left school not too long ago! You will need to get your head around the terminology as well as how a firm operates. But at Norton Rose Fulbright you’ll have direct support from the lawyers who they are working alongside.” It’s also helpful to check out what other people who have done your scheme of choice are saying: "we receive positive feedback from participants on our First Steps scheme, previous videos of students on the First Step scheme can be viewed on our Facebook page."