Statistics have shown that there are fewer opportunities for paid legal work experience placements. So, what other options are there?

Gaining solid work experience prior to kickstarting your career is virtually essential in building a commercial foundation for your legal knowledge. Whether your dream employer is a high street practice, a magic circle or a company in need of an in-house legal superstar, getting a taste of what’s to come will help in preparing you for the next step in your journey.

Further to personal formation, work experience in the legal sector gives candidates the competitive edge in the jobs market. When skimming through applications, hiring managers will naturally be attracted to those boasting at least some commercial awareness through past experience – and why shouldn’t they be? Given the choice between an applicant who has been exposed to life in the legal sector and one who has not, most of us would opt for experience in the shoes of the hiring manager.

Unfortunately, if recent figures are anything to go by, it’s bad news for budding law students. According to the latest research from The Knowledge Academy, paid work experience opportunities in the legal sector have fallen by 11% since 2017. Among top businesses, the number of paid work experience places has dropped from 1,407 to 1,250.

From global corporations like Apple, Boots, Deloitte, Facebook, Google, and McDonalds to law firms such as Allen & Overy, Baker McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Freshfields and White & Case, the research revealed how the top employers of the country have taken on a significantly lower volume of law students in the last year.

So where does that leave students?

Fortunately, those who aren’t able to secure a paid legal work placement can choose from a number of alternatives:

Mini-pupillages

With the drop in the number of paid placements, law students would do well to apply for a mini-pupillage. This involves shadowing a barrister for 2-5 days within their Chambers and provides a great opportunity to gain an insight into the life of a legal professional and how cases are dealt with first-hand. It may not seem like a long time – and it isn’t: most students who opt for this approach choose to undertake several mini-pupillages to confirm their interest in a particular area.

Often, Chambers will use mini-pupillages as a way of shortlisting candidates for a proper pupillage, though this will depend on the individual barrister and how much weight they attribute the experience. Similarly, the rate of pay during this time will depend on the Chambers in question: some may cover your expenses while others will be happy to pay you a wage.

Most Chambers will have specific periods in the year in which a mini-pupillage while others may take one pupil per week throughout the year. In any case, making your application at least 3 months ahead of the start date will allow for plenty of time for review. During your time in a mini-pupillage, you will gain experience in undertaking legal research, attending court, reading case law and sitting in on client conferences.

Marshalling

If you’re struggling to find a paid work experience placement, marshalling can provide you with foundational experience in court proceedings that can prove valuable in boosting your offering as a law graduate. Marshalling involves shadowing a judge and working with him/her on cases, meeting counsel and sitting in court while the cases are heard.

HM Courts Service website suggests that applicants will normally have completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) before applying for marshalling, however, most judges will be happy to help an eager student build up their experience within the law.

Beyond experience, marshalling is a great way for legal professionals at the start of their career to make high level contacts. If you’re lucky, the judge you shadow may even assist you in securing a paid placement within a company or firm.

Opportunities with voluntary organisations

While the number of paid placements may be on a steady decline, there are always opportunities for students to gain experience with voluntary organisations where they can gain exposure to a range of legal issues.

Universities and law schools often have pro bono centres with specific projects running in league with law firms, but it’s a good idea to get in touch with The Free Representation Unit, The Citizens Advice Bureau as well as local charities to discover the opportunities you can get involved in. While the lack of pay may put you off, voluntary work can be the perfect way to gain some hands-on experience with real cases from vulnerable individuals in need of support.