Work experience is now seen as critical to securing a training contract, but with hundreds of students vying for every vacation scheme place and badgering firms of all sizes for work experience, how fair is the competition?

In 2009, former Labour minister Alan Milburn’s Fair Access to the Professions report labelled law as one of the ‘most socially exclusive’ professions and criticised it, along with other professions, for having a ‘closed shop mentality’ that meant connections could count for more than talent.

Calling on family, friends and colleagues to get a foot in the door has a long history - as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg himself admitted, it was family connections that secured the internships that launched his career.

But what happens if you don’t have connections to get that first opening in such a fiercely competitive market? Because placements do count. As the High Fliers Report: The Graduate Market in 2012 by graduate recruitment research organisation High Fliers Research says: ‘Half the training contracts offered by the leading law firms are likely to be filled by graduates who have already completed work experience with the employer.’

Standing out

The Milburn report’s criticism put social mobility right at the top of the profession’s diversity agenda. The Law Society had already been planning its Diversity and Inclusion Charter, which it launched the same year. Firms representing a third of all solicitors have now signed up to its series of commitments including seeking best practice in recruitment, retention and career progression.

Signatories are also expected to adopt, as a minimum standard, the new best practice code on quality internships produced by the Gateways to the Professions Collaborative Forum. The Society, a member of the forum, is promoting the code, which sets out six principles of best practice, including paying at least the minimum wage.

However, the whole area of work experience is a minefield. Generally, internships last for several weeks and should be paid at least the national minimum wage. Vacation schemes are usually between one and three weeks long, paid and secured through a similar application process to applying for a training contract. Work experience tends to be ad hoc - one or two weeks, usually unpaid - though some firms do pay or offer expenses.

Jack Denton, co-founder of the research website, estimates that the number of paid vacation scheme places runs to about 3,150, which are being chased by around 12,000 students. ‘So many students are unaware that they should be paid at least the minimum wage,’ he says. ‘We are encouraging them to take a stand and report a firm to HMRC if they feel they are being exploited.’

He accepts that the priority for students is to gain experience. ‘But some are being priced out of opportunities because they can’t afford to work for nothing, and that is a problem when graduate recruiters say they are very unlikely to offer a training contract to someone without any sort of work experience. It is something firms are looking at - I just don’t buy the argument that if they have to pay they won’t offer them.’

The pressure is certainly on students to do whatever it takes to get work experience on their CV. One graduate showed a sort of foresight in ‘flirting shamelessly’ with the parent of a school friend which, three years later, led to a two-week placement. Despite arranging five stints of work experience, he was still criticised by some of the firms he applied to for training contracts for not doing any formal vacation schemes.

Now one-year qualified, Grace Cowling, a member of the Junior Lawyers Division executive committee, arranged her own work experience by badgering local firms. ‘I said to my mum, you must know someone,’ she says. ‘Nepotism is rife in firms, with offices full of partners’ and clients’ sons and daughters or their friends during the summer. But firms should either say we don’t accept anyone for work experience or have an open scheme with an application form based on merit.’

With no strings to pull, she emailed one firm on spec, and the partner said yes because she had a good academic record and her email stood out because it did not have any spelling mistakes. She was asked to go for an interview at a Leeds firm but walked out when it said she would have to come back for a second interview and stay for three days without any payment or expenses. ‘They were stunned when I said no but I couldn’t afford to do it,’ she says. One issue for firms is just how early they should start offering work experience - an increasing number of initiatives are targeting disadvantaged teenagers from year 9 (13-14 year-olds) upwards.

The website, created in response to the Milburn report, provides information about work experience opportunities and vacation placements to school-age students, teachers and parents. The Society is a gold sponsor so charter signatories can upload details of opportunities free of charge.

A grip on social mobility

Firms are also taking a grip on the social mobility issue. Last year, Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley called other senior partners together to propose setting common standards for work experience, leading to the launch of the profession-wide scheme Prime, for students who are at state school, eligible for free school meals or would be the first of their family to go to university.

The 23 founder firms have grown to over 50, each committed to providing a minimum number of placements equivalent to half the number of training contracts they offer, with a headline target of 2,500 places by 2015. Other bodies championing the issue of diversity and social mobility through work experience and holiday schemes include the Black Lawyers Directory (BLD), the City Solicitors Educational Trust, the Brokerage Citylink, SEO London, Sutton Trust, Pathways to Law and the Social Mobility Foundation.

Debo Nwauzu founded BLD in 2006. In January, it launched charity the BLD Foundation, which has taken over responsibility for the Legal Launch Pad scheme, which primarily targets ethnic minority undergraduates and offers successful applicants work experience, training sessions and a mentor. Nwauzu sees positive changes in the profession. ‘They may not be fast enough or deep enough but there is a real desire to improve things,’ she believes.

But firms are hurting from the recession, and recruitment and funding are down. ‘For the first time since we started the Legal Launch Pad in 2008, we have had to reduce the number of students we can help, which is painful when the quality is so high,’ she says. ‘We took on 55 last year but only 45 this year when we could easily have chosen 70.’

Kate Walmsley, the Law Society’s corporate responsibility co-ordinator, says that two years ago, the Society added the opportunity to do one or two weeks’ unpaid work experience to its Diversity Access Scheme, which offers successful applicants a scholarship covering their LPC. It plans to offer 30 scholarships this year.

College of Law students can get informal placements through their mentors or take part in a wide range of pro bono opportunities. But employability programme manager Joanne Rourke says the college is looking at what more it can do to help students who ‘get stuck in this vortex where they can’t get on vacation schemes because the criteria are so high but they can’t distinguish themselves because they can’t get that initial work experience’.

From March, law firms will be required by the Legal Services Board to ask all their staff, from trainees up, to fill out forms which include voluntary questions on their socio-economic background alongside gender and ethnicity. Milburn has called on all professions to follow the LSB’s lead. While he recognised concerns among prospective trainees that their parents’ income could end up jeopardising their chances of securing a vacation scheme or training contract, he said collecting gender and race data was ‘hugely contested’ when it first started. But he said those audits were rapidly accepted and merely ‘shining the spotlight’ on ‘changed behaviour - where the law leads, others will follow’.

Students on work experience or vacation schemes are not included in the LSB scheme because they may only be with the firm for a few days. An LSB spokesman says the information may be useful to law firms, so they should take a pragmatic approach depending on how long the students are with them.

‘It is nice to meet young people who are enthusiastic about the law – it is a welcome antidote when you are feeling jaded and cynical about the profession’

Highs and lows

Dipping into a selection of work experience opportunities across a wide range of firms, students pick out some of the highs and lows:

DWF Leeds office

- impressive; five students on vacation scheme spread through different departments; given trainee-like tasks researching different areas of law, working through commercial leases and drafting letters; met for talks, group exercises and presentations throughout the week;

hlw Commercial, (now hlw Keeble Hawson) Sheffield office

- different department each day of the week so met lots of people but spent more time reading through files than doing specific tasks;

Pictons, Luton office

- very hands on; fantastic amount of client contact as associate did lot of legal aid work; spent second day in court talking to clients, sitting with associate as he negotiated with opposing lawyers, sat in on mediation;

Irwin Mitchell

- extremely well-run; confident that candidates selected on merit as we came from wide range of backgrounds/schools/universities; gained real insight into workings of a busy personal injury department in a national firm;

Mayer Brown

- well-run, very structured with group project to do by end of week, four out of seven of us via diversity access initiatives; amount of legal work experienced varies but good opportunity to test life in big corporate firm; very good review procedure - assigned to a trainee who gives feedback on your time there and this is kept on file so if you apply later for training contract they know how you performed;

Norton Rose

- very friendly and welcoming; given complex tasks so I learnt a lot; second week spent sitting with a partner - rare on these schemes - who took me to meetings and really took time with me; everyone happy to hand out cards, always valuable to have, and offer advice;

S J Berwin

- Friendly, fantastic offices but not enough to do;


- very friendly; nice coffee/break areas which encouraged everyone to get together; well-structured scheme; assigned to one person in IP department, who would ‘loan’ me out to people who had spare work; filled in patent forms, looked up possible breaches, drafted letters to clients so learnt a lot; people happy to take me to court, hand out cards, offer advice;

White & Case

- some time in very quiet departments which was awkward as you can only ask so many times if you can help; but overall very friendly; valued honesty of lawyers about difficult topics; the long hours in certain departments, recent commercial setbacks; and genuine effort made to get to know interns; high level of approachability.

A bigger pool

Some firms already monitor their intake. Addleshaw Goddard, which has been running a diversity access scheme in conjunction with BPP since 2007, started recording the backgrounds of its vacation scheme students last year so the firm can assess if it is meeting its social mobility aims. Mary Gallagher, the firm’s diversity manager, says it receives about 1,000 applications for the 70 places offered on its week-long, paid vacation schemes. The firm does not set a fixed number of places for students coming via the BPP scheme to ensure the school does not miss out on really good candidates.

‘We still require a 2:1 but we relax the A-level criteria as we are acutely aware that a student’s school or home circumstances can have a big impact on their grades,’ she says. ‘This gives us access to really good people who wouldn’t otherwise have made the cut and, so far, about 20 have gone on to secure training contracts.’

Julia Chain, who was deputy chair of the former Commission for Racial Equality, pioneered the diversity access scheme when she was on the academic board of BPP. ‘Having got to BPP, these students have already showed they are bright and motivated, but various life chances mean they don’t have the right A-levels, the right universities or any work experience on their CVs to get training contracts.

‘Addleshaw Goddard were brilliant to take the chance and it has worked so well. I was disappointed other firms didn’t take it on. The profession is making good moves but it could do more, faster. Having some sort of access scheme should be part of every law firm’s corporate social responsibility. If they don’t, we should make it mandatory.’

Two other firms - RPC and Olswang - now run similar diversity access schemes in partnership with BPP, taking students on summer placements who do not meet their normal minimum entry requirements because of mitigating circumstances. Peter Crisp, dean of BPP Law School, says: ‘These are "foot in the door" schemes which are very competitive because there are only a limited number of places.

‘Diversity has improved in terms of gender and ethnicity, but we are still stuck on social mobility. The NEETs (not in education, employment or training) are a big issue. But we need to keep it in perspective. It is too easy to hit the legal profession over the head and say you aren’t doing enough. But the problem is reaching the people who don’t get in to higher education and we never see.’

Universities are stepping up their help for students. For example, every LPC student at the University of Glamorgan gets the chance to do a minimum of one week’s unpaid work experience, with placements arranged at large public sector entities, commercial practices and small high street firms in south and west Wales. Nottingham Law School is seeing growing interest in its four-year LLB sandwich course which includes a year-long, paid placement. Conscious of the impact of the university fee increases, the school is dropping the fee it used to charge students during their placement year.

First-hand experience

Varying in quality but incredibly useful, say former students who give an insight into the world of work experience and vacation schemes. Junior Lawyers Division committee member Grace Cowling remembers returning to Nottingham University for her second year and being shocked by friends talking about the ‘vac schemes’ they had been on. ‘They had been encouraged to apply by their parents, who were lawyers. I had no idea what they were so I felt immediately disadvantaged.’

With poor results in her second year, she looked as though she was heading for a 2:2 and the advice at law fairs was to consider an alternative career. But, back on track for a 2:1 by the next easter, she decided to give law a go. She secured a week’s work experience in a high street firm and did a day in several different departments including crime, immigration, wills/probate and family. ‘The experience was great because I found out the following: high street/legal aid solicitors are paid significantly less than commercial solicitors, scrapping my "all solicitors are rich" illusion; I didn’t enjoy contact with the more unsavoury clients; and high street firms don’t pay towards your Legal Practice Course.’

She was also paid to be a guinea pig on a CPS pilot scheme where she was warned - ‘this is a thankless job, everyone hates you, go into the commercial world’. She took their advice and secured a training contract with Yorkshire firm Gordons, qualifying a year ago.

‘Work experience is invaluable because its sets you apart from other 2:1 red brick graduates,’ she says. ‘It allows you to speak to solicitors and see what kind of work they do in different areas.’ Now qualified, she uses her experience to impresses on students the importance of doing their research first. ‘I am tough on those at law fairs who come and ask me for work experience but haven’t found out anything about my firm,’ she says.

Fellow JLD committee member Sarah Bolt is a trainee solicitor at Irwin Mitchell. She researched schemes in her local area from, lex 100 and the training contract handbook.

‘The ball is very much in your court,’ she says, ‘and it is for you to the legwork to get through the door. I don’t think firms need to advertise widely because there are too many applications coming through the door from good calibre graduates'.

She says firms offering formal vacation schemes usually pay travel expenses and a ‘wage’ of about £250 for a week. Where the work experience is more ad hoc and unpaid, it can be a significant barrier for those from poorer backgrounds, she says, adding: ‘I have found that a lot of informal work experience placements are about connections.’

She is concerned that these can limit access to the profession and is keen to see firms sign up to a code of good practice regulated by either the Law Society or the SRA.

Vacation schemes certainly vary greatly in quality, says Charlotte Nasey, a trainee at Gordons, who experienced three very different weeks, all obtained without connections. She praises the diversity schemes run by some firms, which allow applicants with lower A levels grades to obtain work experience and the possibility of a training contract. ‘These are a great idea as they give students from different backgrounds a well-deserved chance.’

Mark Pentecost was awarded a BA (hons) in Drama and Religious Studies by Surrey University after undergraduate study at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill. A few years later he decided to start a legal career and went to Northumbria University to study the Common Professional Examination and LPC.

Now a first-year trainee solicitor at Sanderson McCreath and Edney in Berwick upon Tweed, Northumberland, Pentecost was elected the JLD’s student representative in 2010. He did one vacation scheme. ‘It was extremely well run and you didn’t need connections to get on it - there was an application form and a rigorous assessment centre where candidates were selected on merit.’

For one Graduate Diploma in law student, doing a range of work experience showed him that the ‘big shiny offices handling multi-million pound litigation’ wasn’t for him. ‘When I reflected upon my time at the different firms I realised that what I really liked was the client contact and the smaller firm,’ he says.

‘What then helped in gaining a training contract was being able to talk genuinely and fluently about why you had applied to that particular firm with reference to your experience at other types of firms. It enabled me to answer rationally, rather than based on advice or hearsay.’

So what makes a good scheme? For one student, it was the quality of the graduate recruitment team. ‘It goes beyond being them friendly and approachable; a well-organised vacation scheme where you can meet with them on a regular basis in the office and socially does really help you settle in.

‘My one criticism was the time I spent in very quiet departments which was very awkward. Perhaps it is difficult in terms of allocation, but I think that needs to be addressed.’ As long as a scheme is fair, you can’t dictate to the firm how they run it, believes Pentecost. ‘They are looking for people who will fit into their businesses and so their whole recruitment processes are driven by those requirements.’

For Samantha Bell, who is also training at Gordons, vacation schemes were the first time she had worked in an office. ‘They help you decide on commercial versus private client, for instance, and whether you want to work for that type and size of firm. It is also about whether you fit in with the firm and the team.’

She did three schemes at the time she graduated. ‘They were well advertised online and open to anyone at the relevant stage in their education, unlike most work experience which is more about connections. I certainly met people from a wide variety of backgrounds on them’

She found the application process ‘draining and time consuming. But, although some schemes don't offer any payment or expenses, I was paid well so there shouldn’t be any disadvantage for students who need to work in the holidays. In fact, it was win-win for me as one summer of being paid on placements filled up my CV.’

Try before you buy

So, with increasing pressure on firms to take on students, how do firms view it - as part of their corporate social responsibility? As a chance to ‘try before you buy’ before offering a training contract? David Pickup is senior partner of two-partner Buckinghamshire firm Pickup & Scott, whose specialisms include immigration, mental health and crime. The firm is inundated with requests for work experience and last year offered opportunities to 16 students, from 14 year-olds to LPC students.

‘I look for students who show a genuine interest in the firm and have found out about us - some applications are a bit cynical and are just trying to tick the work experience box,’ he says. ‘We do it because we enjoy having them. It is nice to meet young people who are enthusiastic about law - it is a welcome antidote when you are feeling jaded and cynical about the profession.’

Pictons, a regional firm with 10 partners and 40 solicitors across four offices in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, is not currently recruiting trainees. However, partner and HR consultant Yvonne Hardiman says the firm offers work experience on an ad hoc basis because it believes it is very important to help law students in such a difficult recruitment market. It has also built links with local schools and universities.

‘We treat the students as though they are trainees, so they are given work of value and encouraged to keep learning logs,’ she says. ‘Academics are important but we have a strong CSR culture, so we look for people who have gone that extra mile in doing some charity or team work.’

Hugh James in Cardiff did not run its summer placement scheme last year, having decided to defer its recruitment programme for four trainees to start in 2013 and four in 2014 to this year. It traditionally receives about 500 applications for up to 24 summer placements and monitors equal opportunity statistics.

Training principal Neil Stockdale says the placement scheme is a vital part of its recruitment process and the preferred route to a training contract, but the firm is open to outside applicants as the firm knows not everyone can take a work placement. ‘The scheme is our opportunity to have a good look at potential candidates,’ he says. ‘You might have someone who looks wonderful on paper and seems fantastic during an interview. But this job is all about how you work with other people, and while they are with us we can see how they fit in and if they enjoy being here. It also gives potential trainees the chance to have a good look at us.’

He says applications are dealt with on merit. They look for a good solid academic record and evidence of some commitment to becoming a lawyer, whether through legally related work experience, pro bono work or shadowing in court. ‘I am from very much a working-class background and I didn’t have any contacts, and I would hate to think that would be a bar to people coming through today,’ he says.

Emily Exton, graduate recruitment partner with London firm Forsters, says the firm receives about 300 applications, from which it interviews 50 and selects 14 for places on the summer vacation schemes. ‘We recruit about six or seven trainees a year. The summer schemes are not the only way in, but last summer five of the six we offered training contracts to had been on one of our schemes. You can’t hide much over a fortnight.’

The firm sets academic criteria of 2:1 and certain A-levels, but Exton says she tries to ensure students come from a range of schools and universities. ‘We have a box on the form for students to tell us anything special about themselves and help us understand if their results are not that good.’

Global giant Mayer Brown also has a free text box on its vacation scheme application form so applicants can ‘wax lyrical about themselves’, says graduate recruitment manager Jacqui Bernuzzi. ‘We want to hear their stories and why they want to come into law.’ The firm, which runs several diversity and social mobility initiatives, takes between 40 and 45 students over three schemes. Applications for places and for the 25-30 training contracts it offers totalled nearly 2,000 last year.

‘It isn’t the only way to get a training contract but we view the schemes as a win-win situation,’ she says. ‘As rigorous as our assessment centres are, they only get to see applicants on one day. Those on the vacation schemes get to know the partners, get a feel for the firm, while we can have a good look at how they perform.’

Allen & Overy also has a variety of initiatives to target students who might not consider applying to the firm, including a work experience week for undergraduates from five London universities which historically have not seen many students go to big law firms and have recruited trainees from those cohorts. Diversity manager Jane Masey says there is a large appetite among firms to engage with young people from all backgrounds. ‘Each firm has to decide where to target its efforts,’ she says. ‘Some young people are discouraged by factors we can’t control, so the further back you go, the more chance you have of making an impression on their aspirations.

‘It is also important social mobility initiatives aren’t seen as something just the big firms can do. Firms of all sizes are signing up to the Prime scheme. We want any partner in any law firm to think "we can do this too".’

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist