Summer placement tips for law students

UPDATE October 2014 – Tods Murray LLP went into administration earlier this month. I hope this was nothing to do with my blogging. Happily, I extracted my blog before the Tods Murray website disappeared.

Are you a law student seeking a traineeship? Are you willing to sacrifice some or all of your summer for that goal? Well, a summer placement in a law office might be for you. I have written a guest blog for Scots law firm Tods Murray issuing some rough guidance for anyone who might be starting with them.

Whilst the blog post might be aimed at a mid- or larger sized firm’s structured summer training programme, I hope it is transferable to other firms. The point about competing with other summer students will not be relevant if you spend a few weeks working in a dormor window in a Hebridean firm (true story), but the point about being handed study tasks “because you’re at university so you’ll be good at research” is most certainly transferable.

The extracted blog follows.

The summer is approaching. As a lecturer, I am always taken by the elaborate, exciting and occasionally downright zany things that students have lined up for the summer holidays. Good luck to them. One of these days, you might have a job which means you can’t down tools for two months to work with street children in São Paolo, so enjoy it while you can.

Whilst some students will be preparing for an ostentatious overseas odyssey, others will have decidedly more domestic matters to attend to. With certain Scots law firms recruiting as much as two years in advance, summer programmes have become an increasing staple of the traineeship-hunting law student’s summer diet. Even the recruitment process for summer placements can be keenly fought, so why should you forgo that inter-rail around Europe, or even working all the hours you can as a de facto full time worker in seasonal employment, by winding away your summer in an office?

There are many answers to that. From my own position of a solicitor turned academic, there are pedagogical benefits to engaging with work away from the law library and completing tasks that actually impact on real people in a way that a scrawled exam script never will. I had a summer placement with Tods Murray’s Glasgow office approximately ten years ago (gulp – that does seem a while). Tasks varied, but they included hacking through company books for the first time, research issues being handed to me “because you’re at university so you’ll be good at research” and sorting through bundles of conditions precedent in a deal that seemed completely arcane and based more on voodoo than the certain legal principles I had mastered in the classroom. This last example might have been because I had stumbled into an English transaction (hence the conditions precedent terminology, rather than suspensive conditions), but it still shook any cosy expectation that I might expect to be prepared for practice after a few years as an undergraduate.

With the greatest of respect to any undergraduate readers, you won’t be. And that is half of the beauty of the summer placement. Much in the same way as I am a proponent of “learning by doing” and clinical legal education in the supervision I undertake of the Aberdeen Law Project, a properly structured summer school can expose you to things far more elaborate than the imagination of even the most deranged university lecturer. So embrace that challenge. It might even give you an insight for a future student dissertation, a postgraduate course or for the traineeship you hope to obtain.

That leads on to the second reason for being a summer student: the “shop-window” factor. Assuming you intend to practice law in Scotland, you get to sell yourself to a potential employer over a period of weeks in a manner that even the most thorough of interviews cannot replicate. So don’t blow it. As David Allen Green noted in his blog on “how (not) to be a trainee solicitor”, you have to (very quickly) appreciate the culture you are landing in. By all means have a laugh and a joke and enjoy nights out when they are offered, but if you overdo it that might royally mess up your job prospects by uncovering things that even the most thorough interview would not reveal.

For the summer student, the hierarchy roughly goes: 1) partners; 2) HR people; 3) support staff; 4) everyone else (except summer students); and 5) summer students. The top two seem obvious (being the people who will indirectly or directly offer you a job), but be aware that cordial relations with secretaries, IT staff and librarians can make your summer placement a darn sight easier. The abovementioned blog applies to summer students, mutatis mutandis.

Ah, that reminds me. You don’t actually need to impress people with your encyclopaedic knowledge of the law and strategic usage of Latin maxims all the time. After all, viewers often watch TV quiz shows with a quiet satisfaction when a know-it-all receives his comeuppance, so don’t be that summer student. I find being yourself to be a fairly effective tactic, in life as well as whilst in an office.

What else might be useful preparation? As curious as this advice might sound from a law lecturer, try not to be too much of a law student. For example, whilst it will do you great credit to have a working knowledge of the law, you also need to be able to chat to people whilst using readily understandable equivalents to the Scots law terminology you know and love. You also need to be able to issue spot without the benefit of a cutely drafted problem scenario where a logical and sequential answer scheme seems to fall into place. How should you prepare for that? It is tricky, but an ability to learn on the job and engage with “reflection-in-action” (as the pedagogues call it) helps. At university reflective learning might seem a drag, but it is important to a traineeship and thereafter. In terms of what you might want to do before a summer placement, you could revisit some of the university tasks you have undertaken to date or perhaps try to explain a legal concept to a non-legally qualified flatmate or sibling. If you can do that, you’re halfway to being not a bad lawyer. Then once your summer placement has started, you will very quickly have a support network of other summer students and trainees who you will be able to bounce ideas off and you should use that. Plus, you will have made friends with the support staff, so they can help you out.

That leads on to a final and perhaps strategic observation. Yes, you can have fun with your summer student colleagues, but just because you strike up that support network and go for a few drinks with them at 17.00 on a Friday does not mean you will not be competing for a job at the end of the placement. It has been said that life is nasty, brutish and short. Summer placements need not always be like that, but they are short. You don’t have too much time to make an impact, so make sure you do, and make sure it is a good one.

About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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