A career in law can be stimulating and rewarding, but it is also very stressful and demanding. The academic work is difficult, and no matter how well you do, you won’t be allowed to practice as a lawyer until you have also completed a set amount of work experience.
The requirements to become a lawyer include study, and depending on where you are studying, 15 or 16 weeks of full-time work experience, also known as practical legal training (PLT). Criminal law work experience can be undertaken at a private law firm, at a Community Legal Centre or at a government body like the Office of the DPP or Legal Aid Commission. It is an opportunity to gain some hands-on experience and insight into your future career before you commence employment.
Work experience is invaluable, and a compulsory part of your legal qualification, but for many graduates, finding the time to complete work placements on top of studying, paid work and other commitments can be extremely difficult. Competition can also be high for the most sought-after placements, so it is always a good idea to prepare early if you want to be sure of finding a suitable position.
What will I learn during work experience?
Practical legal training is intended to teach you the skills that you need to fulfil your duties as a lawyer. The work can be varied but it should include a mixture of observing other lawyers and hands-on practical experience of your own.
Your criminal law work experience should include time working on real cases, time in court and plenty of guidance, direction, hand-on tuition and supervision from the Senior Lawyers. Although a certain amount of menial work is usually part of the experience, it’s also essential that you get direct experience of working on cases and learning procedures and techniques that the “Seniors” have developed and refined over many years.
Undertaking practical legal training at a top specialist law firm can help you to leapfrog other job applicants by learning important practical skills, and can make it easier when you ultimately start working.
Criminal law can be extremely varied so the broader your experience the better. So go into your PLT with a “can do” attitude and get as much exposure to as many facets of criminal law practice as you can.
If you aren’t prepared and experienced, you are likely to find the transition to full-time work as a criminal lawyer very demanding, stressful and difficult, and you may not be able to provide the best quality of service to your clients.
Where can I find work experience placements?
There are a number of different places you can look if you want to find criminal law work experience placements. Legal Aid runs a career development program that allows graduates to specialise in different areas of the law, including criminal law.
If you have a specific law firm in mind that you would like to work for, you can contact them directly, or search the job boards at your university. There are also a number of legal and advocacy organisations which provide opportunities for graduates to fulfil their PLT requirements – usually on an unpaid basis. These can include community legal centres, government organisations and a few non-government organisations that have in-house lawyers.
Will I get paid for work experience?
Whether or not you get paid for your work experience will depend on where you work.
Because law firms are aware that PLT is a compulsory part of becoming a lawyer, they normally only offer unpaid positions. However, a number of firms will provide wages or at least travel and meal allowances to PLT students.
Undertaking 15 weeks of full-time work without being paid can put most people under a considerable amount of financial strain. In some cases, if you have previous legal experience, it may be possible to get some of it recognised and put towards your PLT requirement. If you think this may be an option, it is well worth investigating and speaking to your university.
Will I be able to get a job after completing my PLT?
Finding a job after graduation is not a given, especially in specialised fields of law. There is currently a large supply of law graduates and not enough lawyer jobs for them all. If you have completed PLT with an organisation or law firm, you have a foot in the door and a much better chance of being hired by them after you finish than an outsider would have.
Many law firms and organisations hire graduates once they have completed their PLT and this can be reassuring, especially when competition for jobs is fierce. Work experience is an essential part of becoming a qualified lawyer and it can equip you with the skills and competencies to enjoy a successful future in whatever field of law you choose to practice.