The children of clients are given informal work experience at large commercial law firms “as part of business develop-ment”, the first ever research into the subject has found.
The study shows that undergraduate law students who have had access to informal work experience while at school have an advantage in pursuing a legal career, and that students do not have equal access to such opportunities.
This is because “their ability to access informal work experience is mediated by their social capital”.
The problem particularly affects undergraduates at new universities, who the research found are more likely to come from a black and minority ethnic background and be mature students.
The interim findings are from an ongoing two-year project being conducted by Dr Andrew Francis of Keele University and Professor Hilary Sommerlad of Leeds Metropolitan University, supported by the UK Centre for Legal Education. They surveyed second-year law students at both a traditional and a new university, as well as eight large law firms (a further 42 declined to take part), and conducted qualitative interviews with 15 training partners or senior HR staff.
Though there was a “strong association” between obtaining informally agreed work experience and high academic attainment, connections with family or friends were identified as the key method through which students secured it.
Those with connections were twice as likely to have had work experience during years 10 or 11 at school (the time when students are encouraged to find work experience) as those without connections.
The interviews with firms supported this. “Both partners and graduate recruitment officers acknowledge that the son/daughter of a client will be brought into the firm for work experience as part of business development,” the report said.
The research found that student experience of informal work experience is “overwhelmingly positive” and often serves to motivate them to study law with a view to entering the profession. It also gives students an advantage in the application process for formal work experience, as well as improving their understanding of the goals of such vacation schemes and “their performance in this aspect of the recruitment process”.
A quarter of the sample – mainly those from the new university who had not had informal work experience – thought that one of the reasons for firms offering vacation schemes was simply to provide students with mentoring and/or insight; the firms did not agree.
In all, “the positive correlation between high academic attainment, informal work experience gained at years 10/11 and attendance at a pre-1992 university suggests that those attaining informal work experience by this stage are also more likely to meet the selection criteria of recruiting firms”.
Dr Francis and Professor Sommerlad found that the majority of students are motivated to study law at university by a desire to enter the legal profession upon graduation, which they said academics should recognise, notwithstanding the ongoing debate about the appropriate relationship between legal education and the profession.
“Curriculum input on employability may assist some students in realising their career goals, whilst failure to inculcate a strategic understanding of the legal field may leave them ill-equipped to realise their aspirations,” they wrote. “We must also recognise that it is many non-traditional participants in higher education who are most in need of the additional support, lacking the knowledge and understanding of the field that seems more commonplace for ‘traditional’ students.”
They suggested some possible ways of doing this, which are being piloted at Keele and Leeds, and will be evaluated during the second year of the project. They also plan to follow up with the students surveyed.
At last week’s future of legal education event at the Inner Temple, Guy Beringer, the former senior partner of Allen & Overy, suggested that all law firms and chambers should notify a central organisation of how many work placements they have, which would also hold a register of students interested in such placements. They would then be randomly matched. “This would prove whether people really are interested in broader access,” he said.