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How law students can improve their employability

20 November 2015 

If you look around the market...there is no shortage of opportunity. John Watkins, ULaw Directory of Employability



ULaw Director of Employability John Watkins believes students overestimate some of their soft-skills

The University of Law's new Director of Employability John Watkins has already been able to hone in on some of the behavioural traits that could hold law students back.

The first is an assumption by the academic high-achievers who tend to be drawn to law that teamwork is a straightforward task that they don't have to learn.

"Students tend to make assumptions about their capacity for teamwork," Watkins explains. "What they often don't realise is that the transition into the work place is a big one. Where they are joining a large organisation they will be entering an environment on a scale beyond anything they have ever experienced before. There will be a broad range of ages, and people with very differing attitudes and capabilities."

Working well with these other individuals isn't something that you learn overnight, adds Watkins, particularly when students have spent most of their lives hanging out with people who are pretty similar to themselves.

Another challenge faced by students when entering the workplace -- and this is particularly prevalent in the law according to Watkins, is the type of feedback that they expect. In an educational environment, feedback is all about the quality of work that is submitted. But as an employee feedback tends to revolve around behaviour, because quality of work is largely taken for granted.

"Again, this is where behaviours are highlighted," says Watkins. "How do you relate to other people? Do you have a pleasant manner? What is your mood like under pressure? These factors often shape people's careers far more than they are willing to accept. As a result preparing students to accept this sort of feedback, and respond to it, is really important."

Then there are things like IT skills and presentation ability. For many, these aren't aspects of the working world that are particularly keenly anticipated, but Watkins makes a compelling case for students to put in the time to get themselves up to a decent standard. He explains:

"The assumption in the digital age is that graduates can do anything IT-related, but they often come up short on the more complex office packages. For an employer this can be frustrating and also costly. Similarly, you'd much rather take on someone who has had some experience of delivering presentations in a formal setting."

All this is certainly a shift from the good old days when Watkins -- a former accountant was starting out himself in the early 90s. He remembers:

"20 years ago people left university and jobs were plentiful. So they could afford to stumble along. Mistakes at an early stage didn't have huge consequences. Now they can affect the whole direction that your career takes."

The sharp increase in undergraduate fees has also changed attitudes to employability, he says, as students consider "how they can get a return on their investment" in a way that would have been alien to previous generations who benefited from government grants and free tuition.

Such is the shift in attitudes that Watkins predicts that employability will become a hot enough topic for universities to find a way to weave it into syllabuses rather than continue to teach it as a standalone extra. Indeed this is already happening at ULaw with their LLB including 48 compulsory hours of employability classes that are built into its three-year curriculum.

Where law differs from other subjects regarding its potential in this respect is through its unique pro bono culture -- and the possibility to incorporate free legal advice into formal learning through the clinical legal education model. The fact that ULaw offers the UK’s largest and most varied pro bono programme with over 3,300 opportunities for students to put their legal skills into practice was one of the big draws that attracted Watkins to the from his previous role as the director of the University of Surrey's careers service:

"The pro bono schemes at ULaw are an excellent place for individuals to test those employability skills," he says. "Real-life contact with clients who don't say things you want can create some really awkward scenarios, but it is a perfect training ground. It shows that the workplace can be challenging, and with the right supervision you can get some fantastic results."

The best law students tend to combine a healthy dollop of pro bono with diligence in their academic work while setting aside enough time to immerse themselves in firms' recruitment programmes. And for this third limb of the modern aspiring lawyer experience Watkins advocates a more analytical approach than is often taken. He comments:

"If your ultimate aim is to understand an organisation, a key objective is to understand how that organisation works and what its strategies are. So, rather than simply look at law fairs as an exercise in handing out freebies, students should think seriously about why the firms are there, consider their recruitment criteria and then set about ensuring their CV matches what is being looked for."

And for those who narrowly miss out on their dream jobs?

"Accept that the training contract route is just one option," Watkins responds. "Maybe there are ways to take this forward via a more unconventional route? Be broad-minded and ambitious enough to see the other options where you can use what are very highly valued qualifications.  We have many successful global business leaders, entrepreneurs, senior politicians amongst our alumni who have done just this."

Watkins' former professional life has left him well-qualified to talk about this:

"When I was an accountant I used to enjoy very much recruiting law students because they understood the importance of regulation. If you look around the market, at Big Four accountancy firms with their tax advisory divisions, at banks and their compliance departments, there is no shortage of opportunity."


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A version of this interview originally appeared on Legal Cheek.


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