Employability – is the current law degree preparing your students for the workplace?

Employability – is the current law degree preparing your students for the workplace?

We recently held a virtual discussion forum for law faculty, law librarians and legal career professionals, to consider how today’s law courses are serving students’ needs. We explored what legal employers are looking for in their candidates and whether law courses have got the balance right between knowledge of the law and employability. Presenters included:

  • Ria Hill, Lecturer in Law at Wolverhampton Law School
  • Adam Curphey, Innovation Engagement Manager at Reed Smith
  • Marie-Gabrielle Williams, Paralegal, LexisPSL Hub at LexisNexis
  • Lauren Crisp, Customer Success Manager, LexisNexis

The session was very interactive, with great insights from both presenters and participants. In this article we will share some of the key takeaways from the forum.

What is ‘employability’?

We started the session by asking everyone what came to mind when we said ‘employability.’ Not surprisingly, everyone had a different response to this – the top answers were ‘skills,’ ‘work ready’ and ‘getting graduate skills’.

Employability word cloud

 

The law teacher's perspective

For this part of the forum we were joined by Ria Hill, Lecturer in Law at Wolverhampton Law School. She explored the extent to which law courses provide students with the practical skills necessary for the working world. And in the fallout of the pandemic, she considered if the online delivery of legal education helped or hindered this.

Practical focus

In response to changing attitudes in the legal sector over the last few years, Wolverhampton Law School decided to incorporate a more practical focus, having conducted a curriculum review in preparation for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). To better prepare their students for a career in law, prospective lawyers need to learn about more than just the law – but also gain an understanding of the skills required to practice law in the future, as well as how to apply the law in a practical context. Taking a more practical approach also stands students in good stead for careers outside the law, providing them with crucial transferable skills.

More practical assessment

Wolverhampton has also changed how it assesses students. Instead of relying on exams and coursework, there is an increased focus on formal student presentations. This has allowed students to better demonstrate their research to lecturers, in addition to written work. Furthermore, there has been a greater importance placed on helping students to develop their skills of negotiation, e.g. as part of a module on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

Volunteering

The law school has encouraged students to volunteer, as a way to obtain hands-on experience. The university runs a legal advice centre in the town centre and allows students to interview members of the public on a wide range of legal issues (e.g. consumer problems) whilst supervised by senior lecturers who are also practicing solicitors. Another scheme allows students to represent members of the community at welfare benefit tribunals, which gives back to the community whilst providing valuable experience.

Impact of COVID-19

Most of the student teaching over the past year has been online. There have been various challenges, particularly in terms of teaching dynamics; students don’t always want to keep their cameras on, and lecturers are not always able to judge whether students fully comprehend the online lessons. Nevertheless, tools such as Zoom and Teams have helped to maintain the development of practical skills such as negotiation. Students have even been able to take part in national mooting competitions being run virtually.

After Ria Hill’s presentation, the discussion between participants highlighted the significant value that legal advice centres can offer law courses, by helping to provide students with actual experience of working with clients and equipping with the skills they will need in practice.

Law teachers also talked about the importance of bringing in more ‘soft skills’ into their teaching, such as negotiating and adaptability – particularly the confidence to accept failure – which would stand their students in good stead in the workplace. Tenacity and initiative seemed to be the top-rated skills, with the emphasis that students needed to learn these as part of the curriculum, without necessarily being conscious that they were acquiring these skills.

Employer’s perspective

Adam Curphey, Innovation Engagement Manager at Reed Smith, provided the employer’s perspective in this segment of the forum, highlighting the importance of a more client-centric approach for prospective lawyers.

O Shaped Lawyer

Adam spoke about the O Shaped Lawyer Programme. The programme aims to create more rounded (O-shaped) lawyers through a framework of five behaviours and mindsets: Optimism; Ownership; Open minded; Opportunistic; and Original.

Other values encouraged by the programme include emotional intelligence, adaptability and curiosity. 

What clients want

It is vital that lawyers are meeting the needs of their clients. Modern lawyering is not just about legal knowledge. Broader business skills are becoming increasingly valued attributes of legal counsel. Some of the skills clients want to see from their lawyers include:

  • Adaptability - being able to continually learn and think beyond their training
  • Relationship building - the ability to build business relationships is extremely important
  • Communication - clients want to be able to stay in touch with their lawyers using new technology

In general, law firms are becoming increasingly similar to other types of businesses. So, lawyers of the future who possess these crucial business skills will be at an advantage.

Modern legal training

As business skills and other ‘soft skills’ become increasingly valued amongst lawyers, it’s important to incorporate this type of training into university education. At Reed Smith, trainees are placed into other departments of the firm, e.g. Business Development, Marketing or Innovation departments; this helps to teach them how a law firm runs as a business.

Law student perspective

Marie-Gabrielle Williams, Paralegal, LexisPSL Hub at LexisNexis, also shared her experience since graduating in law a few years ago. Some of her key observations and tips included:

  • Work experience - a series of work experience opportunities in the legal sector since she was 16 has helped her to develop commercial awareness and provided her with confidence.
  • Authentic teaching - engagement with her teachers has been extremely important, and those who are enthusiastic about the law are able to inspire students.
  • Business - she thinks that law courses should be more practical, bridging the gap between the legal sector and other business areas.
  • Technology - technological skills are becoming ever more crucial for lawyers, so this is an area which should be developed more fully in their training.

How can LexisNexis help law students improve their employability?

Lauren Crisp, Customer Success Manager at LexisNexis, provided a breakdown of some of the tools available to help provide skills and training for law students. A few examples include:

  • Write tailored applications and be prepared for interviews with LexisLibrary. Use the Counsel search field within the Cases tab to follow specific law firms or counsel and track their reported cases. 
  • Form opinions on hot legal topics, which they can then discuss with prospective employers. Visit the Journal Articles tab in LexisLibrary to access articles and reviews on relevant topics. 
  • Conduct deeper research on specific companies or topics with the Current Awareness tab to explore analysis written by legal experts in LexisLibrary. They can set up tailored alerts based on search criteria to be notified when relevant new articles are published. 
  • Grasp the legal and practical implications of major current events with LexisPSL. Dedicated toolkits COVID-19 and Brexit have been designed to guide lawyers through the emerging legal landscape, providing insight into the legal implications which students can refer to in essays and interviews. 
  • Develop a better understanding of individual practice areas and the types of tasks they would expect to complete. View tools like the new starter toolkits, training materials and popular practice notes and precedents, available in LexisPSL. 
  • Follow the Future of Law blog to stay ahead of the latest events, and develop commercial and technological awareness.
  • Take certifications in LexisNexis and LexisPSL. LexisNexis offers students free certifications, to help students become familiar with using our legal research and guidance tools. Students can include the certification on their LinkedIn profile and job applications to showcase their proficiency to future employers.

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About the author:
Sarah leads marketing for the Academic and Bar legal communities at LexisNexis. She is passionate about customer-centric marketing and delivering data-based insights to help clients get the best use out of LexisNexis solutions and products, and ensure they succeed in their roles.

Prior to her role at LexisNexis, Sarah specialised in delivering large B2B marketing programmes across a number of industries, including Financial Services, Technology and Manufacturing.