Lynn Johnson, OU Careers Adviser, speaks to the OULS

As a careers adviser at the OU I see my role more akin to that of a career coach and facilitator rather than adviser. Students often have negative experiences of careers advice received from school and can come expecting the careers adviser to ‘tell’ them what they should do or be. It would be lovely for us all if any of us were able to do this but the reality is that moving forwards in your career planning is a process where you yourself need to be taking hold of the rudder and steering the boat forward

How can anyone know what it is that you value, what inspires you, how you see your own career narrative to date and what is unique about you? In fact many of us don’t know this about ourselves! My role as a careers adviser is to help you explore these issues and find out more about yourself and where you want to go.

In my role as careers adviser at the OU I see students on any point in this journey. They may seek careers advice at an early point out of concern that they should know what it is that they want to do but don’t or they may have a definite career goal in sight but be unsure how to get from where they are now to where they want to be.

My role in this process is to help you plot your next steps. To help you realise what is holding you back and whether this means you need to reconsider the route you are planning to travel or whether you in fact need to reconsider the end point you are aiming at. Confidence is often to blame here and many of us simply need the reassurance of someone who we consider to be ‘in the know’ to validate what we are planning to do and say ‘yes that sound like a really good plan, what are you going to do next to move that forwards?

I can always help with pointing you in the direction of some sources of information you may not be aware of, or help you think outside the box as to how to approach a particular barrier standing squarely in your way. Naturally the bread and butter trade of CV and interview advice is on offer but to be honest I get far less call for this type of service than I would expect. Students are a bit slow coming forwards in taking advantage of the critical eye we can cast over their job statement, CV or covering letter. It would be great if we could get the message out that we really can make a difference here.

Like many of the careers advisers in the OU I work part time hours and am usually available to see students between 9 and 2pm. We have other advisers who work to cover other times of the day. We can ‘see’ students face to face in our regional centre (I am based in the Oxford regional office which is the student support team for Law), by phone, Skype or email. An appointment is usually about 45 minutes long and after this a student would receive an email or action plan summarising their next steps forward. There is currently no limit to the number of times that I can see students so don’t wait until the final year of your degree to make contact!

I am also involved with many one to many activities for students which I co-ordinate and run with my colleague Catrin Davies who is based in Milton Keynes and is the careers and employability linked to the law faculty. We run OU live sessions, create podcasts, talk to employer and moderate student forums to try and enable students to engage in ways that suit them.

Whilst I am the link careers adviser for the law faculty based in the law SST, I do offer advice to students on any degrees. A law query would come to me if it was particularly complex or needed me to work with other advisers in the Law faculty in order to find the right answer for the student. Whilst many of the students studying law with the OU are considering a career in law, the reality of the situation is that many of them will go on to work in a variety of roles which make use of the knowledge and soft skills they have gained through their study.

The route to becoming a solicitor or barrister is indeed long and can be expensive, with no guarantee of success at the end. What I have therefore been trying to do since we have moved over to the SST way of offering student support is ensure that students are better informed about the reality of these careers from an early point in their studies rather than finding this out after 6 years of hard work with just one goal in sight.

Earlier this year Catrin and I produced two podcasts aimed a level 2 and level 3 students which prodded them to consider what else they should be doing alongside their studies if they are planning a career in law. We also ran an OU live session on alternative careers to law and the recording of this can be accessed still on the OU Careers workspace http://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/subpage/view.php?id=11008 . You will see recording of other sessions there such as gaining legal work experience and Exploring becoming a Solicitor/Barrister.

A good resource I often point students to who are beginning to think of this is the Law career.net website http://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/subpage/view.php?id=11008 Have a look in particular at the Beginners Guide to Law and the More Law tabs.

Currently there are 8,500+ law students. There were 122 students who made a careers enquiry1 between August 2012 and July 2013 whose most recent registered qualification or module (if studying on a standalone basis) was in the undergraduate Law study programme. This represents 4% of the total 3,080 undergraduate students who made a careers-related enquiry during this period. Numbers accessing the 1-many activities are more encouraging though with numbers listening into podcasts and webinars in the 100’s. As you can see there is much work that we need to do here to inform students that we are here, free and keen to help!

Students are interested in alternative routes into practicing law, particularly the CILEX route which needs to be more widely publicised as a ‘back route’ into becoming a solicitor. For many students qualifying via CILEX after their law degree makes a lot of sense both financially and also as it removes the risk of not securing a training contract at the end of the much more expensive LPC. In the future I expect there to be a real growth in the number of students becoming legal executives as the training contracts become ever more competitive and few and the legal market opens up. Noel Inge from CILEX is attending the Law Careers Day on the 23rd April so if you are attending this do go to his seminar to find out more. We also hope to run an OU live session jointly with Noel in order in the future to ensure that students are more aware of these other legal career options.

Degree apprenticeships are another new initiative just being launched. In these you are employed by a firm which pays for your training towards solicitor including degree level study. It is worth keeping an eye out in your local area for possible openings http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/apprenticeships-for-solicitors-set-for-2016/5050812.fullarticle.

Firms look for any extracurricular activities and positions of responsibility that show leadership and team work will work in your favour. Never underestimate these kinds of activities as they can make you stand out from the crowd if your hobby is particularly unusual. What extracurricular activities also communicate to the employer is that you are able to manage your time well and juggle competing demands. Consider getting involved in OU clubs or get involved in charity and community involvement in your area.

The volunteer website www.do-it.org is a good starting place to see what is available in your area – you can do an advanced search using your postcode and the type of activities you want to get involved in. Volunteering with the CAB in your area as an adviser is also excellent experience and can take up to 6 months off your training contract!

OU students can surpass Oxbridge students by capitalising on what makes them different. This may be the fact that they are juggling a number of different roles whilst studying a law degree – I am constantly surprised by the things our students do. I recently met a surgeon who was undertaking an OU law degree alongside his work in the hospital! Graduate recruiters are looking for students who stand out from the crowd, who have a different career narrative to tell. Ensure that you can communicate what you bring to the table confidently, which is not the same as telling them everything about you or trying to necessarily compete in the same way. What sets you apart from other students? How does your life story show your tenacity, self-motivation and ability to juggle competing priorities and overcome hurdles? Our students often have no shortage of examples that they can draw on for this. At recent careers event one of the grad recruiters from a Magic Circle firm told us how the student who impressed them most with their grasp of commerciality talked about their experience of working in MacDonald’s and the understanding they had gained of recruitment and retainment practices they were employing.

We have a job site Job Zone which students can register for at http://www2.open.ac.uk/students/careers/jobzone. Also look for companies that are advertising on the Employer Showcase http://www2.open.ac.uk/students/careers/employer-showcase. Employers who are particularly interested in OU students advertise here.

The OU is slightly different from other Universities in that our students are spread across the UK and other countries. This means that rather than focusing on making links with individual employers we see our role as ensuring that students know where to look for vacancies and how to approach these organisations. However, with that said, the careers service is increasing our links with key employers and you may have seen some of the webinars we have already co-hosted with large graduate employers. We are looking to expand this area of our work in the near future.

The advice I would give to all students is to not ignore the basics, which have to be:

  • Study hard to ensure that you get the best classification you can on your degree and complete within the QLD timeframe of 6 years. Remember that you can always apply for a training contract the following year but you will not get this chance to get a good classification again.
  • Given that law firms hire two years in advance, you should apply after your second year exams and before the 31 July deadline to stand a chance of getting a training contract immediately. Don’t send out one hundred applications. Instead focus on the firms that really interest you and ensure you communicate why they interest you and what you could bring to them.
  • Don’t just focus on the big firms who spend a lot more time advertising and head hunting around universities. There are plenty of opportunities across the country, you may not earn as much as you would in London but the cost of living is also a lot cheaper. Also, if you find yourself without a training contract or unsure of where to go don’t be disheartened. Get yourself a job as a paralegal or legal assistant somewhere. It will let you know what that company is like to work for and you will also be able to benefit from inside knowledge if you want to then move on to a training contract with them. More firms are recruiting from their paralegals these days.
  • Don’t miss the wood for the trees – remember that law infiltrates nearly all that we do so take opportunities to explore the law department where you currently work and consider what is on your doorstep that you can make use of. Capitalise on your links through membership organisations you belong to and request a placement or information interview with an in-house solicitor e.g. your union, the AA.
  • Get some professional feedback on your CV, application forms and also practice interview skills through a mock interview. Firms are increasingly using video interviews as a first sift, and as with anything new, practice makes perfect here too. Practice and good preparation really makes a difference here and first impressions count.
  • Firms are reaching out to candidates earlier and earlier. At the start of level one it might feel too soon to be making links with employers, but I’d highly recommend applying to attend one day employer Insight Days (many of which are only offered to level one students) as a flexible way to kick-start the process.

 

A huge thank you, Lynn, for taking the time to speak with us.

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