By Andrew Gilbert and Jessica Giles
This blog arises out of our SCiLAB-funded project, ‘An Exploration of the Use of Extra-Curricular Activities by Law Students and Alumni’, which we carried out during 2020-21. The project aimed to explore Open University (OU) law student engagement in extra-curricular activities (ECAs) and to understand how OU law graduates have used the experience of their ECAs to secure professional-level employment.
We surveyed level 2 (level 5 on the RGF) law students using an online survey and undertook semi-structured interviews with 8 OU law alumni currently in professional legal work or training. This report covers the findings of our alumni interviews. The results of our undergraduate survey were discussed in an earlier blog.
The alumni who participated in the interviews were identified through our existing networks. Interviewees graduated between 2016 and 2020. During undergraduate studies, 7 students were in full-time or part-time employment or had caring responsibilities. All had since obtained professional level training or employment: 2 as practising barristers, 1 as a pupil barrister, 2 as practising solicitors, 2 as paralegals with plans to be solicitors or barristers, and 1 as a future solicitor with a training contract who was about to commence the Legal Practice Course.
We aimed at a representative sample but ended up with females being overrepresented, most were aged between 34 to 45, and none identified as having a disability. Of the 7 participants who completed a diversity monitoring form, 6 identified as white English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British and one as black Caribbean.
What ECAs did they do, for how long, and why?
Half the participants had undertaken non-law related ECAs – such as horse riding, gym, life drawing classes, yoga – at least once or twice a week as undergraduates. Others had caring responsibilities or focused on paid employment, study and law related ECAs. All participants undertook some form of legal work experience placement (solicitors’ firm or barristers’ chambers) or law related voluntary work such as Citizens Advice or Streetlaw. They had all done at least one activity from mooting, the clinical legal education module W360 Justice in Action or Citizens Advice, with some doing more than one.
We found widespread variation in the time spent on activities. Some, such as looking after a home and young children, pervaded the individual’s life and were not easy to quantify. Others were regular and of a fixed duration, such as exercise classes. Whereas others were periodic, such as mooting competitions or mini-pupillages, but took up substantial, concentrated blocks of time. To varying degrees, all participants made time for ECAs, although some individuals were more strategic and deliberate in their choice and pursuit of them.
Interviewees undertook ECAs for a variety of reasons. Regarding non-law ECAs, motivations included mental and physical wellbeing, resilience and enhanced concentration, and – concerning employment and caring responsibilities – out of necessity. Regarding law-related ECAs, motivations included enabling students to decide what they did and did not want to do (which led to some changing their aspirations from barrister to solicitor or vice versa), refining public speaking skills, meeting professionals and building networks, enhancing a CV, building peer support groups, being a more credible candidate for pupillage and developing and embedding legal knowledge and skills. As one interviewee put it: ‘Aside from good or outstanding academic qualifications in general, you need to have all the extra things as well to bump up your CV.’ (Cerys, paralegal)
Skills and personal qualities developed by ECAs
In line with other studies, e.g. Buckley and Lee (2021), participants reported that ECAs helped to develop skills and qualities such as:
- how to structure arguments
- how to communicate effectively with different audiences
- how to distill complex and lengthy judgments into short statements
- interpersonal and social skills
- clarity and brevity of expression
- confidence and boldness
- adaptability and dealing with unpredictability
- resilience, specifically the ability to bounce back from application rejections
- learning to work and collaborate with other people, which involved compromise
- demonstrating drive and ambition
- how to organise huge amounts of information
- acquiring the cultural capital of the legal professions, such as learning the language of law, spending time with barristers, and ‘just learning the etiquette and the ways of professionals’. (Sarah, barrister)
What were the most useful ECAs in your personal development and career progression?
One of the most valuable aspects of ECAs is the opportunities they can provide for students to develop their social capital through forging links with legal professionals. Emily (barrister) confirmed this: mooting ‘puts you in touch with people who are already in the job, could potentially be a future employer’. Participants also identified other effective ways of growing professional networks such as through LinkedIn.
Law-related ECAs, such as mini-pupillages and law firm placements, were useful for helping to work out future career directions. Emily’s (pupil barrister) two mini-pupillages and a week with a law firm confirmed that she was more suited to a career at the bar rather than as a solicitor, which was not what she expected beforehand.
Both of the practising barristers spoke at length about the importance of mooting: ‘I would say it was that, if I could point to anything extracurricular that certainly gave me an edge, made me a more credible candidate for pupillage it would be that.’ (Samuel, barrister) Samuel added that the experience of mooting successfully against people from prestigious universities ‘demystified’ his perception that those people were much better, which gave him more confidence in interviews.
What advice regarding ECAs would participants give to a law student just starting their degree?
Some respondents thought it was not just what you do, but also how hard you work at it, which made a difference. Cerys (paralegal) advised students ‘to say yes to almost anything’, while Rebecca (future solicitor) said ‘I just think the more experience you can get, I think it’s got to be the top priority.’ On the other hand, others thought that ‘it’s so important to have some kind of downtime and relaxation to be able to just switch off’ (Emily, pupil barrister).
Alumni also thought it was crucial to articulate effectively to potential employers how ECAs have equipped students for the roles they apply for, which mirrored the findings in Clark et al (2015). Interviewees advised students to be clear about why they are doing things and putting them on their CV: ‘everything you mention I think you want to think about how could this, what does this show about me, what skills does this highlight … So it’s down to you to draw that out.’ (Matthew, solicitor)
A number of alumni advised that LinkedIn, virtual work experience, attending law fairs and joining legal webinars can be a good way of developing professional networks and growing social capital.
One interviewee emphasised the importance of not delaying career planning: ‘[S]tart early with stuff. It’s never too early. […] The earlier you start the easier it is because, you know, you find certain things harder than others initially and it’s only through that development that you start to get more comfortable with it.’ (Matthew, solicitor)
Conclusion and next steps
Conversations with alumni have highlighted how important it is to be intentional and strategic in the use of ECAs because they are essential to success. Although it is not necessarily what a student does that counts, but more what they gain from it and then how they articulate that to a future employer. It is important to spend time doing things for individual health and wellbeing, but even these could be ways of developing skills and qualities which will help to realise career ambitions or to grow and capitalise on professional networks. There are situations where some ECAs are more useful than others. Our findings show that mooting is really important for aspiring barristers, although one alumna, who previously worked in sales, studied W360 and undertook at least one mini-pupillage, showed that it is possible to succeed without it.
The research has presented opportunities to link the findings with work undertaken by the Employability Team in PVC-S and with the Careers and Employability Team (law) within Academic Services, Student Support. It has provided evidence to encourage colleagues to engage with the excellent student led work within the OU student law society which runs the student mooting at the OU. The research will also enable the W360 team to articulate the high impact that studying the module can have. A number of the alumni indicated a keen willingness to give back to the OU – perhaps through mentoring – having had such a positive experience with us.
Finally, while this study has focussed on ECAs and professional legal work, it would be helpful to understand whether ECAs are as key for law graduates going into careers outside the legal professional roles of barrister and solicitor.
* Pseudonyms are used for participants throughout this report.
Buckley, P. and Lee, P. (2021) ‘The Impact of Extra-Curricular Activity on the Student Experience’, Active Learning in Higher Education, 22 (1), pp. 37-48.
Clark, G., Marsden, R., Duncan Whyatt, J., Thompson, L. and Walker, M. (2015) ‘”It’s Everything Else You Do…”: Alumni Views on Extracurricular Activities and Employability’, Active Learning in Higher Education, 16 (2), pp. 133-147.
Andrew is interested in the broad spectrum of academic and vocational legal education. He leads the law school’s Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) curriculum development work and has blogged on why the SQE can’t guarantee competent solicitors and law schools’ responses to the SQE. Andrew is a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Law Teachers and a peer reviewer for the leading legal education journal, The Law Teacher.
Jessica is a Law Lecturer, SFHEA and Barrister. She is Director of the Project on Interdisciplinary Law and Religion Studies at the OU. She is a valued member of the SCiLAB working group representing the Law School.
This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.