International practice and new recruitment policies at home have seen work internships become highly sought after by law students looking to secure employment after graduation.
Many of the State's top legal firms now recruit through internship channels, taking on students for periods of about four weeks, and then – if they qualify through the process – offering them training contracts, which tend to run for upwards of three years.
Undergrads have come to recognise the career advantages of placements and, as Jane Babb from Arthur Cox points out, have started to demand more schemes. Babb runs Arthur Cox's trainee programme and says a recent decision to increase their internship programme was "probably us reacting to what the students want" – and what the students want is experience.
“They may well be looking for that experience because more of them are doing international programmes in the States and they’re in JD [juris doctor] classes where doing internships is the norm and, indeed, where doing an internship that leads to an associate position is the norm,” Babb says. “They have kind of brought that back and normalised it here.”
University law departments also encourage their students to seek internships and in many cases facilitate them in doing so.
Seán Ó Conaill lectures in constitutional law at UCC, where work placements form an integral part of undergraduate law courses. He says the pathways to a legal career have changed since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.
“Traditionally the way it worked was a family vocation: your father is a solicitor so you’ll be a solicitor and you’ll get the traineeship with his firm.”
Now firms are a bit more discerning about whom they take on. Internships give employers the opportunity to see the student in action and assess their potential, leading to a possible training contract offer.
“A training contract for a law firm is a 3½-year commitment and it costs these firms upwards of €100,000 between fees and whatever they’ll be paying you,” Ó Conaill says, “so they want to be sure that they’ll be doing the right thing and they can’t be sure of that without seeing you in the office.”
He adds: "If you look at how the law firms are recruiting, they're all recruiting through internships. They have the summer internship, the third-year internships and then they'll do the recruitment from that pool . . . so it's vital."
Ó Conaill, who also heads the law and Irish programme in University College Cork, believes internships should be compulsory for anyone hoping to go on and practise law or work in a related field. They provide good hands-on experience and also remove students from the relative comfort of the university library.
For this reason, he is particularly enthusiastic about international placements. A number of his students go to Montana in the United States where they get to work with a federal judge.
“These are things that stand out to employers and show that these people can work outside their comfort zone.”
Cathal O’Hagan (21) from Monaghan has just completed final year in NUI Galway where he was auditor of the university’s law society.
He studied corporate law and says internships are “brilliant”, but points out that paid ones are much more desirable. “There’s two kinds of internships; there’s paid and there’s unpaid and that is a very big difference.” The larger firms tend to offer paid schemes but most placements are unpaid.
Some students from poorer backgrounds, O’Hagan argues, cannot afford to take unpaid internships as it would mean working for four weeks and receiving no remuneration.
They provide valuable experience, of course, but for him an unpaid position is “simply not an option”. So he is off to China for a year, to teach English and save some money.
When he returns he will probably apply for a scheme.
Placements are almost de rigueur for students now and O’Hagan sees them as “another step on the ladder”, but Babb stresses that they are not the only route to a career in law.
Competition for places at the top firms is intense – Arthur Cox generally offers positions to about 2.5 per cent of applicants. For those who don’t make the cut, Babb says, an internship is not a prerequisite for getting a trainee position.
It does help though.
“If they have come through that interview process,” she says, “and if they have done well here, we would be more than happy to make them offers immediately at the end of the intern programme.”