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The first year of a law degree is pivotal: Here’s how to spend it well

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Ahead of the 7 January application deadline for Ahead with Ashurst, Kelley McPherson explains how she’s now reaping the rewards of seeds she sewed in first year

The first year of a degree has a bad rep among some as a time of 4am sleeps, 11am wake-ups and very little productive done in between. But, when played correctly, first year can award its students a vital stepping stone towards training contract success.

A great example of this is the story of Kelley McPherson, a second-year student at the University of Cambridge. Over the Christmas period last year when she had just started studying at St John’s College, Scottish-born McPherson applied for global law firm Ashurst’s first-year scheme: Ahead With Ashurst. After storming the application process — which included an online application form and writing a cover letter addressed to the firm’s graduate recruitment partner — an excited McPherson found herself at Ashurst’s plush office in the City of London for the next round of the assessment stage.

An interview and a commercial case study later and McPherson returned to the firm in April for the week-long Ahead With Ashurst programme, about which she tells Legal Cheek Careers:

“We had a number of talks throughout the week to give us more insight into the firm and its culture, which is based on a combination of providing both an excellent client experience and an excellent employee experience… The scheme was also a great opportunity to learn more about the world of commercial law more generally. We, for example, participated in a transactional group exercise about giving advice to clients and evaluating advice that had already been given to clients.”

Elsewhere, McPherson spent time sitting in two practice areas — dispute resolution and the securities and derivatives group — for two days each and with a trainee mentor. These work experience placements were interspersed with various talks and exercises, which McPherson says left her with “a far better understanding of the firm”. She continues:

“City law firms all do high-calibre work and use the same words to describe themselves in their literature. Undertaking a first-year scheme provides you with an extra year to learn more about firms and the corporate law world, which is exactly what Ahead With Ashurst did.”

With a solid understanding of Ashurst under her belt, and a perfect example of her commitment to the firm, a vacation scheme at the 25-office outfit came soon after. McPherson this month attended Ashurst’s winter programme, an experience aided by her previous time at the firm on Ahead With Ashurst. “My experience in first year made it much easier to talk convincingly about the firm because I had a much better understanding of it,” McPherson reflects, “plus I already knew some people at the firm when I came back for the vacation scheme which made the whole thing less nerve-wracking.”

The application deadline for Ahead with Ashurst is 7 January 2018

While Ashurst’s vacation schemes are a natural next step for previous first-year programme participants, there are differences between them. “The vacation scheme gives students a better insight into the type of work that would be undertaken during a training contract at the firm,” McPherson tells us. “More of the week was spent in a department than was the case on Ahead With Ashurst. I sat in corporate projects and worked on some really interesting research tasks. We were given more work, the nature of which was slightly more demanding than on Ahead With Ashurst.”

McPherson is currently awaiting a training contract interview with Ashurst, a firm that takes on 45 trainees a year. She’s hoping to forge a career in dispute resolution, an area of law she first discovered her passion for during her first-year experience.

So, while some students will rely on the ‘exam results don’t count until second year’-mentality to justify their unproductive first years, McPherson’s enviable position is all down to the steps she took at this early stage. Indeed, there are various reasons why the first 12 months of undergraduate study can be pivotal.

What it all boils down to is spending what will likely be the least work-intensive part of your degree wisely. First-year schemes are a great example: setting aside the hours to complete the Ahead With Ashurst application form has now “taken the pressure off” for McPherson’s second and third years, as she now has a better understanding of the profession and how to go about successfully entering it.

CV-building opportunities are aplenty at this stage, too. McPherson has, for example, spent time playing college netball, sitting on college committees and conducting research for the United Nations’ Refugee Agency. “It’s really nice not spending all of your time studying,” she says, “and when it comes to application forms, firms really value people that have spent their degree years doing more than just sitting in their room not interacting with others.”

Find out more about Ahead with Ashurst ahead of the 7 January application deadline.

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