Field Placement Jitters: Advice from the Trenches
When students choose a program that has a field placement component – a period of time when you are away from school and immersed in the work environment you are training for – it’s an exciting concept and something that most look forward to.
In the Law Clerk Advanced Program (LCAD), there are two field placement opportunities: a two-week, 70 hour gig in second year and a two-day a week, 280 hour gig in the third year. When the prospect of actually completing the field placement is no longer a distant concept but an in-your-face-reality, it can be very daunting. We don’t find placements for the students and we don’t dictate where students go. For the LCAD placements, students must reach out to employers using leads provided by the college or their own contacts and secure their placements on their own to develop critical job search skills.
Recently, I invited my third year students into my second year classes because they have been there, they have done that, and they have learned a lot. Who better to address and calm the fears of my second year students? They had some wonderful advice that I think applies to any field placement in any program of study.
- Keep an open mind – students admitted to having preconceived notions about what they wanted both in terms of the area of law and the type of firm or agency they wished to work in. They found, almost universally, that the ‘real world context’ gave them a much better appreciation for and understanding of what they had been learning in school. In some cases, they regretted not being open to applying to a variety of placements and felt that their tunnel vision got in the way of potential opportunities.
- Don’t freak out – most students greatest fear was that they would be expected to know how to do everything and that they would be asked to do something and not have a clue. What they discovered is that placement hosts know that you’re a student and you’re learning. They don’t expect you to know how to do everything because if you did, you wouldn’t be in school. Good placement agencies ensure you are supervised by someone who is ready, willing, and able to answer your questions, provide you with support, and help you grow. Across the board, student panellists were warmly welcomed and supported at their agency.
- Lose the sense of entitlement and get real – students admitted to having somewhat unrealistic expectations of what they would be doing at their field placement. In hindsight, most realized that a two-week foray into the legal world was a very brief period of time for a placement host to hand over client files and assign major tasks. Instead, it was more realistic to expect to be given support tasks where there might be a lot of observation or routine office matters to attend to in order for them to get a feel for the office culture, the pace of the workload, and the day-to-day life. Apparently, law offices don’t always resemble Law & Order!
- Take what you can from the experience – what some students discovered on their two-week field placement was what they didn’t want, which gave them much firmer footing as they moved forward to secure their longer term third year placement and ultimately their career. Some thought they wanted a small, local environment and discovered it didn’t suit their personal work style. Some thought they wanted the downtown Toronto experience and discovered they couldn’t handle the commute. Others thought they were destined for corporate law and found that litigation was their passion. Even if the experience was very unsatisfying, what some students learned was to ask better questions of field placement hosts in the interview to ensure that they would get a meaningful placement experience.
Field placement is the crown jewel of many college programs. Take it for what it is: a tremendous opportunity (rather than a program requirement)!