How to get a training contract when you’re from an ordinary background

Being “polished” is overrated

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The London office of global law firm Mayer Brown recently sent out a strong message about its commitment to diversity by hiring as trainees three out of the four winners of a commercial awareness competition for students from non-traditional backgrounds.

Portsmouth University grad James England, LSE grad Rhys Morgan and UCL grad Roxanna Sarkar-Patel emerged triumphant from diversity network Aspiring Solicitors’ ‘UK Commercial Awareness Competition’ — and having accepted training contract offers from Mayer Brown will begin their legal careers in 2018.

Legal Cheek Careers caught up with the trio, alongside Mayer Brown’s graduate recruitment chief Danielle White and Aspiring Solicitors founder Chris White, to get their advice for current students. Here are their top tips:

1. Students from humble backgrounds are driven and focused

Mayer Brown’s White has noticed a trend among students who come through diversity networks like Aspiring Solicitors. “They are very driven, focused — in some cases, more so than the average graduate that comes through the application process,” she says. That means they tend to do more research about the firms which they apply to and have developed their knowledge of the sector more thoroughly. Trainee-to-be Morgan gives an insight into this mindset as he explains the “two-pronged approach” he followed to develop his own commercial awareness ahead of the competition win:

First, identify the big underlying trends (say for instance, the rise of Asia, Brexit/Eurozone, emerging markets, and oil prices) and try to track and form an opinion on these,” he advises. “Once you have these main trends it’s much easier to analyse the opportunities and threats that companies face. Second, track a few specific stories/companies so that you have areas you can talk about in depth. In general, it’s easiest if you choose companies that you are in contact with, as then you’ll have a deeper understanding of their situation.

2. Unglamorous work experience can be better than fancy gap year jobs

While students from non-traditional backgrounds aren’t necessarily more commercially aware, the higher likelihood of them having jobs while at uni means that they will have had more exposure to the business world — even if it’s just on the til at Tescos.

Portsmouth grad England suggests that “previous employment in a commercial organisation can make a difference”, while UCL grad Sarkar-Patel expresses a similar sentiment as she indicates that “being within a commercial environment can definitely help to improve and strengthen commercial acumen”.

Certainly, adds Morgan, “non-traditional backgrounds can be helpful in giving students a wider range of experiences from which to draw”.

3. Don’t worry about what uni you are at

Over the last few years Mayer Brown has significantly increased the breadth of its graduate recruitment. Its latest intake of trainees — who’ll commence their training contracts in 2017-18 — come from 20 different universities (11 of those Russell Group universities), including Nottingham, Liverpool, York, KCL, St Andrews, Kent and Newcastle upon Tyne. The firm has also launched an alternative route to qualification, which allows students to earn while they learn — both on the job and via a part-time LLB at the University of Law.

White outlines her philosophy: “If they can get through our online tests and assessment day, they are good enough.” To that end, she encourages students who don’t meet Mayer Brown’s official minimum entry requirements to drop her a line if they think they have what it takes and have been held back by mitigating circumstances.

4. Being “polished” is overrated

There is a perception that privately educated and Oxbridge students possess a “polish” lacked by their less privileged counterparts. This isn’t a view to which White subscribes, but she acknowledges that “in some cases students may not have had the same exposure to corporate environments or had the support required to practice for interviews/assessment days/interviews.” That, however, is “a development point which will come over time”, she continues, adding: “Preparedness can be just as impressive as polish”. Aspiring Solicitors’ White has a similar take:

Being professionally prepared is much more valuable to a law firm than being polished, although to some it may mean the same thing. What does being polished actually mean? Without an accepted ‘polish’ standard for aspiring solicitors, this phrase can be applied to unfairly discriminate against some aspiring solicitors. The Aspiring Solicitors Commercial Awareness Competition places everyone on a level playing field with its CV blind format. The only trait we are concerned with is whether you are professionally prepared for commercial questions and challenges.

5. Get involved

The 2016-17 law firm graduate recruitment season gets underway from 1 November, with some fantastic opportunities awaiting switched on students who hit the ground running. A good place to start is by applying to take part in this year’s Aspiring Solicitors’ ‘UK Commercial Awareness Competition’.

Morgan has this to say about what he got from it:

The Commercial Awareness Competition helped in several ways: it provided a great platform on which to demonstrate skills in presentation, teamwork, and commercial awareness, it incentivised learning about commercial awareness, and it landed us work experience. It was through this work experience that we were able to secure training contracts with Mayer Brown.

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