Advice

What do law firms mean by ‘the right cultural fit’?

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One TC seeker needs readers’ advice

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, one aspiring solicitor wants to know what law firms mean when they say they’re looking for someone who is “the right cultural fit”.

“Hi everyone, I need your advice regarding the cultural fit. I am applying for training contracts and vacation schemes, getting interviews (I had five in the last recruitment round), but have not been successful in my applications so far.

I received two types of feedback: one that they liked me, but there was just someone a bit better, or two I am just not the right cultural fit for the firm.

Only one firm gave me some useful feedback on how to improve as I was objectively not good enough for them in terms of my technical skills.

It really hurts me to receive not the right fit feedback as I am not sure how I can improve. They do not explain who the right fit IS? Also I think even if they explained, what if those reasons are not something I can change/improve about myself and I might just receive some assassination of my character comments.

Please advise what can I do to fit culturally and what the cultural fit of a City law firm even is?”

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37 Comments

Bill

“It really hurts me to receive not the right fit feedback as I am not sure how I can improve” a sentence that says much about a pathetic all about me mindset that is gaining traction.

Current demand for individualised feedback is pathetic and shows no grasp of the realities of business or recruitment. Candidates are numerous and many are relatively fungible, so not only is it often very hard to particularise reasons, but if reasons are given they are usually after the event rationalisations to explain a decision.

Feedback is worthless for the firm, costs time and money, and worst of all leads to risks of negative PR from moaning snowflakes or worse boring lawsuit threats.

The only rational business response is “Sorry to inform you we will not be offering you a training contract and we wish you all the best in your future endeavours.”

current trainee

Couldn’t disagree more.

The fact that it bothers you shows that you care about the interviews you are having (which is a good thing!). It’s true in that giving feedback doesn’t benefit the firm in anyway, but if it’s not going to be constructive then it’s a waste of time even giving any in the first place.

Cultural fit is something that the recruiters need to think about when bringing someone new on board and will change from firm to firm and department to department. there is no one answer for how to improve on this, other than be yourself in the interview. Don’t be afraid to let your personality come through and avoid sounding too robotic or giving generic answers. The firm are trying to figure out if you would be a good fit for them both technically and personally.

Try researching about the culture at the firms you are interviewing for. Keep a look out for what they do outside of the 9-5. Many firms advertise things like charity work and ‘extra curricular activities’ which can be a real conversation point in an interview.

Bill

You will learn, trainee. Just accept for now you know nothing about these issues from the firm-side point of view. And “cultural fit” is just a way to soften “you weren’t good enough”.

Archibald Pomp O'City

“Pathetic” is unnecessarily harsh. “Fungible” is correct. Your oversight is that there are two very different perspectives here, and one is very naive and emotionally invested in their role, while the other is bored and fatigued, needing only to find the right square pegs. You were young once, albeit a long, long time ago. Give the poor kid a break.

Nut Wit Ewe

It is pathetic. These sorts live in an isolated echo chambers which just ramps up their unbelievable sense of entitlement and self-obsession.

Anon

There’s two arms to “cultural fit”, one a lot more problematic than the other.

The first is about the specific culture of the firm. If it’s Slaughters, are you quite bookish and really into technical law? If it’s Freshfields or Latham are you a classic all rounder, pretty clever, hard working, probably sporty, quite like a night out but nothing crazy? If it’s Kirkland or Quinn, are you clearly mainly motivated by money and have a glint in your eye to get very rich?

The more insidious one is the general worldview you are expected to have in City law. Do you aspire to a nice house in West London/Surrey, a holiday home in Cornwall, skiing every year (once with family, once with friends) and private school for your kids? Ideally, do you actually come from that background yourself? Then you’ll fit right in culturally.

Only you will know which of those is the issue. If it’s the latter you think you don’t have, you’ll find it trickier to get a TC and might find City law a strange and quite lonely place even if you get one.

Nut Wit Ewe

Such tripe. As noted elsewhere, “cultural fit” is just non-specific, non-personal padding. It means nothing. The candidate was not considered good enough and that is the end of the firm’s interest in the process.

Applications are not fun

From my experience it tends to be a euphemistic way of saying, “you’re not quite good enough”. Alternatively, it can also just mean that you didn’t click with the interviewers personally. I’m not saying that’s absolutely key, but ultimately firms want to work with people they think they’re going to be able to get on with. If another candidate of similar ability is more personable, they’ll trump you.

It’s hard to say without knowing what firms/type of firms you’ve applied to, but I would think you’re underperforming at interview/assessment centre if you’ve been knocked back five times. That could be anything from raw technical ability in some of the tests to you not working well in a group exercise, or something like that.

General tips include:

– Be yourself, don’t ask a load of odd questions in an attempt to look clever. Try and behave like a normal human rather than a creepy, crawly I-want-to-ingratiate-myself-with-you-student.

– Push yourself as hard as you can in whatever work you have to do for an assessment centre. Getting the fundamentals bang on – e.g., spelling and presentation – is generally most important.

– Communicate/speak clearly and as you normally do (this ties into being yourself).

– Remember to sell yourself. You won’t always be given clear opportunities to do this, so think on your feet. Try and be flexible beyond the unhelpfully overly regimented “STARR” approach people go for.

– Don’t try and lead (too much) or dominate others in any group work. Much better to be remembered for bringing a quiet person’s voice into the debate or whatever than it is to be remembered for seizing control and delivering a mediocre result.

– Likewise, don’t attempt to compete with people – you’ll just look like a point scorer.

Sigma male

To put it bluntly, they didn’t think your personally was either (1) suited to their firm’s specific culture, or (2) suited to City law as a profession.

Partners and recruiters are looking for resilience and a bit of personality along with some indication that you have the ability to not make massive cock-ups. Enthusiasm for business, commercial law and the firm itself is also important. Any whiff of not being able to hack the hours or the other factors is where most people fall down.

Don’t beat yourself up however. All firms are different and the reality is that whether your interviewer likes your general vibe makes or breaks your application. You will probably succeed in getting a TC somewhere if it is meant for you, and if you don’t there are other more interesting professions than law.

Reality Calling

To put it bluntly, they did not think the candidate was good enough and “firm culture” is a bland way not having to tell them.

Ted

OP – please ignore Bill’s attempt at contrarianism above. It is entirely reasonable to ask a firm for feedback when you have been rejected following an interview. City firms will either provide some remarks in writing, or have somebody from their HR/Grad Rec department hop on a call to relay the thoughts of the interviewing partners. Of course, there will be some firms that do not bother to do so, but that does not mean you were wrong to ask.

As for the cultural fit question – it is hard to say without knowing what firm you applied to. However, in the context of the average City law firm (and not a legal aid/human rights friendly outfit), it could mean one of several things.

(1) ‘Cultural fit’ is a polite way of the firm saying that the interviewers didn’t like you.

(2) ‘Cultural fit’ means that you were not sufficiently white, middle-class, confident (but not arrogant), deferential (but not obsequious), conservative/centrist and heterosexual enough for the interviewers to feel comfortable around you as a colleague.

I stress that both of these have very little to do with merit, and instead act as a convenient cover for interviewers to mask and enforce their prejudices. Some firms will never admit it. But look at the partnership/senior associate demographics and you will have your answer.

That is why objective interview scoring criteria, based on academics, competencies and skills demonstrated in case study exercises, are superior and fairer.

OP – chin up and keep applying. You will find the right firm soon enough.

Anonymous

Now listen, Ted…

Although I disagree with you, I haven’t downvoted your comment as that would be petty.

Surely it boils down to this…

The firm who has rejected you owes you nothing.

Not even feedback.

So, if you get some, great.

If not, tough.

At the Bar it’s still common to be rejected by silence, so be glad for a mail merge standard rejection letter.

Archibald Pomp O'City

“Although I disagree with you, I haven’t downvoted your comment as that would be petty.”

You clearly did.

Kirkland NQ

Demonstrating cultural fit at the ‘land was simply a case of walking into the interview in my finest Saville Row suit, model girlfriend on my arm, leafing casually through the latest Lambo brochure. I looked up only to inform the panel that they had 5 minutes to ask questions as I had a Learjet fuelled and ready to head to Monaco for a yacht party with several members of middle Eastern royal families and the offspring of the landed gentry. I was offered a TC on the spot.

Mr Five Per Cent

Savile Row.

Archibald Pomp O'City

You rumbled him! (or her)

Anon :)

I wouldn’t worry too much about this at this stage. Keep applying if you are getting interviews. It depends often on WHO interviews you and other variables you can work on.

Where you train and where you end up may be two completely different places, they may not. Go for good training and nice people and see what you enjoy.

If its a “softer” firm, it might be that they think you will not get on with the types there and are more suited to a more Corporate environment.

If it is a US or likewise firm, its likely that you are too soft.

Being out of place in either isn’t great. Keep trying.

X

Anon

Cultural fit can mean many things – and some of the above posts do touch on some good points

From my experience on the LPC and in practice, some firms do tend to have a type which they naturally gravitate towards
Freshfields is as the above commentator says a work hard play harm kind of firm, Slaughters is more academic, HSF has more ‘artsy – creative types’ compared to other firms. American Firms have super confident individuals and a lot of them had a previous career/foreign qualified lawyer and tend to be older (25 -26 average i’d say when starting the TC).

Cultural fit can also mean you didn’t gel with the interviewers/they didn’t gel with you – this is much harder to do imo on Zoom/online interviews in terms of building a rapport unless you immediately have things in common – but don’t give up – keep persevering – the fact you got to an interview means you are good enough to get a TC – you’ll find a place eventually

Anonymousse

Regardless of firm, there’s a certain personality type that will do well in corporate law. They’re confident without being arrogant (good for negotiations), intellectual without flaunting it (so smart enough to understand technical law points but not likely to confuse clients by complicating matters), genuinely interested in how the City works (which means they can pick up on all the contextual points on corporate deals), slightly workaholic (to cope with the hours) but with a personality beyond work (because, when you’re working those hours, you don’t want to be around sociopaths).

If you can nail all of the above, then you’ll probably do very well at corporate law. Unfortunately – and this is the bitter pill to swallow – not everyone will be able to. Some people simply don’t love work that much, or aren’t smart enough to grasp new concepts constantly, or aren’t very engaging people. And that’s fine. There are lots of very worthy and well-remunerated jobs out there. But trying to force yourself to become something you’re not is only liable to give you a mental breakdown in a few years.

Truth, You Can't Handle The Truth

Well, OP, the blandness of the response is meant to soften the blow.

Do you think the truth would help? It would almost certainly be a variation on: “We considered your application carefully, but the market is filled with basic 2:1s from decent but not top tier universities and having met you there was just nothing to indicate there was anything special or interesting about you whatsoever to make you stand out from the blob.”

The idea that “feedback” would be “when you did this we thought it could have been better if you did X, Y or Z” or anything like that is as naïve as it is self-obsessed.

Anon

Learn to ski. Rename yourself Rupert or Olivia. Try not to disclose if you are one of the chippy state school types. Discuss or invent a load of expensive travelling trips and extracurricular exploits you have done.

Or go the other way and be the most oppressed, starving and beleaguered minority possible – rags to riches.

Nothing is more important to the average equity partner than being a “chip off the old block” or “the right sort of chap”, or alternatively, being the sort of candidate that the partner feels a brief spurt of altruism for offering a job too.

The worst thing you can do is be a normal, middle-of-the-road person who would actually do quite well in the job.

Oh dear

Some people are so poor, all they have is to comfort them is that their noveau parents sent them to a private school or that they taught them to ski. The fact you have to brag about such things in itself puts you in the lower orders – of etiquette.

Response to anon

Lol someone’s salty

Rupert; a US Firm partner

Bloody hell!

Everyone’s still at it!!!

Why is the name “Rupert” still a joke???

It seems to be used as a euphemism
for “posh boy” or “thicko”, but don’t you realise the upset that you are causing by mocking someone’s NAME?

Imagine if you started using a name of a person of BME heritage as a shorthand for that “type” of person. You would be rightly struck off for racism.

So why is it OK to keep going on about the name “Rupert”???

Bullingdon Boi

Ah Poopert De Beere is back!!!

If you don’t like your name, you can always do as you should with your nappy…

Change it!

*Takes cover*

Hang on to your hats, folks, Roopie is about to explode….

Rupert Baer

I’ve never had this problem before in my life.

Never had my name made fun of.

Maybe it’s something you have invited, or maybe you have just been unfortunate other Rupert?

Nut Wit Ewe

Changing your name from Rupert to Olivia six months in and you have hit the payload.

Harsh truths

Many of the comments above do not represent my experiences, quite the opposite.

These days ‘cultural fit’ doesn’t mean being ruthless enough to go to a top US firm, or super smart enough to go to the likes of Slaughters. BigLaw recruitment nowadays has a basic threshold (2:1, decent extra-curriculars) but it is largely based on affirmative action and the firm’s diversity quotas, whether we like to admit this or not.

I know of a number of people (including myself) who did vac schemes with staggeringly impressive candidates who often, but not exclusively, were from the likes of Oxbridge and UCL. Who ended up getting the TC?

Often quite lacklustre candidates, who, on occasion, may have attended the very same places, but just so happened to fulfil diversity criteria (primarily ethnic minorities/different sexualities).

Before idiots misinterpret this, I am obviously not saying those groups are inherently ‘lacklustre’, or weak candidates for these reasons.

I have just personally witnessed questionably skilled candidates receive offers, and other more ‘privileged’ (whatever that means…) types get rejections, despite an objectively overall better performance (besides the final interview which I obviously was not privy to).

Yh

“Questionably skilled”, I’m sorry but who are you to assess whether someone is good enough for city TC or not. That oxbridge candidate may have lacked the social skills a “diversity quota” may have had.

Also firms invests 100k in future trainees, im sure they know what they’re doing when it comes to picking candidates.

@YH

Are you suggesting diversity quotas don’t exist and that some sub-par candidates don’t inevitably slip through the net as a result? Seems a reasonable assumption to make. ..

Plus, the amount of people who managed to sneak their way into a TC thanks to online vac schemes (which in some instances contained no ‘real’ work due to confidentiality concerns)

The firms don’t know what they’re doing half the time. Especially for direct TC applications. Two interviews and a short test apparently reveal how well you work in teams, how consistently competent you are, and how much effort you’re willing to put into the role? I think not.

I’ve got a TC, I’m not salty, but let’s not pretend some less than deserving candidates often get in…

Anonymous

“You got rejected because you weren’t good enough for this firm.”

There’s your feedback.

Snoeflayck

But why? You must tell me why. My mummy told me I could be anything I wanted to be and if only you gave me very precise feedback then I could make it. It is all your fault.

Entitled? Moi?

That’s not good enough!!!!

I demand to know why!!!!!

SHR

After many years at various firms, I can assure you that you ultimately do not want to “culturally fit” with these people at all or in any way. It will destroy you in ways that you can’t return from.

Nut Wit Ewe

Those who can’t stand the heat often do blame the kitchen.

Joolz

Confirmation bias

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