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49 tips candidates need to know before starting as a trainee solicitor

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Courtesy of five trainees at Shearman & Sterling

Five current Shearman & Sterling trainees offer their insights on all things training contract related.

The below guidance, agreed between the trainees following a lengthy discussion of their meandering legal sector experiences, covers everything from networking, mastering law firm interviews, to surviving the two years of working life prior to qualification.

Networking tips

1. Preparation

Many students attend law fairs or presentations for the questionable freebies. However, if you go to a law fair having truly done your research, then you can leave a remarkable impression.

By way of illustration, if you generate a personable, enthusiastic, hard-working vibe to graduate recruitment, then the recruitment team may remember your name when your written application reaches their desk. Similarly, a trainee representative that has been asked countless generic questions all day will gladly provide extensive advice to your tailored issue. Furthermore, the trainee may even offer to mentor you, or to recommend you to colleagues for potential paralegal/internship positions. This positive feedback often occurs if you send a polite post-discussion follow-up email thanking them for their time and assistance.

Shearman & Sterling LLP UKGraduates

Therefore, when it comes to law firm networking, a failure to prepare means preparing to fail. Accordingly, please try to avoid statements that show a complete lack of research. Also, small efforts such as dressing smartly, being well-groomed and carrying a notepad can create a surprisingly strong impression.

2. Turn up early to events

For some people networking is a chore. Therefore, if the firm’s invitation says networking nibbles start at 7.30pm and the lecture begins at 8.00pm, they will creep in at 7.59pm. However, we would advise you to turn up to these events earlier. For one, your stress levels will be reduced as you will sidestep the worries associated with being late. Moreover, you will avoid being the person accidentally entering the conference room via the fire exit.

Also, a major reason for arriving sooner rather than later is that by arriving early you can easily form a group with other attendees. By being in a small group, you can be the friendly individual that welcomes others in to join the discussion. Plus, we personally felt from our experience that being in a smaller, naturally expanding group was less intimidating than interrupting five or six others who seem to be in mid-conversation.

3. You can network via social media

Platforms such as LinkedIn provide a valuable way to engage with law firms. For instance, Shearman & Sterling’s graduate recruitment team frequently post content on the firm’s deadlines, its diversity & inclusion initiatives and Shearman & Sterling’s big-ticket deals. Obviously, by engaging with these posts, you are giving the firm greater exposure on these important areas that they will value.

Furthermore, by liking and commenting on blogs on LinkedIn, your name will begin to be recognised by the relevant decision-makers. To demonstrate, a particularly effective method of using LinkedIn is when users tag writers or presenters following open day presentations or well-written research articles. This tactic, (if employed sincerely), can demonstrate genuine gratitude, showcase a real interest in the topic and offer evidence as to your business development skills and confident written communication.

The application deadline for Shearman & Sterling's Winter Vacation Scheme is 31 October 2021

4. “Push the car”

Staying on the theme of social networking, there are ways to contact trainee solicitors on LinkedIn for application guidance that are more appropriate than others. Asking an individual for IP advice when they have never worked in IP is not a wise strategy. Similarly, spelling the lawyer’s name wrong and not responding promptly to their replies can appear unprofessional. Likewise, messaging everyone within the same trainee cohort a copy and pasted message or being overly informal are equally unproductive approaches.

Instead, tailor your response to the individual and ‘push the car’. To explain the metaphor, if you are stuck in your vehicle on the side of the road and beg for help — few people will stop. However, if you start pushing the car and showcasing substantial effort to continue your journey, motorists often get out and start helping you push.

Therefore, if you can imply from your LinkedIn message that you have undertaken considerable research on the firm or topic already (i.e. “pushed the car”) then lawyers will dedicate more time into assisting you with your informed queries.

5. Listen

At networking events (and generally at work), ensure that you listen to what is being said by others. To demonstrate, if nothing else, try to remember the lawyers’ names and their practice groups. Listening and remembering these details can make it easier to build a connection during any break-out networking session. Further, by listening to responses, this active engagement will make your subsequent questions more relevant.

6. Question why?

A useful technique is to be the candidate that expands upon a person’s answer to elicit that deeper level of analysis and connection.

For example, if a partner mentions the need for trainees to show initiative, can the partner provide an example of when they thought that a junior lawyer showed such initiative? This probing question has two benefits. The probable tight deadline scenario will be useful for interviews, assessment centers and Watson Glaser tests. Additionally, such information will be advantageous background knowledge to possess for when you enter practice.

Similarly, expand upon opening responses. Imagine, the partner suggests that solicitors need to be analytical and entrepreneurial. Perhaps, knowing that the lawyer is analytical and entrepreneurial themself, why did they choose a legal career, rather than say a start-up, venture-capital or investment banking career? Careers which also demand such analytical and entrepreneurial qualities.

This approach will demonstrate that you are listening to the person and it will assist you in answering the future “why law” interview questions. Also, the partner’s answer will provide tangible insight into how entrepreneurial, resilient, or analytical attributes manifest in a law firm context.

7. It is not always about you

Admittedly, some networking conversations can be hard work, particularly if you are struggling to find something in common. Also, given the professional setting of a law firm, you might desire to showcase your commercial awareness. Therefore, it can be tempting to steer the conversation towards generic topics or matters that you are familiar with.

However, please do not be afraid to let others speak extensively about areas of interest to them. Such an approach is likely to generate more rapport with that person. Moreover, networking in this way is more likely to give you valuable learning opportunities from experienced professionals and the other attendees.

The application deadline for Shearman & Sterling's Winter Vacation Scheme is 31 October 2021

8. Attend many and varied networking events. Plus, recognise other attendees

Although, you may have one dream firm, we would still recommend that you attend multiple law firm events, in part to gain comfort from repeated experience. Additionally, you will often hear points that are more relevant for other events, but that will enhance your overall commercial awareness.

For example, one of us attended a particular Legal Cheek event in summer 2019 at a law firm that they were not particularly knowledgeable about. During the talk, the panellists were asked for their views regarding the upcoming trends impacting the legal sector over the next few years. In 2019, most panellists stated Brexit or the prospect of a US-China trade war.

Interestingly, one lawyer worked remotely from Edinburgh. She simply suggested the small-scale growth of agile working was a trend that she had personally experienced. Her uncommon and undramatic answer proved valuable discussion at subsequent events and interviews. Furthermore, agile working was arguably the defining development impacting law firms in 2020 due to Covid-19. Thus, by broadening their networking event scope, attendees gained an early, unique insight that could differentiate them from other applicants looking for that big political or economic narrative.

Elsewhere, the more events that you go to, the more that you recognise other attendees. This familiarity can make you feel at greater ease in networking settings.

9. Writing

Please note, networking does not have to be a direct conversation. If you are writing a blog post, you are broadening your network. If you mention or praise the work of a firm or lawyer, the relevant stakeholders may discover the content and remember it. Similarly, if you appear to unproductively criticise an event, person or issue in a way that creates a negative impression, that impression will linger too.

Therefore, feel free to write about people and events that have assisted you in your training contract journey or that you believe are worthy of greater admiration. This can be a positive way to connect with firms and does not come across as desperate or disingenuous.

10. Failure is not permanent

Some individuals seem to have natural charisma and can navigate such networking events with relative ease. By contrast, many of us struggle with complete strangers, often feeling that an event was a waste of time.
Hence, it is important to acknowledge that developing networking skills comes with time and practice. A conversation is not a one-way affair. If the other person is reluctant to talk or is having a bad day, even the friendliest welcome may be nonchalantly dismissed.

Therefore, do not let a negative — or even rude — reaction prevent you from participating in future events. Just remember there may be setbacks along the way. So, smile and dust yourself off. Now, start to look forward to all the fascinating people that you can meet at the beginning of your legal career.

Interview tips

11. Anticipate feeling somewhat uncomfortable

For most of the time, your interview will feel like a conversation, where many of the questions could have been easily anticipated. Yet, sometimes a trickier question can be thrown at you. This allows the interviewer to see how you react when thrown a little off balance whilst under pressure. That is why it is crucial to prepare a list of potential questions the interviewer may ask you. More specifically — be prepared to tell interviewers what you are good at, but also think about any shortcomings or challenges you may have faced and how you dealt with them.

12. But remember that interviewers are not trying to trick you

Do not worry about interviewers trying to trip you up — they want you to perform your best, and this should alleviate concerns that interviews are designed to be a scary experience. Interviews are a two-way street, and the firm is trying to impress as much as you are.

13. Current affairs are key

An understanding of current affairs (especially business or firm-specific news) will help at the interview. But it is unnecessary (and impossible) to read everything. Following news stories that genuinely interest you (and thinking about how they might affect a law firm) is a more valuable way to prepare than trying to know everything.

14. Understand the legal market

It is essential that you take the time to research a firm, but that you also take the time to understand that firm’s key competitors. This will help you understand what makes the firm you applied to different from others, and you will be able to use this knowledge to demonstrate to interviewers your genuine interest in their firm. Interviewers will be impressed that you took the time to understand how the firm differentiates itself from its competitors.

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The application deadline for Shearman & Sterling's Winter Vacation Scheme is 31 October 2021

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