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5 things career changers need to know about getting a training contract at a top firm

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Shearman & Sterling’s London open day for career changers debunked some popular myths

On Thursday the Legal Cheek Careers team joined 35 wannabe careers changers at the inaugural ‘Re-Start’ day (pictured above) in London. This is what we learnt …

1. Law firms are very interested in career changers’ commercial awareness

There is a received wisdom that big law firms are interested only in impressionable wet-behind-the-ears candidates who they can mould to the purposes of generating vast amounts of fee income. But the reality is that they want a mix of people, including those with experience from other industries.

Shearman & Sterling graduate recruitment manager Victoria Bradley describes career changers as a “hidden pool” and predicts that as the economy continues to recover, and law firms increase their hiring, there will be a push to bring in mature candidates from other industries.

Given the premium placed on the concept of commercial awareness, it should come as no surprise that those with previous experience in the City are particularly sought after. This was borne out in the 35 people selected to attend Re-Start — around 50% of whom worked in banks, insurers and other financial institutions. The rest came from backgrounds including the police, teaching, science, civil engineering, advertising, social work and nursing.

The architect of Re-Start, graduate recruitment adviser Monika Ciereszko, emphasised that all candidates would have a good chance of securing a training contract if they took on board the advice received during the day about how to make a compelling application. “They wouldn’t have been invited to attend if we didn’t consider them serious potential candidates,” she added.

2. Seemingly irrelevant past experience can be the most useful

As part of the day, Shearman associate Róisín McCourt gave an account of her circuitous route into the law — which took in spells cleaning toilets at Oxford University, working for a big resourcing company in the North West and teaching English to asylum seekers. The latter job, she reflected, was the most useful preparation for her new life as a corporate lawyer, telling the audience:

Like law, teaching is intellectually challenging and not much fun unless you do a lot of preparation. But when that preparation comes into play nothing feels better than being in a room full of people feeling completely on top of what you are doing.

3. Law is well-paid, intellectually fulfilling and glamorous at times — but hard work

It’s well-known that the world’s elite law firms pay their lawyers plentifully, with Shearman recently upping its trainee remuneration to £45,000 and its newly qualified solicitor salaries to £88,000. Nor is it a secret that the job of top corporate lawyer can involve jet-setting between some rather glamorous locations facilitated by top firms’ vast array of international offices.

But the trade off is a job that, while intellectually challenging and rewarding, requires huge commitment. On Thursday McCourt spoke enthusiastically about the highs of working for huge corporate clients on massive international M&A deals that grace the front pages of the financial press, but also acknowledged the lows, which included sweating over due diligence documents at 4am in the morning.

Career changers, she explained, needed to think hard about their capacity to handle the pressure of what can be a tough lifestyle.

4. It’s easy to misunderstand law firms’ work experience requirements

There was more than one grumble among Re-Start attendees about corporate law firms’ preference for applicants who have done a vac scheme. “How can you expect people who work full-time to take off two or three weeks to do one of your placements?” was the gist of the often-voiced gripe.

The response from Ciereszko was that her firm — and some others — offers a winter vac scheme, in addition to its summer and spring programmes, that is one week long. She told Legal Cheek Careers:

We also offer open days, workshops and presentations for those who are unable to commit to the full week-long programme.

It was also pointed out by fellow graduate recruiter Bradley that it was very much worth candidates mentioning on their application forms the formal law firm open days which they had attended. She explained:

Attending open days, which usually involve a selection process, show that you have taken steps to research a career in law. Don’t worry if they are at rival firms — we just want to see evidence of your dedication.

5. Good judgement can hasten career changers’ progress but they need to show humility too

Risk was a word that cropped up again and again during a workshop on M&A at Re-Start led by the University of Law’s Jill Howell-Williams, a former corporate solicitor. As she ran through a host of transaction scenarios, the audience — who were mostly in their late 20s to early 40s — were required to identify key risks involved. Generally they did so very well, illustrating why law firms value a bit of maturity.

The flipside to this is that the legal profession is famously hierarchical, albeit often less so among US firms than more traditional English outfits. And there’s no doubt that entering the law at the bottom rung can come as a shock to people who have held more senior roles in their previous careers. This requires a certain humility — which graduate recruiters try to gauge of mature candidates during vac schemes — but also an understanding of why law firms are set up as they are.

Underpinning the whole system are the different charge out rates that apply to trainees, junior and senior associates and partners. These rates, explained another member of Shearman’s graduate recruitment team, Paul Gascoyne, are based on how effectively lawyers are able to work in the six minute blocks of time that are charged to clients. Good judgement gleaned from previous experience can hasten the development of this efficient use of time, suggested Gascoyne, but there are no shortcuts to developing legal expertise.

Why do career changers want to become lawyers? Check out our Instagram interviews with attendees at Shearman & Sterling’s Re-Start day here and here.

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