A recent Aspiring Solicitors careers day at Kaplan Law School saw two former City law insiders reveal some of the secrets to landing a TC at a top firm
1. Understand the legal graduate recruitment cycle
Big law firms operate perhaps the most highly-structured graduate recruitment process of any industry. Not only do they hire two years in advance, but they have a series of open days, workshops and work experience schemes which require the completion of application forms that are more detailed than for many full-time jobs. Successful candidates’ performance is then assessed during each of these stages, culminating in the big training contract decision.
Despite firms’ deep attachment to their graduate recruitment rituals — which follow a strict order — many students devote almost no time to understanding them. The result is that they miss key dates — such as the January vac scheme deadlines — and end up submitting rushed applications with hours to spare before the annual July 31 training contract application deadline. By this stage, it’s often too late.
“Increasingly we are seeing law firms recruit high proportions of trainees from their vac schemes” says Kaplan Law School head of careers Gemma Baker, who spent nine years working in graduate recruitment at a host of top City firms before moving into legal education.
Chris White, a former Norton Rose Fulbright associate and who is now head of the diversity and networking group Aspiring Solicitors, emphasises the importance of formal work placements: “Vacation Schemes are a great opportunity for both employers and students to determine whether there is a positive fit. It is one of the best ways of really understanding whether you want to work for a firm.”
2. Start in October
To bag a place on that ever-more-crucial vac scheme, you should really be thinking about your application from 1 October, when firms begin their annual graduate recruitment rounds. Although most vac scheme deadlines aren’t until 31 January 2015, places begin filling up much earlier than that. And an impressive application takes a lot of work.
Accordingly, Kaplan’s Baker advises students “to start applying for training contracts and vac schemes when law school begins and then to do one application every three weeks”.
3. Learn how to research law firms
It’s not rocket science, but it does have to be done properly. Baker says:
“Don’t just rely on one source — it is evident in applications when you’ve only used the firm’s website. There are so many other publications, such as Lawcareers.net, Lex100 and Chambers Student, which provide excellent sources of info. Also research the firms by meeting them — at events beyond law fairs. Be proactive, sign yourself up to workshops and open events and network!”
4. Get your head around ‘commercial awareness’
Law firms are very keen on recruiting future trainees who are commercially aware. In other words, they want students who are not only good at law, but also have a head for business — and show the potential to give legal advice in a way that helps clients to achieve their commercial goals.
It falls on wannabe City lawyers to demonstrate that they have this ability and show that they will not, if unleashed on a client, bore them with academic musings on legal points that fail to take into account the bigger picture.
How can they do this? Baker advises:
“Don’t cram a year’s worth of news into the week before your interview. If you want to be a commercial or corporate solicitor you need to be genuinely interested in global events, including business news, and more importantly understand how these affect law firm clients. Read a broadsheet a few times a week, listen to the Today programme, watch the news…and you will build up a good level of knowledge over time”.
5. Try some training contract assessment centre group exercises
One of the main aims of training contract assessment centres — the extended interview for training contracts which firms hold every summer — is to filter out the candidates who look great on paper but who wouldn’t be very good corporate lawyers in practice (in other words, the one dimensional legal geeks and the assorted collection of sociopaths with an aptitude for filling in training contract application forms).
Candidates can ensure that they are not incorrectly bracketed as undesirables by familiarising themselves with the group exercises that form an important part of TC assessment centres — and which are widely available online.
They are pretty straightforward — the one at the Kaplan-Aspiring Solicitors careers day required groups of five students to decide where some surplus lottery funds should be allocated — with the objective being to show that students can apply common sense to decisions and work nicely with their peers.
Baker, who used to assess group exercises when she was a graduate recruiter at various City firms, says the most common downfall wasn’t being too assertive, but being so quiet. She continues:
“The key here is to make a consistently valid contribution to the discussion. If you don’t say much at all, you won’t score highly and you will probably fail. Equally, discussing others’ ideas doesn’t have to take the form of an aggressive critique. Actively listen, speak and acknowledge others’ opinions and efforts, while putting forth your own.”
6. Speak to people who have bagged training contracts
If such individuals don’t feature in your friendship groups, use your law school alumni network — accessible through careers services — to find some. You’d be surprised how open most lawyers are to having a coffee with a young legal hopeful. After all, who doesn’t love to give advice?
Even better, apply to attend a law firm open day — which take place during the autumn and winter at most firms, with applications opening in October — and meet some of the trainees at the firm you want to join.
“Open Days,” says White, “are a great way of getting a foot in the door and impressing a member of graduate recruitment or a lawyer.” He adds that Aspiring Solicitors has a range of additional open day-style events coming up at a host of top City firms aimed at underrepresented groups.
7. Force yourself to get used to networking and small talk
There is a little piece of advice hidden away on the website of magic circle law firm Slaughter and May that advises training contract candidates to “be prepared to make small talk”, adding: “this is an important skill and it will be useful when you are being guided to the interview room and once the interview is completed”.
Again, it’s all about showing that you are willing to play the game and, as well as being good at law, and in addition to understanding clients’ commercial dilemmas, being a nice person to have around the office. Baker concurs:
“Completely agree! Being able to chat confidently is a great skill. If you are nervy when making small talk, you will not create a good impression — those from the law firms will start to wonder how you will react in front of a client if you appear too intimidated. At events and assessment centres, you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone and approach people with confidence.”
There’s more from the careers day in the podcast below, in which Legal Cheek editor Alex Aldridge chats to two of the wannabe lawyers who attended.