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How law students can manage the uncertainty caused by COVID-19

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We sit down (virtually) with Sarah Harte, graduate recruitment and development manager at global firm Dentons, for her take on things

Dentons graduate recruitment and development manager Sarah Harte

There’s a fair amount of uncertainty swirling around the minds of future lawyers as the coronavirus crisis passes its peak and working life slowly resumes.

But what will the post-pandemic trainee recruitment process look like?

Legal Cheek‘s Aishah Hussain caught up with Sarah Harte, graduate recruitment and development manager at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, with 170 offices in over 70 countries and counting, for her thoughts on how law students can manage the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

Aishah Hussain: We’re living through unprecedented times — the COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a digital revolution in teaching overnight, for example, with lectures and exams moving online for the most part. There is no real assurance when ‘normal’ life will resume, nor what this may even look like. With so much uncertainty around what should be the focus for law students?

Sarah Harte: Although there are clear opportunities to be productive, which can support future applications, please be mindful as it is a delicate balance to protect your wellbeing during this period. As well as setting goals, which will be beneficial in the long-term, it is vital to look after yourself. For instance, Dentons hosts virtual workout sessions every day and we have seen many people starting to practise mindfulness or yoga, to keep mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience. For law students, it is incredibly useful to be agile and develop resilience in order to remain calm under pressure. This will bode well during the training contract application process, not to mention during your wider legal career.

AH: It’s not an easy time to make the step from student to solicitor. The pandemic has shrouded future lawyers’ planning in uncertainty. What are some steps law students can take to boost their chances of securing a training contract?

SH: If we fast forward to future training contract interviews, we can anticipate there may well be questions concerning how time was spent whilst social distancing. Hence, being proactive with engaging in activity could be a vital differentiator and help candidates stand out. With the move to virtual working life, many practical resources have been made available, both for self-development and building commercial awareness. Free online courses have been offered at many institutions around topics such as company law in context from the Open University. Also, Harvard University has free online courses that you can take, one of them being a computer science course tailored to law students.

Lawyers of the future are likely to be trans-disciplinary and at Dentons we value trainees who are curious and strive for continuous learning. This is why for trainees joining this year, we have included three new modules in our training contract experience covering Legal Project Management, Innovation and Resilience.

Applications for Dentons' Training Contract (August 2022 start date) close on Tuesday 30 June

Aside from courses, there are various daily podcasts which discuss business news, which are low time commitment and support commercial awareness. Law firms also produce numerous content and webinars. These resources will come in handy with interview questions around the ways COVID-19 will inevitably change the industry both in the short and long term, along with giving you some ideas as to how law firms can support their clients.

Lastly, career services are still running coaching and employability activities, with tips on completing applications and how to perform during virtual assessments. Participation in these can build overall confidence and have the potential to boost success in the application processes.

AH: How has Dentons’ trainee recruitment process been impacted by COVID-19, and what measures has the firm implemented to continue with business as usual?

SH: The trainee recruitment team are ambitious to continue to provide an excellent level of service to our candidates. We have managed to move as much business activity as possible to be virtual, so will be running vacation schemes remotely this year. For direct training contract applications we will be holding virtual assessment centres at the end of the summer period. We are also looking forward to welcoming our new trainee joiners as planned this autumn.

Once lockdown was announced, we were very mindful of our offered candidates so made sure to call them individually in order to discuss and keep them updated on plans. To be sensitive to candidates at this time, we have also been flexible with the options available as we appreciate situations and plans may have changed. We felt this approach aligned to the Dentons’ culture, which is very connected and supportive. We have also seen an abundance of weekly social activity from quizzes to competitions, organised by our fantastic UK Social Committee.

AH: How do you anticipate the training contract recruitment process changing in the next few years (given that most law firms, including Dentons, have made alternative arrangements to assess candidates via virtual assessment centres and virtual vacation schemes)?

SH: Early careers recruitment is ever-changing but COVID-19 has clearly accelerated this and given us the space to explore different ways of doing things. Given the pace of change it is hard to make predictions but we are excited about the opportunities this brings to connect and share our culture with students.

In particular with university events, instead of the law firms being limited by geography with the number of universities they are able to visit, virtual events have the potential to complement their existing diversity and outreach efforts. I believe it will be a blended approach, however, as there will still be an importance placed on providing in-person opportunities to get to know the firm and meet our people.

AH: COVID-19 has forced the country into lockdown and a huge experiment in home-working. As such, working life is unlikely to return to how it was prior to the lockdown. What impact do you think this will have on the legal profession in a broad sense?

SH: Many firms have been highly successful to adapt and overcome in these unprecedented times. The productivity and quality of client service offered during this period is likely to have had an impact on perceptions to show the significance of remote working in the increasingly digital world we live in.

We are also more aware than ever about the impact on mental health and wellbeing. To support our people at Dentons we have active mental health first aiders and dedicated resources available.

To be a law firm of the future, there is a need to innovate and push the boundaries to keep up with the pace of change, to streamline processes and maximise on existing technology so we can be digitally-led in approach, whilst still maintaining an inclusive culture, building strong relationships internally, with clients and suppliers. There will be a need to upskill teams on these ways of working as well as balancing overall wellbeing.

Applications for Dentons' Training Contract (August 2022 start date) close on Tuesday 30 June

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