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Law firms are not looking for ‘the polished, finished article’

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By Natalie Kaminski on

Ahead of ‘How to make it as a City Lawyer’, BPP lecturer and former City lawyer Charlie Radcliffe talks training contracts and showing your ‘human side’

Having spent 16 years at Simmons & Simmons, where he also trained and later assisted with the recruitment of trainees, BPP University Law School lecturer Charlie Radcliffe knows a thing or two about training contract applications and interviews.

Applicants should keep an open mind about what they want to do, he says. While candidates often want to dazzle interviewers with their legal skills and knowledge, firms, Radcliffe reckons, are not looking for “the polished finished article”. What really shines through are what he sees as three golden qualities: good academics, personality, and an aptitude and interest in law and business. With these key ingredients present, firms will be confident of being able to train the applicant into an effective lawyer.

Academic ability is a given for anyone serious about a legal career. On the personality point, he asks: “You may well have got a first and been the president of the law society at University but would I want this person to sit as a trainee with me for six months?” That’s not to say that outside interests aren’t a nice extra. Of his former colleagues at Simmons, Radcliffe recalls “people who played the organ, played online poker” and even a partner who, as an art collector, “curated the firm’s modern art collection”.

When it comes to showing an interest and aptitude in the law, Radcliffe highlights the need to do work experience — albeit not necessarily directly linked to legal practice. Though there are clear benefits to a law firm vac scheme, Radcliffe himself worked for an advertisement and marketing strategy agency for three months. Candidates could work for government, within a big City office or a variety of businesses, particularly if this helps to strengthen transferable business knowledge or client interaction skills.

You also need to explain why you are interested. Radcliffe, who has a love for learning languages, (he has a masters in French), was seeking the international possibilities of a bigger law firm. Although he didn’t end up permanently abroad, he still enjoyed the excitement of a global workplace through meeting people from different countries, and spending six months in Paris on an international secondment.

City firms also pay very well and Radcliffe says he never minded students saying in interviews that they’re in it for the money — he explains it’s a valid reason and reward for hard work and potentially long hours.

If you are successful and a training contract offer does slip through your letterbox, then this is when the real work begins. Radcliffe says be absolutely prepared to “learn on the job, offer ideas and be open to them”. It’s worth watching and listening to learn as much as you can from the more experienced lawyers. He adds, “don’t be a wallflower”, but at the same time, “don’t be a trainee-partner” who acts as if they know it all on day one. As a trainee, “it’s sometimes easier to stand out from the crowd for the wrong reasons”, he cautions.

But there is room for mistakes; Radcliffe recalls the day he was running (literally) late to an important meeting and upon arrival knocking over a glass of water that, to his horror, continued to spill down the boardroom table to the amusement of two senior partners and a longstanding client. Luckily, the partners had a good laugh and Radcliffe suggests that they’re more concerned about legal mistakes than ordinary slip-ups that everyone can make.

Reflecting on his own traineeship, within his first three months, Radcliffe was already doing an all-nighter and working through to the next day. But beyond this “baptism of fire”, cases generated a lot energy in the office since “they were often on the front page of the business news, if not on the front page of the papers full stop”, he says.

Drama unfolded during his corporate recovery seat upon discovering that the boardroom where meetings were ongoing had been bugged, and security experts had to be called in to sweep the client’s offices! He recalls how these events left an impression on him, and that the fast-paced excitement countered the “dry and stuffy reputation” that law sometimes receives.

Radcliffe highlights the sheer variety of work that he got to do including acting for creditors of Lehman Brothers when the investment bank went bust, work in relation to the long-running Enron scandal, going on secondment to the company that ran the Millennium Dome (during which time a gang tried to steal the diamonds on display!), and being fascinated by the inner workings of the treasury office in Whitehall, when he worked for the government in the aftermath of the credit crunch.

As a final piece of advice, Radcliffe encourages law students who are pursuing a City law career to show an interest in the business and commercial world, and to stay on top of the technological changes that are transforming the ways in which lawyers work.

He says you can do this easily for free and online — keep an eye on the legal and business news, be aware of what’s going on in the City. He suggests checking in with the BBC’s Business and Politics webpages or City AM to spot, for example, which companies are being bought and sold. Law firms also often have free legal updates that you can subscribe to. In interviews, “you’ll be in much a stronger position if you can chat naturally about deals that are going on in the commercial press”.

P.S. Don’t forget to ask a question, adds Radcliffe, “about something the interviewer has said earlier in the interview” — it shows you were listening!

Charlie Radcliffe will be speaking at ‘How to make it as a City lawyer — with Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and Mayer Brown’ on Thursday 6 July.

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