“Your differences can become your strength,” says Hogan Lovells partner Tom Astle — who’ll be speaking this evening at ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently’
I was fortunate with my career planning. I did a vacation scheme at Hogan Lovells. It went well: I’m still here (albeit with a different job spec these days).
Would I have done it differently if I had my time again?
I would still set out to achieve the same conclusion; I’m proud of where I am. There is a lot that I didn’t understand however and, sitting on the other side of the interview room these days, I realise I had a fair bit of luck the first time around.
Work experience is something that I would urge students to be proactive about. Immediately it demonstrates a level of initiative and effort in pursuing your interest in law. It will also help you understand whether you are interested in a given branch of the career, and to articulate your reasoning when applying for jobs.
Any experience is good — criminal or civil; barrister or solicitor; one partner practice or international firm; in-house; regional or London; open day; vacation scheme; or work shadowing.
They are all different, and you will learn from each (even if the thing that you learn is that it’s not for you!). Do it right, and you will know exactly what you want, and why. You will also be able to show how you engaged with the legal work you encountered, and that you understood it.
I did a number of vacation schemes, a couple of open days, shadowing in a small regional practice doing family law, and some temporary work. I thought it was about building a list on the CV, but I learned it was about being able to explain my experiences and what I had learned.
Commercial awareness is crucial. If you are after commercial law, start building this. Pay attention to the business segments of newspapers, online media and other news. It does not matter whether the story is a piece of litigation, takeover, employee dispute, financing, or property development. Listen, and then think.
The thinking is the key. Why is the story unfolding as it is? Why did that company do this? Why didn’t they do that? What issues do they now have? What will they do next? For bonus points go a step further: think about what the lawyers might be focussing on.
You should find that these sorts of questions and views start to pop themselves into your head unbidden and, lo and behold, the story starts to get more interesting. If you keep trying, but are struggling to find any interesting angles, then query if that area is really what you are after.
I lived in fear of spot questions being fired at me about this merger or that dispute from the recent press, and being unaware of it, so I was keen to build up a log of current business stories. That question never came, but I did find a growing and genuine interest in some of the underlying stories (at that time, it was finance and shipping), and that would start to become evident as I discussed the content of the stories with people. Looking back, it was this that ultimately decided which firms I applied to and probably the reason that some of them offered me a job.
Communication and confidence is another area I would emphasise. A huge part of this profession is the ability to convey your points to an audience in a clear and precise manner. If you are not clear and confident in your communication, then people will either not understand you, or will not believe you. The higher value and more complex the issue, the more this rings true. Everybody has nerves, and as they creep in they will hinder your ability to communicate effectively. Learn to master them.
For some this comes naturally, and for some too naturally (arrogance is flat out dangerous). For most however it requires practice, and for all it will improve with practice. Nerves tend to come the first time you do things, so the more time you spend in and around the relevant environments, the more comfortable you become.
The work experience will help a lot (looking back, it was key for me). Networking events with your target law firm or chambers will help too. You will start to de-mystify these professionals, and realise they are just human (mostly). Join mooting and debating societies, and do mock interviews, if you get the opportunity.
Remember that the objective is to be you — do not start forcing yourself to be somebody you are not, to say things you don’t believe, or come out with definitive statements and answers when actually you are not sure.
Related to this is not feeling that you have to come across as from a certain socio-economic background. Those from some backgrounds may have enjoyed more interaction with professional advisers (they may have some in the family) leaving less to de-mystify and fewer nerves. They may have enjoyed education in schools with potentially higher chances of academic and other success, and in turn more self-belief. Application and interview training might have been available.
So is this where a “poshness test” comes in? No. The best recruitment processes will see your achievements in context; they will recognise the scope for unconscious bias and address its influence; and they will filter out the difference between superficial polish and true quality. We can do the polish when we train people if they have the underlying quality. No amount of polish can help however if that quality is missing.
I was state educated in Leicestershire, and went to Sheffield University (my parents did not go to university at all). I am not from a working class background by any means — I am lucky to have had a very comfortable upbringing — but I reject the suggestion that there is a fixation with the way you look or sound, that you were privately educated, or frankly are posh. I do not see it any such barrier when I applied, and I see no barrier now. Build the experience, and the interest, and from that you will find the confidence. You will then realise that your background mattered not one jot.
Candidates with the skills that are key to being a good lawyer will shine through, irrespective of background. Your differences can become your strength.
Tom Astle is a finance and graduate recruitment partner at Hogan Lovells. He will be speaking this evening at ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently — Legal Cheek live, with Lord Neuberger’.
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