TC application form advice from A&O

A guest blog from Sally Shoult, Graduate Recruitment & LLM Specialist at Allen and Overy

“What do you look for on an application form?” “How can I make my application stand out?” “I meet your academic criteria and have lots of work experience but can’t get past the application form stage. What am I doing wrong?”

These are, without doubt, the most common questions I get asked when out and about on campus. Application forms can often be the hardest part of the recruitment process to navigate your way through successfully. You will be facing stiff competition from thousands of other applicants, so it really is worth investing some time up front in order to give yourself the best possible chance of making it through to the next stage. In my time as a graduate recruiter I have literally read thousands of applications and believe me, it’s not as hard as you think to make yourself stand out. I hope this blog post will help demystify those dreaded forms, as well as provide some helpful tips to get you over that first hurdle…

Without further ado, here are my top tips….

1. Avoid the scatter gun approach. ‘Quality over quantity’ is precisely what you should be focussing on. Given that no two law firms have the same application form/process, and that we are all looking for slightly different things, completing a solid application form can be a time consuming business. Merely copying and pasting will not do you any favours. Do your research and only apply to places where you genuinely want to work. Which leads nicely on to my next point…

2. Do your research. Successful candidates are always those who have gone the extra mile, thoroughly researched their options and have reached clear conclusions as to why they want to work for a specific firm. You should be tailoring your responses specifically to the firm you are applying to. It is no use making sweeping statements such as “I want to work for the biggest clients, on the biggest deals, in a global environment”. To a recruiter, this is a generic statement that could be said about numerous, different firms but what we really want to know why you want to work for us. Whilst the statement itself may be true, try to think of ways in which you can articulate the same sentiment in a more specific, tailored way. Reading annual reports, visiting the organisations website (not just the graduate website), talking to employees on campus, thinking about how firms differentiate themselves from competitors, for example, are perhaps just a few things that may give you some ideas that could be incorporated into your applications.

3. Avoid silly mistakes. Poor spelling and grammar, or use of an unprofessional tone are all errors that will count against you. Attention to detail is an essential skill that all successful lawyers possess, get this wrong on your application form and you are putting yourself at a serious disadvantage. Equally, pay attention to the structure of your responses – we are not just looking at what you say, but how you say it.

4. Sell yourself. This is your one chance to highlight all of the fantastic skills and experiences you have acquired thus far, so don’t sell yourself short. Try to avoid merely listing your experiences, but instead draw them back to the key competencies that each firm is looking for. If you are the president of a society, for example, don’t just state this as a responsibility. Bring it to life by describing how much of a time commitment this is, you may have had to deal with some challenging team dynamics, or perhaps implemented an idea that has greatly improved the society as a whole. These are the things that firms are interested in – the things that truly demonstrate key skills such as time management and leadership/teamwork. Equally, don’t just assume that you have ticked the ‘team-work’ box by stating you are on the rowing squad, for example. We want to hear about specific examples of a skill and we won’t infer that you are successful at it just through participation.

5. Answer the question! Make sure you read the questions carefully and answer all parts in full. For example, at A&O we ask all candidates to tell us about a recent challenge they have faced and how they overcame it. You’d be amazed at the amount of applicants who merely tell us what the challenge itself was, but fail to tell us anything about how they resolved the situation or what they actually learnt from the process.

6. Evidence. As a recruiter we are looking for solid evidence that you possess the skill set or competencies that we are looking for. Therefore, make sure your responses to competency based questions are drawn from appropriate examples, and clearly demonstrate you possess the required skill set desired by the individual firm.

7. Work experience. Include it all! Don’t fall into the trap of believing that only legal work experience is relevant. You may have worked in a shop, or a bar, or volunteered somewhere and developed a really useful, and relevant, skill. Make sure when discussing your non-legal work experience that you draw out and highlight what these skills are. If you’ve held down a part time job throughout university this could potentially demonstrate that you are hard working and can manage your time effectively – just make sure you write this down and explain how you’ve developed, don’t just assume this will be picked up through inference.

8. Commercial Awareness / Understanding. This is the one thing that ALL legal graduate recruiters are looking for. There are numerous ways you can demonstrate your awareness, for example; drawing on your own personal work experience, demonstrating your knowledge of the law firm you are applying to, or through your interest in current affairs and developments in the legal/business world. Importantly – don’t forget that law firms are businesses too! I am always impressed by candidates who fully understand our strategy and are aware of the key challenges facing the business in the near future.

And one for luck, but perhaps most importantly…

9. Be yourself. Don’t assume firms are looking for a specific ‘type’ of person. You’ll find that the majority of firms are open-minded and are looking for people who share that quality.

I hope that in reading these tips you have realised that completing a successful application form really isn’t as difficult as it initially seems. Do your research, highlight your skills, tailor your applications, and be yourself – it really is that simple. Good luck with your future applications!

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Law firm Open Days – a recruiter’s view

A guest post by Lara Machnicki (Trainee Resourcing and Alumni Officer at the Law firm Bristows):

While there is no doubt that competition between students for training contract positions is extremely high, law firms themselves are in competition to attract the best candidates. In an attempt to reach out to students at an earlier stage, many firms are now offering open days to first-year students to raise the firm’s profile at an earlier stage.

So what is a first year open day?

On Wednesday 27 March, a group of enthusiastic and slightly nervous-looking first year students descended upon Bristows. The trainee-led day was the first of its kind at Bristows, and aimed to give first-year students a taste of life as a trainee solicitor in a city law firm. The entire day was focused on presentations and interactive sessions to help students make up their mind as to whether a career in law is for them, and if so, to consider at what type of firm they might like to train.

Should you be applying to attend a first year open day?

First year open days are an excellent opportunity for candidates who are still considering whether a career in law is for them and/or are unsure about what type of firm they might like to eventually apply to. Open days will only take up one day of your vacation but will provide an enormous amount of information to help you complete those long and tiresome application forms for longer work experience and training contracts when you are at the right stage. They also get you in front of top employers early on, and while most will be un-assessed it certainly doesn’t hurt to make a good impression to partners and trainee recruiters, who will no doubt then look out for future applications from you!

Top tips for applying for and attending first year opportunities

Application stage:
1. As with any application, ensure it is specific to the firm you are applying to – cut and paste jobs are easy to spot
2. NO SPELLING MISTAKES PLEASE!
3. Get your application form in early (if firms operate rolling recruitment schemes, you may miss the boat if you wait for the deadline)

On the day:
1. Arrive on time
2. Dress professionally
3. First impressions count – make eye contact, have a firm shake and SMILE!
4. Be polite to everyone you meet – from the receptionist who welcomes you initially to the senior partner you meet over lunch
5. Be interested – look at the presenters when they are speaking and ask lots of questions
6. Interact with attendees – most firms will be looking for good team players and students that communicate well

After the event, a thank you note can go a long way if you want to be remembered…

And whatever you do… be yourself at all times! You will end up at the firm that is right for you so don’t pretend to be something you are not, at any stage of the process!

Good luck!

For more information on opportunities with Bristows, please visit http://training.bristows.com/ or contact Lara Machnicki, Trainee Resourcing and Alumni Officer at trainee.recruitment@bristows.com

Lara Machnicki is Trainee Resourcing and Alumni Officer at the Law firm Bristows (http://training.bristows.com/). Lara completed a chemistry degree at Exeter University before undertaking the GDL at BPP Waterloo, and the LPC at the College of Law. She completed a training contract with City law firm Nabarro before deciding to pursue a career in the graduate recruitment field. Lara’s first role in graduate recruitment was in the London office of a US firm, and she has been the Trainee Resourcing and Alumni Officer at Bristows since January 2012 where she deals with anything and everything relating to the recruitment, selection, training and development of trainee solicitors

ASK: Attitude, skill or knowledge?

I had a day off last week to be a panellist at an event organised by Pure Potential for state school educated first year University students, which was ably hosted by Neeta Halai (who runs a business training and coaching lawyers: http://www.nh-training.co.uk/). There were about 200 students split across the morning and afternoon, who attended a Question Time style panel discussion about legal careers and then went in smaller groups to spend a few hours with various City of London law firms.

One of the exercises that Neeta organised was for the students to shout out their first thoughts about what makes a good solicitor, and then to analyse whether those qualities were “attitude, skill or knowledge” – the ASK exercise. Some examples: attention to detail, commercial awareness, willingness to take on work, open to new ideas, analysis, client development, drafting, problem-solving, listener, academic ability, people management, motivation and ambition.

Most of these fitted into at least 2 of the 3 categories, but it was very interesting that the most common category was “attitude”. And that was the point of the exercise – the takeaway for the students is that the most important part of being a successful solicitor, trainee solicitor and even interview candidate is having the right attitude.

Too much legal work experience?

I had a busy day recently in Brighton with Sussex University students – a group discussion for about 25 students, and then lots of 12 minute individual cv sessions. The cvs were generally very strong, and it was interesting seeing the different styles.

In previous cv sessions, I have presented these main cv tips: http://www.legalweek.com/legal-week/blog-post/2227317/top-10-cv-tips-for-budding-lawyers?WT.rss_f=Students&WT.rss_a=Top+10+CV+tips+for+budding+lawyers, which I reckon are still relevant, but I thought of a couple more ideas during my day in Brighton and driving home.

The first might be obvious and that is: share your draft cv around for comments. Your cv is not so confidential that other students should not review it, your friends are not going to copy your good ideas and you are unlikely to be considered for the same jobs anyway. So it can really help with wording improvements, corrections of typos and order / structure suggestions.

The second is not so obvious and I’m aware that not everyone is going to agree with this. At Sussex, I met a few students who had a lot of legal work experience – up to 3 vacation placements with law firms, 3 mini-pupillages and a few open days, and were still applying for more. I can see the value of doing placements at a couple of different types of law firms / chambers to help with a decision, but suggest that there is a diminishing return in doing more than one at the same type, for example magic circle firms – especially if this is at the expense of other work experience or other achievements.

I don’t underestimate the value of a good placement becoming a short cut to a training contract offer, but take 2 equal candidates who have both decided that they want to be lawyers – candidate 1 who has done only legal work experience during the university holidays and candidate 2 who has done one vac scheme at a commercial law firm but used the other time to get work experience in other areas (e.g. consulting, banking and marketing). I’d bet that all other things being equal, candidate 2 would have a more credible story about why they want to be a lawyer and would have more to talk about in an interview. I also think that candidate 2 could construct a cv that shows the development of relevant transferrable skills, perhaps just as well as candidate 1. One final thought on this: don’t underestimate the value of any transferable skills developed during holiday jobs such as working in a bar or a shop or through other achievements.

Guest blog from @ParalegalTony “Paralegal Pyramids”

A guest blog from Paralegal and part-time LPC student Anthony Lyons (@ParalegalTony) sharing his thoughts on the best ways to break into the legal profession whilst searching for a training contract:

“A CHANGING OF AGE: PARALEGAL PYRAMIDS

The hunt for a training contract from the grass roots up will soon become a frivolous dream for most. Paralegals are taking over the legal profession but with most biding their time by gaining experience whilst searching for a training contract; law firms have something very different in mind for them.

On trawling job sites and speaking to legal recruitment consultants a word has consistently been annexed to the job role – “career”. A career paralegal seems to be what law firms are looking for in light of the significant changes in legal practice. Business models are gearing up to restructure in pyramid forms having a proportionately smaller number of qualified solicitors taking on the complex legal tasks and paralegals dealing with the bulk of legal administration.

The model logically makes sense with the legal profession coming under scrutiny for their costs, most particularly in private client matters where individuals are burdened by the higher fee rates of solicitors. Although what does this have in store for law graduates and those who have bundled their way through the LPC and not yet secured a training contract?

Being a paralegal is an exciting and varied role. Depending on the type of firm and particular area of law the work can be both challenging and stimulating. At a recent interview for an international law firm they were impressed by my understanding of certain practical issues in property law which they would not expect even their own trainees to have knowledge of.

The most obvious drawback for law graduates looking to gain legal practice experience as a paralegal is salary. With less than 6 months experience it can be a fight to negotiate anything over £16,000 and recruitment agents will often overlook your CV. Salaries do pick up but not at the rate you see in most graduate positions. Competition is rife with the flood of students completing the LPC and not securing training contracts so anyone with a basic understanding of supply and demand should factor this into their salary expectations.

Having worked with paralegals who have indeed now chosen the role as a career it is daunting to think what was once considered a “stopgap” might now be the pinnacle of many a law graduate’s career.

If you have any questions about becoming a paralegal feel free to ask me directly on Twitter @ParalegalTony.”

Personal Statement on a cv

I spent a very rewarding day at Huddersfield University a couple of weeks ago – cv sessions in the morning and a group talk in the afternoon on legal careers, application forms and interviewing.

In the morning, I had about ten one-on-one meetings, each lasting 15 minutes to review cvs and explore general motivation towards legal careers. One observation was that most cvs had a motivational statement at the top. It seems that the students had been advised that this type of paragraph is a good idea.

I’m not so sure.

Particularly when these statements are assertions of skills which could be better illustrated by evidence, through e.g. work experience or achievements in outside interests.

I think that these statements can be useful in some situations, such as the career changer with many years of unrelated work experience with a place on the LPC, who now wishes to make a move into a legal role. Or the candidate who has a bad set of exam results that were a genuine anomaly – (e.g. A-levels or 1st year Uni). Apart from those specific situations, I really don’t think that there is anything that should be expressed in a cv as a personal statement – better in other parts of the cv or a good bespoke cover letter.

In those specific cases, a short paragraph that mentions each of the past, present and future works best for me, and there is some really useful advice in this link from @TheSuccessfulCV: http://careers.guardian.co.uk/careers-blog/how-to-write-a-personal-statement-for-your-cv.

Vacation schemes

I read an article recently (http://www.internshipprograms.com/become-a-super-intern/) shared on twitter by @UKLawStudents giving 25 really useful tips about how to behave on a vacation scheme; for example socialise, be positive, be modest, ask questions and stay in touch. I agree with all of these, and perhaps knew some of them already without realising, as years ago I got an offer from a large City Law firm after a summer vacation scheme.

When I look back at those 3 weeks during the summer of 1994, it really was good fun: a trip to the High Court, lunch-time learning sessions from all of the main departments, evening drinks with partners at the firm, informal drinks in City pubs with other vac scheme students, a tour of Lloyds and staying in London for 3 weeks. There was also the opportunity to get an insight into the type of work that is involved. In fact, we got to do real trainee solicitor work, such as legal research and bundling – some even attended client meetings.

But there is a crucial part missing in both of the paragraphs above.

The real point of these types of opportunities is to check that your chosen career path is the right one – do bear in mind that the vacation scheme is very different to actually doing the job – and students might get the wrong idea about what a certain career actually entails. At the end of any such vacation scheme, I’d bet that if you polled the students, nearly all would have a very positive view – but is that based on a well organised vac scheme or a realistic view of whether it’s right as a long term career?

So if you are lucky enough to secure a vacation scheme at a law firm (or any other type of future employer), I’d advise taking a step back to check that the skills required are aligned to what you are good at and enjoy using – doing the job can be very different to attending a vac scheme. It’s OK to conclude that what you thought was your chosen career path, is not actually for you – and if you do, then that’s time very well spent.

Interview Assessment Centres

You have received a letter inviting you to an Assessment Centre, which is probably the 2nd and final stage of an interview process – so you are getting close to an offer.

Excited?

Or terrified?

It won’t be as bad the final round of the Apprentice, but it’s worth thinking about what’s in store.

There will probably be an interview, a group exercise and an individual exercise. But before all that, based on what I remember, there will be the most challenging part of the whole day – the introduction.

(Actually even before that, you have to: get there on time properly dressed, check-in, get a coffee, not spill your coffee, say something sensible to the graduate recruitment team, make small talk with rival candidates, distinguish between interviewees and interviewers, and finally exude confidence but not appear cocky. Not easy.)

But back to “the Introduction” – you will then be ushered towards a room, and be asked to sit down; there might be a seating plan, and probably a lot of scary clipboards being held by recruitment and HR people, all sitting around the outside of the room. Once silence descends, and after a friendly explanation of what’s ahead for the day, you will be asked to introduce yourself to the group…

It’s the one part that you can prepare for, so a great piece of advice that I was given was to ensure that you make eye contact with everyone in the room while you deliver a well-practised one-minute intro.

One more tip on Assessment Centres, specifically the Group Exercise: the hardest thing is knowing when to start talking: are you the first, to be seen as a leader? Can work, but only if you are prepared to bring others in and listen to other points of view. Or do you keep your powder dry and make insightful contributions later on once you have listened to the others? Can also work, but you have to say something. Just don’t leave it too late by staring at the clock winding down – which risks reducing the quality of what you do finally say.

Mooting / debating on a cv

Those 2nd and 3rd year undergraduates serious about becoming lawyers, are quite rightly focussing their energy around now on application forms for law firms’ vacation schemes and mini-pupillages. I read that just over half of training contract offers are made to those that have completed a vacation scheme with the offering firm (http://www.allaboutcareers.com/campaigns/vacation-scheme-deadlines-2012-2013). What’s more they can be good fun, well organised and paid. They would also give students something to talk about in an interview. However, considering the numbers of places available compared to the numbers of applicants, it can be even harder securing a vacation scheme place than a training contract / pupillage.

As the end of January seems to be a big deadline, I thought that I’d share a specific thought about something that I have noticed on some cvs / application forms recently – it’s about mooting. What I often see is a reference to the fact that an applicant has been involved with mooting and debating, but never enough detail, which in my opinion is a missed opportunity. I see for example short references to “Member of the University Mooting Association” or “Involved with debating”. What I can’t tell from that is what the applicant actually did – Watched? Organised? Prepared the case? Or actually stood up and made the arguments?

It would be better to proudly provide more detail, because it can really demonstrate some of the skills that are very relevant to the job. So if you were standing up in front of the “judge”, or preparing the case, then say so, include a short summary of which side you were on, what arguments / cases you used etc, and whether you won or lost.

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, (i) by adding this detail, you are showing that you understand which skills are relevant to the job https://legaljobtips.com/2012/09/21/cvs-any-relevant-skills-work-experience/ and (ii) as with a detailed summary of your dissertation, this is setting you up for a successful interview https://legaljobtips.com/2012/12/16/dissertation-or-another-elective/.

Dissertation or another elective?

I was talking to a student recently who was trying to decide whether to choose an elective course or do a dissertation – it was with this in mind that I wrote cv tip number 4 in a recent post published on legalweek.com (http://www.legalweek.com/legal-week/blog-post/2227317/top-10-cv-tips-for-budding-lawyers):

“4. Your choices give me some clues about your motivation. I want to see some evidence of the decisions that you have made: which electives? What is the title of your dissertation? And are these consistent with the type of job that you are applying for?”

Whether they choose an interesting elective or a dissertation, I think that students should not underestimate how important this type of choice can be when it comes to the job search process. As I suggest above, this choice has the most positive impact when it is consistent with the type of job / employer that is being targeted – so it is not credible to apply to large commercial City law firms when an applicant’s electives / dissertation are all about e.g. crime or family law.

On balance, I’d go for the dissertation, because it allows you to become an expert on a very specific subject, and this can have some real benefits in an interview:

1. If you give a few key details of your dissertation in a prominent place on your application form, then you are very likely to be asked about it, so you can prepare – I’d suggest including at least the title and your conclusion;

2. If it is an interview for a legal (or any advisory / professional services) job, then one of the main skills that might be tested is the ability to describe complicated ideas in a digestible way to somebody who knows less than you. With due respect to any student interviewee, your dissertation is likely to be the only relevant subject about which the interviewer is going to know less than you;

3. In the actual dissertation you should not be afraid to come to a conclusion on one side of an argument, as long as you acknowledge any counter-view, so that in the interview you can defend that position with your evidence – another relevant skill for the job; and

4. If you spend say 10 minutes on this subject, I’d bet that it’s going to be one of the best parts of that interview. You should be very confident of your subject matter, and if so, you will be able to speak fluently and convincingly.

So I really do think that a good dissertation can make all the difference between an OK and a very good application form, which could tip the balance towards being filed in the “interview” pile. This can hugely improve the quality of the interview, which in turn might just land you the job.

I also think that another benefit is that by choosing a dissertation, you are likely to spend more time with a tutor that you like, and who might be more inclined to write a good reference.

So in good time during your degree, consider doing a dissertation, think very carefully about the specific topic, explore your ideas with a tutor and put in the hard work.