How to give legal advice

I regularly listen to barrister Daniel Barnett on LBC on Wednesday evenings at 9pm taking quick fire legal questions from callers – Daniel is unprepared for each call and it’s live.

It’s a brilliant example to students and practitioners of how a lawyer can rapidly (i) narrow down the conversation, (ii) identify the issue and (iii) advise.  And here’s how I think he does it in 4 steps:

1. Daniel starts with ONE open question (it doesn’t really matter what it is: “Why have you called?”  or “What’s your issue?)  and then allows some limited time for the caller to tell their story in their own words.  While the caller is speaking, Daniel is listening hard and forensically sifting the relevant information from the non-relevant.
2. Then (sometimes by interrupting) he asks a series of closed questions, often ending them with “Yes or No”.  It’s like going through a mental flow-chart that he is making up in real time, applying his legal knowledge to the situation.
[A lot has been written about the advantages of asking open questions, but for this purpose, a series of good closed questions is the best way to get to the issue.]
3. Finally, before advising, Daniel asks what the caller (or client) actually wants, or says “What’s your question?”.  The answer is often “compensation”, but there can be a bit more to it – e.g. from whom does the caller want the money?  Do they actually also want an apology?  Do they just want to hear from an expert that they have no claim?
4. Then the advice – straight to the point – nearly always with a view about whether the caller has a claim, and for those that do, a suggestion about how to bring it.  So by the end of what is often only a 1 or 2 minute interaction, Daniel has understood the story, gleaned enough information to have a firm legal opinion, put himself into the shoes of the client and delivered the legal advice.
I know that disclaimers apply, but it does show how effective and helpful good legal advice can be and it doesn’t have to take long.

2 tips for during a training contract

The posts on this site are generally addressed to students thinking about applying for a career as a solicitor, but this one is a bit different – it shares 2 seemingly contradictory thoughts about what to do during a training contract.

  1. Make sure that you do work for lots of people in the department. Not only will this give you a nice range of different experience, it also allows you to receive different types of feed-back – which is offered as a gift by the way, so it should always be accepted with thanks.  In addition to this, it might help you learn about yourself – e.g. the type of work that you like doing and the type of people that you like working with.  But at the same time…
  2. Do make sure that you have a senior sponsor in the department in which you want to qualify. Picture the 6-monthly partners’ department meeting at which they review which trainees should be offered NQ roles.  They will go through the various names in the frame and the number of NQs that they want – the former normally a larger number than the latter, especially in popular departments.  Each candidate might be discussed for a few minutes, with reference to their performance reviews.  This could well be the most important meeting of your career and you are not even in the room.  At that precise moment, you need a senior voice to be an advocate for you being one of the names put on the “offer” list.  And if you have achieved number 1 above, then others in the room will agree.

Maybe it’s hard to combine these 2 conflicting pieces of advice, but I don’t think so – even your sponsor will have quiet times when you are not needed and, if they are sensible, then they will understand that it’s best for your career to become known for good work across the group.

Positions of responsibility at University

With a few weeks to go before the big end July deadline for many firms’ TC applications, I have been thinking about how to present positions of responsibility on those application forms. I’m talking about positions such as the President, Treasurer or Social Secretary of a Society at University.

I don’t think that it’s enough to just list them – much better to tell some very short stories about what you achieved.

In fact I think that it is worse to just list those positions than to leave them off. Why? Because it is usually an elected position, meaning that someone else could have done the job and the winner of the contest has a responsibility to use the position to do something. And if you don’t list some achievements then the person reading your application form might conclude that you didn’t make the most of it – no law firm would want to hire someone who doesn’t make the most of an opportunity.

So have a think about what aims / targets you had at the beginning of the academic year, and assess how you met those: for example tell short stories about (i) an event that you organised that achieved a record attendance or (ii) a target of having 4 external lawyer speakers during the year being beaten with 2 extra and all seats were taken, or (iii) an initiative that encouraged involvement from non-law students raising numbers by 20%. By the way, you don’t actually have to occupy the specific position to play your part in any of these.

Presenting legal work experience on a cv

In November, I took a day off to give a talk and review cvs at the University of Sussex in Brighton; and then did the same thing after work in February at Brunel. The cv reviews were tightly organised involving up to 18 people in a row (each for a frustratingly short ten minute slot, but that was the only way). So after the first 2 minutes with each student (in which we explored the standard interview questions, such as “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” and “What sort of role / firm?”), it only left 8 minutes to go through the cv – a good discipline for me to cut to the parts that I thought needed the most attention.

And it was mainly the way that Vac Schemes and other legal work experience were presented.

Of course the main objective of any work experience is to help students decide whether a particular career is the right one, and to do that it is really important to talk to lots of people and learn about the work. But I’d like to see something on the cv / application form about output.

Any reader of a cv knows that during a 2 week vac scheme at a law firm, it is unrealistic to expect a student to be running files and advising clients, but it’s good to see the impact of students’ contribution. For example, to do some legal research is not of any use for its own sake – better that a supervisor read it and gave some comments; even better that the lawyer used it to prepare an advice memo; better still if that memo was sent to a client; and the best would be for the client to have read and used that advice.

Another example is the first draft of a contract or some meeting notes – again it serves no purpose on its own; it is of some use if it is reviewed by a lawyer; but the ideal is that it was used as a basis for a document that is sent to a client and used.

So I think that it is important to show that a student’s contribution, however small and indirect, made the life of a lawyer a little easier and even helped a client of the firm.

One more paralegal role will do it

This is about the possible value of consecutive paralegal roles with respect to landing a training contract.

I received a speculative application for a job recently with a cv + cover letter, with a follow-up phone call. It was from a candidate who had had a succession of eight paralegal roles at both (i) large brand law firms (including 3 top 10 firms) and (ii) large corporates (including the legal departments of FTSE-100 companies) and was looking for another similar role.

This candidate thought that the more big brand legal employers’ names on his cv, the better the chances of winning a training contract (at a firm of any size). So the focus of his efforts was at the expense of applying for training contracts for the next year or so.

We discussed this for a bit and the fact that there are fewer training contracts around. We also discussed the diminishing value (even detriment) of more and more short term paralegal contracts on a TC cv. So I hope that he is now applying for some training contracts at smaller firms as well, even if in the short term they might be lower paid than the next large firm paralegal role.

TC applications – a project management approach

With Freshers’ Week over, students thinking of applying for vac schemes or training contracts with law firms should now consider that they have until the end of July next year to make those applications – (I’m referring to final year law or penultimate year non-law for TC applications).

This makes me think of a few conversations that I have had with some LPC students over the last year, who regret not applying for (enough) training contracts during their undergraduate studies. So as the new academic year starts, I wanted to share some thoughts on this.

One LPC student in particular recalled a feeling that there just wasn’t enough time at University to prioritise filling in those (admittedly daunting) application forms. He told me that he was sure that a career as a solicitor was the path that he wanted to follow, and he knew that the firms made offers 2 years ahead. So in the back of this undergrad’s mind was that by leaving applications to the final year, it would automatically mean that he would have to take at least one year off after the LPC.

We discussed this a bit, and to me it doesn’t make much sense, as I really don’t think that it is a full time job being a student. If you are sure that this is the right career, then you should start to make a plan near the beginning of the autumn term – i.e. now. And I think that it’s best to organise this as a project over the course of most of the academic year: identify the target firms, work out the deadlines (mainly end July) and schedule in the hours to complete the forms one at a time and well in advance. By the way, five applications is probably not enough no matter how good you are– I made about thirty.

I know that each application form takes a really long time, and you need to be very organised, but I don’t think that this type of project approach – i.e. working back from a deadline and planning – needs to be to the detriment of your academic work, outside interests and having a good time.

(In fact, it’s a good experience in itself – as a slight digression, the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has identified project management as one of the crucial skills that should be taught as part of lawyers’ professional education.)

Or is this message a bit harsh? Maybe it’s too early to be sure about a specific career path? And maybe a year off in the long term isn’t so bad, especially with a training contract offer in the bag. I’d still say that it’s better to have actively decided that a year off is what you want to do, rather than to take one because you didn’t get round to filling in those annoying forms.

Guest post: How to perform well at an interview for a training contract

This is a guest post from the recruitment partner at a top international law firm (who has chosen to remain anonymous due to the firm’s guidelines). I’m really grateful as I think that it contains some great advice, and some excellent example questions for students to think about:

We are often surprised at how many candidates, who are first class on paper, fall down at interview due to lack of thorough preparation. The candidates that stand out and perform particularly well don’t blind us with legal brilliance (which would be hard to do in a 45 minute interview) nor have they mastered some dark art of interview techniques. Rather, they have really thought about the firm they are applying to and what the interviewers are likely to ask them and want to hear. That is, they have worked out what the firm is aspiring to be and why and are able to talk about, amongst other things, the training contract, the types of work undertaken, the clients, the culture and what challenges the firm faces. They also convince us that they really want to be lawyers in a city law firm and are not just going through the motions.

Whilst no two interviews are going to be the same, even within the same law firm, candidates applying for city firms can expect to be asked similar questions. For those who have been through the summer scheme programmes and/or the trainee contract interview process many of the questions below will be familiar but for the uninitiated here are some of the likely questions for you to ponder. Often there are no right or wrong answers and I am not going to give them to you now; that would be no fun! Be prepared to explain yourself clearly and convincingly and be ready to defend your position when challenged.

So here is a sample “Top 10” set of questions you will need to be able to answer off the bat:

1. Why are you interested in pursuing a career in law rather than working in say an investment bank or large accountancy firm? What do you think the differences between the jobs would be?

2. What interests you in particular about this law firm and what other law firms have you applied to?

3. [For those who have done work experience] Explain one piece of work you did during your work experience and what the legal issues where (you will not be asked to disclose confidential information!)?

4. How does a law firm like this assist its key clients and discuss some of the jobs that you know the firm has been involved in?

5. Which teams from the firm would need to get involved in a global M&A transaction?

6. If you were a General Counsel at a client and a law firm was pitching to you, what would be the three most important things you would look for in your law firm?

7. What are your top 3 requirements from a training contract?

8. Discuss something you have seen in the news in the last 6 months which has an interesting legal slant to it?

9. What are the three biggest costs which a law firm faces?

10. What challenges and, potentially, opportunities do you think the economic downturn has created for city law firms?

Asking Google why you want to be a lawyer

It’s amazing how many statistics you can see behind a web-site – for mine, I have just noticed a list of the search terms that are used to find it. I was really surprised by what I saw – here is the list of the top 8 in order (which by the way represent over 95%):

Why do you want to be a lawyer” (283 times);

Why do you want to be a lawyer answer”;

Why do you want to be a lawyer interview answer”;

Why do you want to be a solicitor”;

Why do you want to be a lawyer interview question”;

Why do you want to be an attorney”;

Why do I want to be a lawyer”;

How to answer why do you want to be a lawyer”.

What I take from this is that students are asking Google why they want to be a lawyer, whether for interview preparation or as a career choice. I’m not sure what to make of this, except to wonder whether there are better tools to make careers choices, e.g. for students to really get to know themselves (likes and skills) and then to match to careers.

By the way (i) the post that they find is this one: https://legaljobtips.com/2012/09/23/why-do-you-want-to-be-a-lawyer/, which probably doesn’t help; and (ii) it’s only by the time I get down to search term no. 9 that the subject changes, which is “Legal work experience”.

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!

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