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.

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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.

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”.

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.

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.

cv advice

I am doing a cv tips session next week at Reading University, and am thinking of splitting the session in 2: i.e. half the time will be me making some general remarks and the other half will look at some example cvs sent to me in advance by the students in the room. I’ll then stay around afterwards to finish off one-on-one with specific questions, and to cover the cvs that I might not have had time to review in the plenary.
So over the past few evenings, I have been reviewing about 20 cvs from the perspective of a future employer, and am now thinking about my general comments – and they are just my personal opinion. Here are my top 10:

1. Tell stories.
Most graduate jobs don’t actually need a cv + cover letter any more – they use on-line application forms, so the cv is a template from which you will pick out, paste and adapt the relevant details. Notice that most application forms ask questions, inviting you to tell a story to e.g. show how you reacted, dealt with a difficult situation or explain what you learned; so present some of your experiences as mini-stories about your role in a situation.

2. Put the most relevant section first.
For a graduate job your university academic details are more important than your work experience, except if you have a lot of full time work under your belt (maybe a year or more) – see my previous post about experienced candidates.

3. Local currency for degrees and exam results.
If you are applying for a job with an employer in a country other than where you have studied, then include the “local equivalent” of that result – much easier for the recruiter.

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?

5. Academic details pls for an academic job.
If you have completed any university exams yet, then a legal employer is going to want to see those to see that you are on track for a good degree result – include the details, especially if in any exams you have attained a very high mark. In the UK a first would really stand out, even in a first year exam.

6. Positive words in your work experience section.
Whatever your work experience happens to be, then include positive words about your role: avoid “observed”, “attended”, or worse “was encouraged”.

7. Skills.
Organise your description of work experience and activities around skills that are relevant to the job – this shows the employer that you know what skills a lawyer needs – not always obvious to all candidates.

8. Show me that you finish things off.
Another useful thought to have in mind with respect to work experience and interests is to demonstrate output and completion – i.e. that you can organise and deliver something, even against the resistance of others.

9. Leave it off.
In my opinion, there is no place on a cv for: typos, bad grammar, date of birth, politics, full clean driving licence, photo, referees or home address – not everyone agrees with me on these, particularly that last one.

10. Non-obvious relevant IT skills.
I assume that all law students can use Microsoft Office and legal research packages, but I’m more interested in for example document management skills (see above about demonstrating that you understand the skills that a lawyer needs). I’d even include relevant use of social media, if for example you think that it helped you organise an event or a group.

(Footnote: this post has been republished in Legal Week: http://www.legalweek.com/legal-week/blog-post/2227317/top-10-cv-tips-for-budding-lawyers)