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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.