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.


When to decide where to qualify?

When I was a trainee I remember really enjoying getting involved with recruitment. One time I went back to my old university (Edinburgh) for the milk-round evening at the Balmoral Hotel (nice sandwiches) – and I gave a short presentation about life as a trainee.
This is going back a bit, but I do remember making a serious point about not deciding too early about which department to qualify into.
The story that I told was this: “When I was at Law School I spoke to a friend who was going to start a training contract at Ince & Co. She had a view that Shipping was THE area of law in which to specialise – so I decided on-the-spot that that would be a good department for me to qualify into at my firm: but what I hadn’t fully understood was that her future firm was a specialist in this area, so it was quite a likely route for her to take. Luckily my motivation only lasted a few weeks when I realised that of the 100+ newly qualifieds every year at my firm, there was a maximum of 1 job offered in the small and soon to be axed Shipping Department.”
The general point that I’m making is that unless you have a real reason (such as previous experience or a Masters, which I certainly didn’t) to want qualify into a specific department, then I think that it’s better to have a reasonably open mind at interview and if you are lucky enough to be offered a training contract, then do seats in your firm’s big departments. Like that, you spend the 2 years finding out about different types of legal work – it’s interesting how trainees’ thinking evolves during that time.
And during conversations with decision-makers in each of your 4 seats, it’s important to be flexible about qualification – you may qualify in a downturn, it turns out that there are more jobs available in Litigation than Corporate and it does look good to have been “taken on” by your firm after you qualify. So be open to what’s available, unless you have very strong motivation to specialise in something that your firm can’t offer.

CVs – make it easy – your degree in local currency pls

I did a cv session during the last academic year with a group of mainly Masters law students, and am doing a similar session again on 20th November – so have been thinking about that session last year, and about the other cvs that I have reviewed since. 

I encourage students to share their cvs in advance, so that we can review them together in the group – by the way, it’s a good idea to share early drafts widely with friends and family, so these students were already doing the right thing.  And just to clarify, when I mention cvs, these days I’m nearly always talking about application forms.  

Many of the overseas students had a first degree from a university outside the UK.  And of those, there were a lot who were pitching their cv to English law firms.  What I say to this category of applicants is: make it really easy for the recruiter reading the cv to understand: 1. your situation, including when you will be ready to start a training contract and 2. the class that you obtained in your first degree + the class of all of your exam results throughout.

For number 2, it is easy to assume that the recruiter understands your first degree class or grade, but I doubt that they’d know what a 3.7 GPA or a 17/20 score equates to.  Most recruiters and applicants at UK firms will be graduates or undergraduates of a UK university, so the recruiter quickly understands what a 2(i) means – so my tip for those with an overseas degree: make sure that you list your actual degree grade and its equivalent in the local “currency”. 

It can be frustrating to read the academic part of the cv at the beginning and not really understand the quality of the degree grade.  And you might be underselling yourself, for example I am told that a “mention très bien” in France really is exceptional, so make sure that the employer knows that.  The Department for Education has some materials that can help with this exercise:


In fact, I suppose the same thing applies to UK students applying for jobs in other countries.

So, if you believe the literature (e.g. my favourite careers book, What colour is my parachute? By Richard N. Bolles – http://www.jobhuntersbible.com/) the recruiter will only glance through your cv for a few seconds before making a quick decision.  If there is any confusion or unfamiliarity about degree grade, that could be annoying enough for your cv to be heading straight to the reject pile.

What is “Commercial awareness”?

All firms are looking for it, but what does “Commercial awareness” mean?
And how to prepare for an interview for a training contract to demonstrate your “Commercial Awareness”?
That’s what I was told and it’s probably very good advice, but it’s important to think about why. I made the mistake of thinking that it’s all about being able recount the chronological chapters in each news story. But it’s not.
The best interview question that I ever had (Magic Circle law firm) was “What should you think about if you were advising someone wanting to open a restaurant?” – oh dear, my avid reading of the FT and Economist hadn’t really prepared me for that.
Yes, these “case-study” type questions are all about commercial awareness – but it’s not about general knowledge – it’s more about having an opinion that you can defend, spotting the big issues, knowing what more information you need, dealing with ambiguity, problem solving, and structured thinking – all with a business-like approach. And I think that this can be practised.
I think that lawyers and candidates for legal jobs have a lot to learn from Management Consultants and their interview processes – this is from Bain – http://www.bain.com/bainweb/pdfs/acethecase.pdf.

Trap interview question no. 2 – Do you have any questions?

Writing a previous post about avoiding the obvious traps in an interview, which focused on “What are your weaknesses?”, made me think about another potential trap, which is right at the end of an interview: “do you have any questions?”

I interviewed a candidate once, and it was going really well until this part of the interview – i.e. good first impressions, good evidence of the right sort of skills, good experience and a nice manner.   But then I turned the interview over to the candidate – (by way of background I always allow as much time as the candidate wants for this, usually around 20 minutes of an hour, as even if they run out of questions, there is always more to follow up from the Q&A).  Anyway, this candidate wasted the opportunity of these crucial 20 minutes to ask mainly for my advice on how the drive to work would be: traffic conditions, best route, time of day to drive etc.  Really disappointing as the very good impression was unravelled – not by a difficult interview question, but by this avoidable mistake. 

Remember, an interview is a series of questions, all of which are answered from a high wire.  Any bad answer is an opportunity for the interviewer to mentally conclude “rejection”.

“Do you have any questions?” should be your opportunity to find out what you really want to know about any employer, but be careful.  You might at some stage want to know about how your drive to work would be, pay, pensions contributions, number of days’ holiday, working hours, flexible working opportunities, quality of meals, dress codes, but don’t ask questions about any of these.  None of these really matter in an interview as you could find out through other means, and they reveal a lack of understanding for the process and the interviewer. 

And more importantly it reveals that you are not giving enough respect to this opportunity to ask your questions of a senior lawyer at a potential future employer. 

This type of exchange is very different to a conversation with lawyers at a careers’ fair, which I wrote about last week, so in an interview it’s too late to show any uncertainty about your choice of a legal career. 

My tip:  demonstrate through your questions that you know about the job / firm and / or ask for a senior person’s insight into a real issue facing the employer. 

Training contracts for experienced candidates

I have met with two experienced candidates recently both looking for a training contract.  The question comes up: “how do I compare to the other candidates coming straight from school / university / LPC?”.  

Good question this, as I think that experienced candidates need to tackle this very directly in their application form / cover letter.  One of the candidates that I met had a technical background with a few years’ experience as an engineer, and had a credible story about that leading to a role specialising in intellectual property.  The other had a few different jobs, including paralegal roles and years before mortgage broking.  The problem with this second candidate was that he had not put together a credible story about where this was leading. 

In itself, having some other previous professional experience can be positive or negative – it all depends on whether the story makes sense.  The potential employer needs to see a specific path to a department or expertise that is not expected for an inexperienced candidate – in fact it would be a mistake for an inexperienced candidate to be too focused on a specific department in an interview or from day 1 of a training contract. 

I think that an experienced applicant is one of the rare situations where a motivational statement on a cv is justified (for those rare cv + cover letter application requirements).    

By the way, after our meeting, the second candidate did improve his cv to show a clearer direction into a training contract or compliance role in financial services.

Legal job fairs at university

All students are at a slightly different stage of their journey of transition from being a student to the world of work – even those in the same academic year.  So when I was involved with graduate recruitment at my old law firm (mainly as a trainee), I found it really interesting to be on the receiving end of students’ questions, and never quite knew what to expect.  (By way of background, I used to attend careers fairs and present at milk round presentations / drinks, and particularly enjoyed going back to my old university, Edinburgh.)

What impressed me most were those students that used the air time with lawyers and trainees to take another step in their journey, by being honest and inquisitive, and most importantly listening very carefully to the answers.  By contrast, for me, the worst question is one that is artificially trying to show off some knowledge without actually being interested in the answer; something so obscure perhaps that the lawyer might not even know the answer – e.g. how many new offices the firm plans to open in South America over the next few years. 

I also don’t think that this is the place to try to e.g. reveal any major differences between the magic circle firms – although do let me know if you find any from a trainee’s perspective.  And be careful not to ask the type of binary question that you should or could already know e.g. how many trainees do a seat abroad or how many seats is your training contract. 

As an undergraduate, it’s OK to not be sure that you want to be a lawyer – and if that’s the case, here is my personal favourite: “What type of person do you think makes a good solicitor?” – very useful to try help you find a fit between your skills / likes and a job – and it’s amazing how many different answers you get to this type of basic question.   What’s also good about this one is that the trainee or lawyer will answer this by telling you all of the positive attributes about themselves – which makes them feel good, and they’ll have a positive impression of you for asking!  If so, just don’t forget to make sure that they remember your name.

Trap interview question no. 1 – What are your weaknesses?

When I am recruiting for someone in my team, it’s probably no different to any other interview process – I receive details of lots of candidates, and try to narrow them down to one.
This narrowing down exercise could be by various means: by reading cvs, interviewing, reference checking, internal 2nd opinions and / or on-line tests. Recruiters use all of these techniques with one objective – which is to find a reason NOT to hire each candidate. It’s a “last one standing” approach, and I reckon that many hiring processes are the same.
So bear this in mind in an interview: be yourself and answer honestly, but don’t say anything to rule yourself out, and avoid the obvious traps. The first trap question is: What are your weaknesses?
I find it a bit annoying to be on the receiving end of that “weaknesses” question as it’s not the most imaginative, but we all need to be prepared for it. The worst answer to is to admit to a weakness that is fatal for the role – remember that the interviewer is looking for reasons to reject you.
But then again, I’m not sure that I agree with the standard advice that you should present a strength as a weakness, such as “I’m a perfectionist”, or “I find it frustrating when people with whom I work don’t pull their weight”. I don’t find that sort of answer credible.
So what’s the best answer? I’m still trying to work this out, but I think that it has to be genuine and credible – maybe to present a real weakness, but a solvable one. Or a weakness that is not relevant to the role of being a solicitor. Interested in anyone else’s view on this one.

CVs – it’s academic

After a few contact details, what should you start with on your cv? 

I agree with everyone else that should you start with the most important part – i.e. what you are doing now.  So if you are a student looking for a job, you start with your academic background including your current studies; and if you are an experienced candidate, you start with your work experience, listing jobs from most recent to older.

Nearly all of the cvs that I have seen get this right, but only partially.  I see cvs of final year law undergraduates that list full details of grades in GCSEs, A-S levels and A-Levels, but fail to list anything about the 2 full years that they have spent on their degree, except its name.  Not because they are hiding bad results, but more because they don’t consider it interesting enough.

If you are studying and applying for a legal job, my view is that it is NOT a waste of paper, ink or time to list all exam results right from the start of your degree.  The law is an academic job, so many commercial firms are going to want to see that you have the intellectual brainpower to get started quickly.  They will want to see a candidate on course for:

 1. the top degree – in the UK a first,

2. an excellent degree – in the UK a high 2(i) or

3. a very good degree – in the UK a 2(i)

in that detailed order of preference.  So if you have a top mark – i.e. a first or equivalent in any exams, make that very clear.  And if you have some bad results, for a good reason and you think that you’ll end up with a good degree, it might be worth explaining.

The other aspect that I’m interested in is any electives that a candidate chooses – these need to be consistent with the work of the firms to which you are applying.  Someone who chooses 3rd year electives such as family or criminal lacks credibility applying to a large commercial firm. 

Another interesting choice is a candidate’s dissertation – great if that is relevant to a firm’s work somehow; and the other advantage of listing a bit of tempting detail on your cv is that you are likely to be asked about it in an interview.  One crucial skill of a lawyer is to be able to explain something in a clear way to a client, who knows less on that subject than their lawyer – and your dissertation is one of the only things that fits into that category in an interview situation.  In addition, if you enjoyed your dissertation, it is easier to be enthusiastic and confident when you describe it. 

So if you are applying for your first job in law, expand the detail of your university academic record.

Why do you want to be a lawyer?

This question is going to come up in any interview, so you can’t avoid it – perhaps not in those exact words – but by the end of your meeting, the person sitting on the other side of the table is going to want to be convinced as to whether or not you have the right motivation and potential to do the job.

In my group sessions, we explore this – I ask for people in the audience to give their own answer to that question in front of the group, and really appreciate it when somebody volunteers. I then ask others to give their comments.

It’s not an easy one to answer, because (let’s be honest) many people choose jobs for what are probably the wrong reasons – milk round visits, money only or perception of parents’ expectations. The reason that I chose law was probably not much more logical than any of those reasons – a really fun internship at Clifford Chance.

I have been asked a few times for tips on how to answer this one; but as I have said in a previous post https://legaljobtips.com/2012/09/21/practise-answering-those-questions-that-you-know-are-coming/, this isn’t a question that someone else can answer for you. I don’t think that any interviewer is expecting you to have a “calling” to law as some people do for charity work or medicine; but they do want a credible story. All I would say is that commercial law firms expect candidates to understand that the job is an academic and a commercial one, with a focus on clients.

Other than that, you should prepare your own well-practised credible answer – you are going to need it.
Do have a look through other tips in the archive folders on the left.