Thinking over your options – well-prepared or uncommitted?

In amongst the fallout from the football club I support dispensing with the services of yet another manager recently, I read a tweet in my Twitter timeline which caught my attention. One of the lawyers I follow was talking to a law student who had mentioned the importance of having a backup plan, and that he was looking forward to a graduate careers fair in the summer. Barry, a partner in a City firm, gave the following reply:

I can see why it’s a great question to ask from his perspective – put the candidate on the spot and see how they react. But as an interviewee, how do you react?

Law is a career that, whilst not on the same level as medicine for an early decision and a strong, goal-oriented focus, requires its aspiring members to show a commitment and drive for the profession. It’s a brilliant tactic from interviewers to word the question in this way, as it makes it sound as though the quality that the firm has probably asked you to exhibit on your application form – a complete dedication to law – might be a blot on your copybook.

If I had been asked that question in an interview, a million things would have gone through my mind at breakneck speed. What kind of answer do they want? It appears there are three broad types of answer to this question, each posing their own questions to the interviewee:

- Is it legitimate to answer that you have never considered any other career? Or is that being unprepared and unrealistic and likely to result in a disappointed look from the interviewer?

- If you have thought about what might happen if you fail to get a training contract, but only fleetingly, does that show a half-heartedness and lack of conviction? Will this reflect badly on you in the interview?

- If you have seriously considered the possibility of needing to go down another career route, does admitting it risk coming across either as a lack of faith in yourself or as not being fully committed to law? Is that career route linked with the type of law you’re hoping to practice, such as banking for an aspiring corporate lawyer? Does that make it acceptable? What if you’ve considered becoming a circus performer or some other legally unrelated career? Does that compound the problem?

As an interview candidate, you are constantly thinking about the image you are presenting to your interviewing panel. To be worrying about whether the single-mindedness you thought was a strength of yours actually seems foolhardy and naive, or which of the three answers comes across best, can throw even the best candidates.

I said to Barry that I thought it was a very tricky question, and asked whether the answer “I’ve only ever thought about being a lawyer” was a good one or not. He replied as follows:

No sensible candidate simply tries to work out the percentages for every question, attempting to second-guess what the ‘right’ answer is in the eyes of the interviewer and the firm. But there is certainly a degree of working out how to present answers to reflect you at your best.

Yes, the interview is designed to test the skills that the candidate would require for their career, of which thinking on one’s feet and handling tough questions are most certainly two. But in my opinion, a question designed in this way is certainly clever and not particularly conducive to seeing the best of candidates, even if it stops short of being “evil” as Barry first asked.

Applying firm pressure

A few weeks ago, whilst mired in revision, I read a post by the legal blogging Grandmaster, Charon QC. This post was another episode of his Muttley Dastardly LLP series, which depicts a law firm with a sinister ethos. The firm is interviewing for a new trainee.

The post begins with this scene-setting paragraph:

Eva Braun, Matt Muttley’s PA, elegantly dressed as always in a tailored black suit and high heels,  led a young man into the Partner’s Boardoom and seated him at the opposite end of the long boardroom table.  He had a brown paper bag over his head.

It’s a brilliant piece, very well-written and very imaginative. But is it that far from the truth? Clearly, there are no firms that interview their candidates with paper bags over their heads as if they’re in Guantanamo Bay. But there are a number who interrogate rather than interview.

Reading through the graduate recruitment literature in print and online, there are lists of the exercises used by each firm when they are recruiting their trainees. The lists, though, are only helpful up to a point; writing “written assessment” is no more useful than saying “bring a pen” – it doesn’t give any information about what kind of written assessment candidates will be required to complete.

The same principle applies to the word “interview”.  Notwithstanding the fact that some firms conduct preliminary interviews over the telephone and these are a sufficiently different animal that they are deserving of the denotation “phone interview” in the recruitment exercise lists, interviews can vary from firm to firm.

There’s nothing wrong with this per se. Each firm is entitled to conduct itself and its recruitment in whatever fashion it desires. However, some of these fashions suit certain people better than others.

I have heard many horror stories about firms and their interview or assessment procedures. One person told me of a medium-sized firm which invited her and her fellow interviewees to wait in a room for the day to begin, and were left there for nearly 3 hours before anyone came to get them. Another friend tells me of the firm at which she was greeted with a chair not dissimilar to the one pictured above, which was facing 5 partners who proceeded to grill her like a suspect in a criminal trial. These two firms had one thing in common; they left my friends with the feeling that they wouldn’t accept a place there even if the firm begged them to take it.

For certain candidates, such as my friends, being treated in a certain way will be a ‘dealbreaker’ when it comes to the firm. Some people simply believe that a firm which feels that placing that kind of pressure on its candidates is the way to get the best out of them is not going to be the right fit. That does not mean that these applicants are incapable of handling the pressure, rather that it gives an indication of an attitude that may put certain people off.

Again, this is absolutely fine – there are plenty who would relish that challenge and not see it as a problem. But the information available is so scarce that candidates often do not know whether the firms they are applying to are the interrogating type or not. For applicants for whom the terror suspect method of interviewing is a definite no-no, this could potentially involve a serious waste of time on an application and interview preparation.

There isn’t even an easy way to tell – I know someone who interviewed at a rottweiler-esque litigation firm, who was expecting one of these very tough days. They were put through one of the friendliest assessment days they had experienced. Another friend interviewed at a local firm expecting a cheery smile and a nice chat, and got something very different. There is just no way of telling without the actual knowledge.

As I explained in a previous post, it is vital to choose firms you wish to apply to with care because the applications are so lengthy and require so much time and effort. If a candidate is going to rule out firms who conduct their assessments in a particular manner and choose not to accept any offers they may receive from such a firm, then the time spent doing those applications is time that was wasted.

The Muttley Dastardly LLP post, fictional and exaggerated though it may have been, contained the truth insofar as it showed that there are candidates who thrive on the pressure of being challenged. Any prospective barrister will contend with interviews conducted on that very basis. Given, though, that there is such a breadth of styles in the solicitor branch of the profession, it would be helpful for applicants to have more of an idea of assessments before the application form is filled in. Choosing a firm carefully is far easier if an individual is in possession of all the relevant facts. It seems that, as long as there are certain applicants who would be dissuaded from applying by a particular atmosphere created during interviews and assessments, not indicating this atmosphere is akin to not providing prospective trainees with the full information on which to base a decision.

The Magic Circle Myth? How some applicants miscategorise firms they’re applying to

As almost anyone applying for a training contract or pupillage will tell you, luck plays a massive part in the road to success. Some may call it fortune, others may attribute it to a higher power, but there are certain parts of the process that we mere mortals cannot control.

For wannabe-solicitors, choosing which firms to apply to out of the hundreds offering training contracts is a process which involves an element of luck. The marketing material from most firms sounds so generic that if a student repeated the contents, their application would be binned immediately. This isn’t their fault, it’s just a product of the fact that they all want “intelligent, hard-working, academic achievers” to train with them.

Students therefore have to try and look past the marketing of firms, which they can do by researching on any of the multiple websites designed for exactly that purpose. On websites like Chambers Student, Inside Buzz and LawCareers.Net there are profiles of firms which detail the working environment, the inside story from current and former trainees, and the lowdown on the firm’s ambitions. All of this should be enough to give students a good indication of the firm and whether it might be aligned with their own philosophies. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually experiencing life in that firm, but these longer explanations of the firms’ cultures are better than nothing.

It’s surprising, then, to hear some of the answers to the question “which firms have you applied to?”. Nothing gives more of an indication of a lack of thought in this area than an answer which includes US firms, regional firms, niche firms and City firms. There are some of these which can work in tandem with each other – US firms and international City firms may still be part of a well thought-out plan – but there are some which clearly do not work together.

It may be that students are covering their options, feeling that certain firms are either easier or more difficult to get into, but this is false and self-defeating. Firms are excellent at working out which candidate will be well-suited to their type of work and their culture. Applying to different types of firm doesn’t help unless you’re meant to work at that kind of firm. If you can convince a high-street firm that your ambition matches theirs, and convince a global firm of the same thing, then you should give up your aspirations of being a lawyer and become an actor instead.

The high street firm/global firm example may have been a tad extreme, but there is one place this principle is more common: the Magic Circle. Some people, when asked the question of where they’re applying, answer with, “well, I know I’m going to apply to the Magic Circle firms, but I haven’t decided where else yet.” That sentence should set off alarm bells that the person does not know what they want from a firm.

The Magic Circle, as a term, refers to 5 of the leading UK-headquartered law firms: Allen & Overy (A&O); Clifford Chance (CC); Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Linklaters; and Slaughter and May. The philosophies of these firms vary from the global expansion of A&O and CC to the UK-centric mentality of Slaughter and May. To treat them all as the same is to completely ignore their thinking about international work, specialisms and the future. And yet some students still think that if you want to work at the top of the industry you need to apply to them all.

Some students know the differences in firms’ outlooks and still choose to submit applications to all of types of firm. Take, for example, this post on a messageboard:

When I had my interview at [mid-sized firm] they asked me who else I’d applied to, and I told them I had interviews coming up with [two other mid-size firms] which they seemed happy with because they have quite a lot in common. Decided not to mention I also applied to all of the Magic Circle!!  At [Magic Circle firm] I didn’t mention that I had also applied to smaller firms.

Through other posts, it is known that the writer of that post has applied to many firms and received countless interviews, but has failed to secure a single training contract offer, despite having many more opportunities to do so than most people. The poster also shares feedback they have received on this messageboard. There is a consistent theme to the feedback, which you should be able to guess by now: the firms keep saying they’re not convinced that the candidate wants to work for that firm or in that type of firm.

The simple answer to all of this is for applicants to think about what it is you really want from a firm. If you’re looking for a firm that’s expanding across the world at the top end of the revenue charts, by all means apply to Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy. But then don’t just also apply to Slaughter and May because they’re part of the same historical grouping as those two; look at Norton Rose and DLA Piper as firms with a similar outlook on the world.

Using the Magic Circle as the starting point for your decisions on where to apply is as pointless as saying you’ll apply to firms positioned in places 40-50 in the revenue chart, without knowing whether the firms in question are regional or international, niche or full-service. Increase your chances of getting the training contract that’s right for you by putting yourself forward to firms that you are most suited to.

The element of luck comes after identifying all of those firms, which will probably be more numerous than is practical to apply to. It’s the point at which you decide which of the firms that fit the bill you aren’t going to have time to do applications for. You have to be fortunate that you have chosen the right ones, and not excluded a firm or two which would have suited you down to the ground. Given the time constraints for applications, and the fact that they often have to be fitted in around other commitments such as studying or working, it may help candidates to make the application process a more targeted process than many currently see it as being.

Room for improvement: why you can’t always be Mr (or Ms) Perfect

“We think you’re a bit of a perfectionist,” says the partner. The interviewee smiles at what he takes to be a compliment. The partner continues: “but we’re not sure you’ll ever be able to let things go at 95% or 90% of your capability. Do you understand that in law you sometimes have to accept that there are other calls on your time and that you simply cannot get everything right?”

Sound familiar? I’m sure that to many people, it does. When it happened to me, I felt it was a pretty good assessment of me from a person who’d known me for less than half an hour.

The partner is, of course, right about law not being the place for people who are unable to accept anything other than perfection. That’s not to say that you’ll succeed if you stop caring about standards, or that the secret to training contract success is increasing the number of spelling errors in your application forms. What is certainly the case, though, is that firms expect their trainees not to be perfect.

It’s difficult to comprehend the concept of firms understanding this on an assessment day or when filling out an application form, because it feels as though even the slightest error will be costly. In actual fact, the firms are likely – certainly at assessment centres – to overlook minor imperfections and be realistic, choosing to focus on a candidate’s overall performance.

Having been warned of the perils of perfectionism and been asked for examples of knowingly submitting a less-than-flawless piece of work in an interview, the issue arose again on some recent work experience. There, the advice was from an associate who was talking me through a piece of work I’d done in dummy at the same time that she was doing the real thing. I realised quite early on in our read-through that I might have missed a few things, and said that I was disappointed but resolved to catch them next time. The associate said that the phrase “I’ll make sure I get that right next time” is the junior lawyer’s best friend. She told me that people make mistakes with work all the time, and that people often don’t mind the first time it happens. If you fail to correct the mistake, that’s when people start to get a bit miffed.

It can go too far, though. I was once told a story of someone who recruited a new office junior. The new junior was enthusiastic  but every now and again, mistakes would crop up. The errors would be pointed out, but time and again the same thing would happen. Eventually, the boss approached the junior and asked if they were aware of the mistakes that were being made. The reply came, “Yes, but I get most of it right, don’t I? At Uni, 60% was enough for me to get a 2:1. If I get 60% of my work right, I’m happy.”

Firms being understanding of mistakes stands to reason – they know they’re hiring people who are new to the industry, untrained and (despite sometimes feeling like robots) human. Couple those characteristics with the amount you’ll be learning and the high-level of complexity of some of the work that will come your way, and you have a recipe for the occasional minor error. The important thing is to take criticism well, chalk errors up to experience and learn quickly – those are the keys to success in whatever you do. That’s been true in every job I’ve done until now, and everything I’ve seen and been told suggests it will be just as true in the law.

Perfectionism, then, appears to still be a noble aim, and one that is not wholly discouraged by firms. However, it seems realism must sit alongside it in order for it to bring success.

Duly noted – The journey to finding the right study method

Well, it’s only taken 6 months, but I’ve managed to work out how best for me to work towards my GDL. Trouble is, there are only a handful of workshops and lectures left to put it into practice. Despite this, I thought I’d write about my new method and why it’s been good for me, as well as how I arrived at it. The hope is, as it is with many of my blogs, that at least one person will read it and find it useful.

I began the year working very hard. I would prepare for my workshops by doing the reading in the Study Manuals that the College provides, highlighting and underlining as I went. I’d do all the prep activities and come to the workshops full of beans. I found, though, that I wasn’t retaining much of the information once I’d learnt it. The College is big on its students consolidating their knowledge, but having tried it a couple of times and felt that it didn’t help that much, as well as feeling that it left me short of time to prepare for upcoming workshops if I was looking back at the same time, I abandoned consolidation.

I carried on with this method of working until my January exams. I then found that I had very few notes from which to revise (which should probably have occurred to me earlier, I’ll grant you) and tried making them from the things I’d highlighted and underlined in the manuals. These notes were serviceable, but not exceptional, because I’d forgotten what was truly relevant as a result of the time between those workshops and making the notes.

I then resolved to take notes instead of merely highlighting the book. This I did diligently, taking umpteen pages of notes for every workshop, colour coding cases and statutory provisions for ease of reference, and building up a stock of notes at last. I was doing all of this before workshops, which was time-consuming, but I was finding it pretty useful. I found, though, that my retention didn’t really improve all that much, and my involvement in workshops decreased because I was looking through notes rather than listening or participating. The other factor was the time it was taking me to make my way through the notes. Some of the chapters in the manual are very dense and I was having trouble distilling the information into something that was manageable. I’d often take notes, only to find that the workshop taught me something different, or at least placed the focus on certain vital cases that weren’t given that focus in the text.

Given these factors, I decided to combine my two approaches. I decided to read the relevant chapters before the workshop, understanding the concepts and underlining the occasional (and I mean occasional) sentence. I’d then do the prep activities that the classes required, and take them along to the workshops. I’d make as many notes as I possibly could about structure and content in the workshop as I could, augmenting my conceptual understanding with the structure required by “GDL land” as the tutors refer to the course. Then, once the workshop had finished, I’d go to the library and make notes from the chapter, making my workshop notes complete using the Manual, but retaining the emphases that I’d been given by the tutor and allowing the tutors, rather than the book, to give the lessons.

I’ve found that my retention and understanding has increased, I’m doing the consolidation whilst not fighting with upcoming workshop work so much, and I’m able to make notes with the benefit of knowing what’s vital and what’s less important.

I’m not suggesting that this method is for everyone – everyone works and revises and learns differently. But I’d advise that students be as critical as possible of their own working methods. The course is very information-dense, and not working as effectively as you possibly can for much of the course can be a bit of a problem. Everything’s starting to come together now in my mind, which is good, and I think it probably would have done even without the change of working habits. But they certainly haven’t harmed the process.

I wrote in a previous blog about the importance of constantly evaluating your own performance and knowing how to get the best out of yourself. This is yet another example of where I think it comes in handy. People may disagree with this statement or my methods – but I know they’re right for me. Which is, after all, the most important thing.

What makes a good commercial lawyer? A prospective Trainee’s perspective

I return to blogging today after an absence of nearly two weeks. I was struggling for inspiration, as well as having one or two other things on my mind, and could not think of what to blog about.

Luckily, inspiration arrived in the form of Barry Gross’s blog about what being a transactional lawyer means to him. Barry, a Real Estate partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner, talks about working on commercial deals and balancing the amount of law involved with the commercial nous he has developed.

There have been many interesting debates on this topic over the years, I am sure, and they have found their way onto Twitter recently, with varying views proposed by Barry, Michelle Hynes-McIlroy and others. As a future trainee solicitor, I have been given copious amounts of advice on this particular matter and, whilst not having vast amounts of experience to draw on, am able to proffer a view from this side of the career.

Commercial awareness is a major buzz-phrase in the application world. You must exhibit it in order to attain a training contract at a commercial firm (which, as I’ve already discussed, is the ambition of many law students – whether rightly or wrongly). But is this examined effectively in interviews? And do prospective trainees fully understand its meaning?

Commercial awareness is often taken on face value by applicants. This means that many assume that reading a newspaper and being able to follow a story will be good enough. And sometimes they’re right – there are some firms that either ask “Please tell us about a commercial issue that caught your eye recently and explain its significance” or, more fiendishly, “Please tell us your thoughts on X Commercial Issue”. The second of these is less fair, in my opinion, because it presumes an interest in that particular issue. I was once asked about the Irish bailout. I was able to give a complete overview, but because my interest had been in other areas, I was unable to provide the depth that other candidates were obviously able to give, as I received feedback that my answer did not go far enough.

Nevertheless, assuming that the firm will allow you to place your own stamp on the information, is being able to follow one story really enough? Possibly not. Even if you do get the direct question about a commercial issue, it’s the second half of the question which is truly a measure of your commercial awareness.

The significance of the issue that you choose is where the firm sees if you understand that the world does not operate in a series of parallel bubbles, but more like the circles in a Venn diagram, where the worlds of law, commerce, politics and many others overlap in all kinds of areas. This is particularly important if there isn’t a “commercial news story” question at all, as there often isn’t.

A recent poster on a message board talked of their feedback after an interview which contained a commerciality question – which I will get to shortly, and links perfectly with Barry’s blog – but no topical news story question. They said:

The firm told me that my current commercial awaress was just okay, some parts good but I didn’t go into enough detail on some things. We didn’t really talk much about current news or anything though… maybe I should have randomly brought up some topics?

The full comment can be found by clicking here

I know someone else who had an interview at this same firm. They had, as I’m sure our commenting friend had, done extensive reading of the commercial and financial press, but knew that the idea was not to “randomly bring up topics” but to use the current issues to justify answers in other areas. For instance, it’s very difficult to just “randomly” bring up a topic of current news – in an interview, a conversation in which you as the interviewee do not set the agenda, you can’t pipe up with “so what do you think of BP’s deal with Reliance in India?” What you can do, though, is use current issues to furnish your answers, such as answering a question of why you want to work for an international firm with some quotes about the jurisdictions they work in or projections of where the markets may move over the next few years. This is the real way to show what is commonly known as “commercial awareness”, in my opinion. The information itself isn’t an indication of your commercial nous – that part comes in your understanding of the way that information applies to the world of commercial law, or the way commercial law applies to that particular news item.

However, commercial awareness isn’t only to be found in the Financial Times. As Barry talks about in his blog, commercial awareness means something completely different to commercial lawyers, particularly transactional lawyers.

I once asked a solicitor for a definition of commercial awareness. I was expecting something quite self-evident about being aware of the world around you and making sure that you understood how businesses operate. But he replied that commerciality to him was about getting your client from A to B with a minimum of fuss. Sometimes that wasn’t in the way the client first envisaged, but his role as a solicitor wasn’t supposed to be that of a regulator or applications officer, it was as facilitator. He mentioned that some lawyers he deals with just sit in meetings and say “we can’t do that” and end the sentence there, whereas others would say “well, we might not be able to do that, but we can get the same result by doing this instead”.

Commercial awareness is therefore more than just knowing what was on the front page of the newspaper today. It’s understanding businesses, knowing the kind of things to consider if someone approaches you for advice on a business opportunity they’ve been offered or that has presented itself. As a commercial solicitor, your life is based on advising these kind of clients – and that broadly applies in whatever branch of commercial law you end up in. In that situation, you have to be able to show that you understand their issues and their concerns. It’s why part of being a good commercial lawyer is knowing the industry or industries in which your clients operate like the back of your hand. Clients will come to you because of your expertise and knowledge of their industry and your ability to enable them to reach a successful conclusion to their problem. They can just as easily buy a newspaper as you can if they wanted commercial knowledge in that sense.

I mentioned earlier that the commenter’s interview contained a commercial question. This, according to various websites about the firm and its interview processes, would have been something like “your friend has returned from travelling and announced that he wants to set up a chain of hotels called ‘Sleep-eze’. Advise him on this issue”. The difference between the commercial awareness required for a “tell me about a news story” question and this particular example is, I hope, plain to see. It is this kind of scenario that Barry refers to when he talks of being commercial.

It appears therefore that the phrase “commercial awareness” may be a misnomer in certain circumstances. Of course there is a need to keep up to date with the news – the feedback I showed you earlier is an illustration of how you need to be informed about world commerce issues, if only to convey to your interviewers your enthusiasm for commercial matters. But being a commercially aware lawyer runs so much deeper than mere information – it’s about thinking like a businessman and a lawyer at the same time. If you are a prospective commercial lawyer, I would read Barry’s blog. There will be some who disagree with him on the importance of being commercial, but I am not one of them. As someone once said to me, “being the best technical lawyer does not always equate to being the best practical lawyer”. Recognising that law does not operate in a bubble is, in my opinion, the first and most important step towards commercial awareness.

The place of ethics in legal education

There is a discussion happening currently in legal education circles about the suggestion from the Law Society that ethics should be taught to law students. Professor Richard Moorhead of Cardiff University wrote an excellent blogpost on the subject in December, around the time that the Law Society’s report was published. He wrote that he supported the basic premise of teaching ethics to law students, so long as certain things were taken into account. I shan’t go through them now, because that would be effectively regurgitating his entire blogpost, and I wouldn’t do it justice; I advise you to read it for yourselves.

I tried writing this post a couple of weeks ago, but couldn’t seem to find an angle for it. That angle was presented to me by a friend of mine a couple of days ago. She attended the Student Law Conference this week, where she attended a talk by Lady Hale, a Justice of the United Kingdom Supreme Court. After giving her presentation, Lady Hale invited questions from the gathered mass of law students.

One of the questions asked was “How do you balance integrity with achieving your clients’ objectives?” I studied some ethics at University and found it very interesting from a philosophical point of view. But I don’t expect that it will have any practical bearing on my career as a lawyer.

The student’s question to Lady Hale is exactly the type of issue that legal education, if it is to attempt to bring ethical teaching to bear on the future lawyers of this country, should attempt to answer. Navigating the shades of grey and working right up to the boundaries of legality in order to achieve a client’s objectives are what some people would say denotes a good lawyer. But how is this taught?

This week, I finally read the Law Society’s report on the teaching of ethics to law students, which contains a draft syllabus for the teaching of legal ethics on Qualifying Law Degrees (QLD), as one of the foundation subjects. I was linked to it from Neil Rose’s article on Guardian Law about the effect that the new Alternative Business Structures might have on legal ethics, in which Neil recounts his time working on the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) legal ethics helpline. “My experience,” he said, “is that solicitors are generally seeking reassurance they are doing the right thing rather than looking for ways around the rules.”

On the face of it, it appears that to teach ethics as I was taught it in my philosophy elective during my degree, or even how the Law Society intends to do so (if the draft syllabus I linked to earlier is adopted), is not quite the right way to go about it. It seems to me to be a practical aspect that needs to be taught. One would hope – though sadly, experience tells us that a mere hope is all this remains – that those who wish to enter a career in the law have a moral code that they wish to adhere to. I don’t believe that learning the theory of ethics will benefit students, certainly not as one of the foundation subjects on a QLD or on a Graduate Diploma in Law (the so-called “law conversion course”).

What can be inferred from Neil’s experiences on the SRA’s helpline is that the guidance lawyers sometimes lack is that of interpretation. But is this teachable? Is it practical to do so? After all, each situation faced in practice will differ, and it is impossible to cover all possible eventualities of every law that is taught on a QLD. Perhaps that is the thinking behind teaching ethical theory; if you cannot teach every situation, at least attempt to arm students with a framework from which to approach those situations. The problem is, I doubt that the proposed framework is practically applicable.

I wonder whether this ethics debate is really addressing the heart of the problem. At University, the ethics module I took was worth 10 credits, so I chose another module worth 10 credits to complement it. That module was Critical Thinking – how to form valid arguments, and how to identify when a conclusion does not logically stem from the reasons given. It is that module which I believe will have greater practical application in my career; it was those skills which led me to question the validity of using ethics to solve this problem.

If it really is just a problem of interpretation of laws, as I suspect it might be, does that point not towards the need to add ethics to the syllabus but simply to improve the standard of legal education as a whole? Isn’t interpretation one of the core skills that legal training is supposed to provide? Of course, once a lawyer begins to practise they should be taught about conflicts of interest and money laundering and other practical ethical elements. But, in my opinion, those should not be compulsory subjects on a law degree.

Legal trainee recruitment from an applicant’s perspective, Part 2: The Application Form

In Part 1 of my guide to the applicant’s view of legal trainee recruitment, I wrote about some of the questions and tasks that applicants must negotiate on their way to the reaching holy grail of a training contract offer. I realise, though, that I may have inadvertently given the impression that similar things could be expected from all law firms.

To a certain extent, this is indeed the case – they each have an application process involving you writing something down followed by seeing them face-to-face. Most of the time there’ll be a question about why you have chosen that particular firm (which is why that is the example I used when mentioning application forms in the previous piece). Apart from that, however, the process is often as different as chalk and cheese.

I’d like to say by way of a disclaimer before I begin that I’m only writing this to give people a sense of the process, rather than because I believe that wholesale changes to the system are necessary – they aren’t. As I concluded in the last piece on the topic, we know that recruitment processes are imperfect, otherwise there wouldn’t be much deviation from 100% trainee retention rates and there wouldn’t be trial periods in most jobs. The fact is that there’s no way to truly know what someone is like at work without actually working with them.

Different firms use different systems to create their application forms. Some use central form systems, such as CVMailUK or Apply4Law, which applicants like because they allow you to enter your education records into a central website database and simply import them into each application form. This may not sound important, but when you’ve done more than 20 modules at university, 3 A-Levels, an AS-Level and 10 GCSEs as is standard across the country (with some doing many more), it can become a mite repetitive to enter the same data into multiple forms. Especially when some applications ask for the marks as pure marks (University marks in this country are out of 90) and some ask for them in percentages, often requiring conversion.

Once you’ve hurdled the education section, the next part you’re confronted with is often – but not always, obviously – the employment section. Again, the requirements of this section vary from firm to firm. Some firms are very generous with their word allowance in this section; one firm I know allows unlimited space for you to elaborate on the tasks you performed and the knowledge you gained whilst performing them. Other firms prefer slightly more curt responses, with one firm allowing a mere 50 words; by way of illustration, the start of this paragraph to the first semicolon (i.e. two-and-a-half sentences) is 46 words. Most firms settle somewhere in the 100-300 word bracket for this answer, which is still not an immense amount, and requires a new answer to be written for every form because of the different constraints. The gulf between a 200-word answer and a 100-word answer is vast.

The firm-specific questions (for want of a better description) are always bound to differ by virtue of their very nature. Some of them are the standard, “explain your decision” questions, whilst some are more competency-based. Just to give you a proper idea, the standard questions can include:

  • Why you want to be a lawyer
  • Why you want to work for [X] firm
  • Why you want to work in the City
  • Why your skills make you suitable for a career in the type of law you’ve chosen
  • Why you think the firm should hire you over anyone else

Meanwhile, the competency questions often ask about things like times you’ve been involved in a successful team, when you’ve shown resilience or an occasion you overcame a problem. These also come in different formats: some firms ask for the competencies outright, whilst some are more circumspect in their questioning. Some firms ask each of the “explain your decision” questions with a 100-word limit, whilst some lump two or three in together and give you slightly more. This is the real core of what a firm is looking for, so it makes perfect sense for the firm to tailor this section to its individual needs.

Of course, there are also the firms who don’t require you to fill in these kind of forms. Some firms merely request a CV and Covering Letter, which requires a different set of skills entirely. Again, if firms feel that this is the best way for them to find and hire the right candidates, then there’s no problem with it for me.

I know that the process isn’t designed to make life easy for candidates, or for us to be able to copy and paste answers from one form to another – I’m aware that the purpose is to test the applicants’ abilities. The recruitment processes are there for the firms themselves to hire the people they find to be the best for their firm, and they have the freedom to do that in whatever way they like.

I can’t help thinking, though, that applications would be made simpler and perhaps of a higher standard if firms accepted that certain things could be standardised. The ability to pre-load education results is, as I mentioned, a wonderful thing when it comes to making applications, and in my opinion should be the norm for firms. Perhaps the same could also be done for the employment questions, which would enable applicants to answer the competency and justification questions without having to worry about the standard elements. Sometimes it seems that the only thing the application processes have in common are their uniqueness.

If your form is good enough, you may be invited to have a telephone interview. Or have a face-to-face interview. Or have an assessment day. Or undergo psychometric testing. Or all of the above. This part of the process is so individual to the firms that it would be impossible to comment. You just have to hope that none of the unexpected elements of the process resemble this interview: 

Many thanks to fellow GDL student, Yihsin Wang, for her help with this blogpost

Some FAQs answered for those considering a law conversion course

I recently received an email from someone I know who was thinking about converting his degree through the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), more commonly known as the law conversion course. He asked me some questions so that he could have as much information as possible on which to base his decision.

His questions were practical ones about the course, how I was finding it, and how I was funding it. They’re the sort of questions I wish I’d had answers to before I left university, and answers from a student on the course rather than from one of the course providers. I decided, having read and answered his questions, that to publish them might help others make a decision. My reply is extensive and, I’d like to think, thorough, but it won’t be comprehensive and my experiences will have differed from those of others, so please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and opinions if you have anything to add to the information.

The email I received read thus:

Hey Ashley,

I understand that you are currently taking the law conversion course. I’ve decided to look into it and see if it’s for me, and would just like to ask you a few questions about it, if you don’t mind?
Was it easy to get into with your degree?
Are you self-funding…and are most people on the course self-funding or are there lots of people already with law firms paying for them?
How difficult/intense etc is it, are you struggling or finding it a manageable challenge? Since we did similar subjects at the same uni I assume we’ve got a relatively similar skill set!
Are you in the process of applying for/have you got a Training Contract (TC)? From reading about it, this seems to be absolutely crucial yet also very difficult. How are you finding it and what would you do if you can’t get one? How easy do people seem to find it in general on your course, and do you need much previous law experience to help you get one?This is the one issue that really confuses me as I’m worried I wouldn’t be able to get a TC and hence waste a year!
Have you secured any work experience etc/ how difficult was that to achieve?

I know there are lots of questions, but any help will be really greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

A Prospective GDL Student

I gave the email due consideration, and thought about my experiences, both on the course itself and beforehand. I replied as follows:

Hi Prospective Student.

I’d be delighted to answer your questions.

1) The only true entry requirement is obviously that you hold a degree. Beyond that, if they have space available and you are able to afford the fees, you are likely to be accepted. By way of example, I know people who applied in March or April, well after the deadline for first round applications, to three law schools (which is as many as lawcabs.ac.uk allows you to apply to) and received offers from all three. The law schools were also still advertising places on the GDL well into September 2010 for the 2010/2011 Academic Year.

2) I am self-funding and so are many of my classmates. As I write, out of our class of 20, there are only 3 people who have secured funding already. I took a job straight from University, having thought that the training fees in law would be prohibitive for me, in order to work out what to do. It took me no time at all to realise that I didn’t want to do anything other than go into the legal profession, and so I used that year to earn the money for my GDL and apply for Training Contracts. There are ways to finance the courses – Nat West, for instance, do a specific “Professional Qualifications Loan” which some people here have taken up [11/02/2011 - I have just read that Nat West have withdrawn this scheme. For more details, click here] – and I will need to find a way to fund myself through the next stage if I do not manage to secure a TC this year. Whatever happens, though, the investment has been one worth making, as far as I am concerned. Some people said that it would be worth it back when I was worrying about it, but it seemed easy for them to say that, as they weren’t people who’d been through it. Taking the year to work gave me the perspective on my ambitions and the perspective on funding the course to be able to take the risk of funding it myself. I was surprised to find out how few people on the GDL have Training Contracts already.

3) There’s a lot of work for sure, but it’s manageable. I haven’t had any problems so far, although the volume increases between Xmas and the end of the course, with two pieces of coursework to do as well as the regular lectures and workshops (and revision for mocks). The trick is to keep on top of it. At uni I left most things until the last minute, even exam revision. With this, it’s impossible to do that; I think you’d quickly sink like a stone. So it’s just about being responsible and working consistently. Once you do that, it’s comparatively simple. Yes, our similar backgrounds are useful but law has so many disciplines in practice that it requires people from all backgrounds – the most common are social sciences, humanities, philosophy graduates, but there are two former musicians in my class as well. The course is open to holders of all kinds of degrees, so whilst your essay-writing skills may stand you in good stead, they’re not all that you need and they certainly won’t carry you through on their own!

4) I haven’t got a training contract yet, and am applying for them at the moment. In my opinion, the greatest importance placed on attaining a TC at the stage you’re at is in the funding. You obviously need to complete a 2-year TC if you want to qualify, but the immediate need is the money. If it’s possible to do the GDL and even maybe the LPC via another means of funding then I would do so. If you need to take a year or two to earn money to pay for it and apply for training contracts then that makes sense – I did it – but it helps to get on the path as soon as possible, in my opinion. The other important thing that a Training Contract gives you, though, is the security of knowing that you have somewhere to go after finishing your studies.

5) Firms like you to have experience because it shows that you have a commitment to law, but also because it shows that you know what to expect. [I wrote about this at length in my blogpost entitled "So, Candidate, why do you want to work at a City firm?"] More than just “any legal experience”, they want it to be relevant. They’re not looking for their trainees to know exactly what area they want to qualify into – and in many cases they prefer trainees not to know. But they’d like you to be sure that the type of law is what you want. For instance, if you’re applying to City commercial firms, having some work experience in a high-street family practice will only be useful up to a point. You can sell it on the basis of knowing you don’t want to work in that environment, but a big firm wants its candidates to be certain they want to work in the city world. It was explained to me recently that it costs roughly £250,000 to recruit each trainee at most of the big firms, so obviously for that investment they want to make sure, as far as they can, that the person is right for the job and will stay there for a while. The entire process is fairly arbitrary, I think, as what one firm wants, another firm may not. Also, it depends how the recruitment is done. Many systems are imperfect, especially in firms who give applications to busy lawyers to read.

6) Training contracts are, as I’m sure you know, recruited two years in advance when it comes to the big firms. They do this because that’s the amount of legal training that their students have to go through if they get them at the earliest stage. I know many people who have secured contracts with firms after they have started their training, and the years in between are not wasted, I can assure you! Sometimes the firms take their future trainees on as paralegals so they can gain experience and earn some money. Some take it as a gap year opportunity and go travelling, or undertake more study such as an MBA. Of course, there are also smaller firms who recruit for trainees from the pool of people who already have their LPC qualification, so even if you go throughout law school with no Training Contract, you may still be in a great position to apply to firms like that afterwards.

7) As I mentioned above, work experience is a real help when it comes to securing Training Contracts. In order to get the experience, though, sometimes you already need to have experience – it can be a bit of a vicious circle with Vacation Schemes in the City. My advice would be to write to law firms and to make as many contacts as you possibly can. Think of everyone who you know who might be able to give you some help or advice and ask them. Even if you don’t know anyone directly who can help, there are bound to be people around who can. Sometimes it’s useful to think laterally: for instance, most of us know people who have been divorced; ask someone for the contact details of their solicitor. Even if they can’t help you themselves, they may have contacts in the industry who are able to. Networking is absolutely vital. Recruiting firms don’t expect everyone to have extensive experience though, so don’t worry about filling a CV chock-full of it. Just enough to show that you have thought about the profession seriously will suffice.

I hope that this has been of help. If you have any more questions, you know where I am.

All the best,

Ash

Now, comprehensive though this may appear, it omits at least one major piece of advice that I wish I’d had – that of how to decide which provider to study with once you’ve made the decision to do the GDL. This is a difficult decision for many prospective students because of the dearth of information on the subject. The four major postgraduate legal education providers are BPP Law School, City Law SchoolKaplan Law School and The College of Law.

When looking to choose a university for your undergraduate degree, you can decide based on the surroundings, based on teaching league tables, on research, on course content, and many other factors. When the course content is identical, as it largely is with the GDL, the decision becomes more difficult. The majority of the information available comes from the providers themselves, rather than any independent source, and leaves a great deal to the imagination.

It’s difficult to make a wrong decision on this, and each of the major providers is regarded equally by most firms (some have agreements with a particular provider but studying elsewhere before securing a TC doesn’t preclude you from joining them in most cases). My advice would be to contact the providers and find out the full details of the teaching and any extra benefits: how many contact hours you would have, what materials would be made available online (are lectures recorded, for instance?), how big are the class sizes, what’s the careers service like, and so on. Then, once you have this information to hand, work out what is most beneficial for you. If you’re someone who can’t take notes easily in lectures, having recordings of them available online might be just what you need, for instance.

Once you’ve decided on a provider, you may find that they have more than one branch in the same city, as I found with the College of Law. Again, almost no information on which to base a decision over where to study exists, even less for deciding between the Moorgate and Bloomsbury College of Law centres than there was for deciding which provider to opt for. I chose the College because of their course structure, because I knew a larger number of people who had studied there than at any of the other providers, and because, if you do GDL and either the BPTC (the practical course for future barristers) or the LPC (the equivalent for future solicitors) with the College, you receive an LL.B at no extra cost and with no further exams, which is in contrast to other providers. I figured that if I didn’t get a training contract, I’d like to come out with an LL.B to show for my two years; if I secure one and the firm wants me to study for my LPC elsewhere, I’m happy to make that trade-off!

This was a personal decision, and the lack of information meant that it wasn’t built on the strongest of foundations, but I did as much research as I could and made my decision based on as much knowledge as I was able to acquire. I hope that through this post, some people will be able to be more certain of their options.

—————

As I said earlier, I am certain that I have missed some absolute gems of advice, and that people who have had different experiences to me will be able to provide valuable insights into other areas of the decision-making process. If you have anything to add, please do comment. Feel free also to comment in order to ask any questions.

An edited version of this blogpost was published on the AllAboutCareers.com website

Podcast with Charon QC

Over the Christmas period, I was approached by Mike Semple-Piggot, better known (by some) as Charon QC, and invited to join him for a podcast about my experiences on the Graduate Diploma in Law.

The podcast has been recorded and is now available by clicking on this photo:

The link to Charon’s blogpost, which has links to other Lawcasts in the series, can be found here.

I hope you enjoy listening to it!

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