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:

http://twitter.com/#!/UKLegalEagle/status/176409454387011585

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:

http://twitter.com/#!/UKLegalEagle/status/176422582701133825

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.

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.

Is it dangerous to put your head above the parapet? Anonymity in legal blogging

Recently, I read an interesting blog by Miss TS Tweets, a Trainee Solicitor somewhere in southwest England (so she says). The post was about articles that she writes for journals or magazines, which are credited to her supervisor rather than to her. Despite wanting some credit for her writing, she says that she values her anonymity too much to repost the articles on her (excellent) blog.

She’s not by any means the only blogger who relies on anonymity. Magic Circle Minx’s post about the skills she can add to her CV is one of the best advertisements for anonymity there is, whilst Legal Bizzle consistently utilises his pseudonym to reveal things about contracts he sees and people he deals with.

At the recent #LawBlogs seminar, Alice Morrissey posed the question of whether it was wise for people who were looking for training contracts to conceal their identity online, for fear of what they said being used against them.

I have never had a problem with people looking at what I do online. Perhaps that’s because I live a dull life, but perhaps it’s because I know that there is a likelihood that even if prospective employers don’t search online for information about you, prospective clients might. The other major reason I’ve never minded – and even actively encouraged – people searching for me online is that I’m actually pretty proud of what I do and the things I write.

The real issue comes, I think, with the tone in which you’d like to write. As far as I’m concerned, I’d be happy for anyone to read my blogs and know who I am. If I was writing in a more critical manner, I might not be so keen for that to happen. That’s not to say that named blogs must be consistently uncontroversial and never say a word out of line – Tim Bratton, Tom Kilroy and Melanie Hatton educate just as much as Legal Bizzle does, they just do it in a different manner.

The extension of my thought process led me to wonder whether, once offered a training contract, I’ll need to be more careful in what I write. After all, I’ll no longer have to simply worry about my own reputation, but also that of the firm. I came to the conclusion that my writing style and tone simply differs from bloggers like Magic Circle Minx. As such, I don’t think the content of my blogs will change dramatically, even if I encounter situations which are similar to those she has faced, such as fetching haemorrhoid cream for a supervisor.

It is largely unavoidable that one will feel a greater amount of security when writing under a pseudonym than when putting one’s own name next to what is being written, with everything that may come as a result of one idle internet search by an employer, colleague or client. Oedipus Lex summarised it best here:

http://twitter.com/Oedipus_Lex/status/47953457197498368

That appears to be the crux of the issue for me. There is no objective right or wrong answer to the question of whether anonymous is better or not. It merely depends on the kind of writing you wish to publish (even this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule – Travis The Trout writes some of the most helpful and insightful blogs around and is perfectly happy to conceal his identity). If you’re thinking about blogging or tweeting, and are wondering whether to do it anonymously or not, just think about what you want to write and how free you’d like to feel when doing it. One of the many things the #TwitterJokeTrial has taught us is that what is posted online is not always akin to having a chat with friends in the pub. You sometimes need to be on better behaviour than that.

I don’t find posting under my own name to be much of an inhibition at all. I don’t change what I write as much as I thought I would. Each person needs to weigh up the factors for themselves. For me, the benefits have far outweighed any burden I may have felt to alter my style or content.

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.

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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

Legal trainee recruitment – an applicant’s perspective

For a candidate, the recruitment process is daunting, uncertain and often unclear. For a recruiter, I’d imagine it can on occasion seem exactly the same. Any recruitment is an inexact science for a number of reasons; graduate recruitment more so than usual, on account of the applicants’ dearth of experience (in most cases). I’ll use two parts of the recruitment process to show this uncertainty from a candidate’s viewpoint, and explain how the circumstances of recruitment lead me to have sympathy for recruiters (although they can test this sometimes!).

The nature of recruitment is not the fault of the applicant or the recruiter. It’s not even the conscious fault of the system – it’s merely that, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, the current system is the worst system ever tried, apart from all the others. As far as I can see, there is no way to alter this. The things that recruiters ask for are all perfectly reasonable and desirable in a candidate.

The written portion of the application process is tricky enough. Each firm is like a prospective romantic partner – they like to be smiled at and told how special they are, so the candidate must find new ways to compliment each one without being too general or too sycophantic. Candidates must also show their “commitment”, both to law and to the firm in question. I mentioned last week in my blogpost about why law students wanted to work for City firms how recruiters need to be certain that their investment, which in some cases is more than £250,000 per candidate recruited, is spent wisely and will net their firm a return. The trouble with this, of course, is the knowledge of the candidates is limited and the medium they are using to communicate that knowledge is similarly constrictive. One can only gain so much from reading about a firm’s atmosphere or “personality” – after a while, reflecting the image that the firm’s marketing team puts out just becomes nauseating for a recruiter (or so one told me). Commitment, as I was discussing recently with @LegalBizzle, is more to do with increasing the odds of candidates being suitable than a criteria in and of itself. In reality, it’s very difficult to convey commitment and enthusiasm accurately through an application form. One of my friends told me that at the American university at which she gained her first degree, there would be students who would lurk around the computer rooms waiting for opportunities to either steal people’s homework off the printers or to quickly sit in someone’s place when they got up from their PC in order to email that person’s CV to themselves. I’ve heard of embellishing a CV, but stealing aspects of someone else’s had never occurred to me. This just serves to make recruiters’ lives more challenging – as sure as I am that what I write is true, how can they, without knowing me, be as certain? What position must a recruiter take – one of trust or mistrust in their applicants?

Now to move on to the second part of the process I wish to focus on. If you are lucky enough to pass the application stage – and statistically, most people who apply for any job will not enjoy that success – then you are faced with either an interview or an assessment day, and sometimes with both. The assessment day contains what all employing organisations know as the “group exercise”, to see whether individuals can work well in with others. This is generally a round-table discussion where there are contentious issues at stake and an agreement must be reached. There’s a fine balance between being too loud and being overbearing, and between being thoughtful and being too quiet. I recently raised the point with a recruiter that being part of a team means working together, and that if you are sat round a table with three people whose personalities are loud and forceful, it is sometimes actually good teamwork not to add a fourth brash personality into the mix. She conceded that this was a very artificial process and was the best they could do. Group work at law college or university helps to give candidates practice with situations like this, of course, but the trouble is that very few people are able to be natural on assessment days, and those that are natural are often the ones being drowned out. Obviously, recruiters know this and have developed techniques to spot the candidates who will be the best for them in the long run, but yet again this is not an exact science.

These examples show how difficult the process can be for both applicants and recruiters. As applicants, we have to deal with the vagaries of the system and the not knowing quite what each individual recruiter wants (for, as we are constantly reminded, all firms are different). For recruiters, they must unfortunately view each application with scepticism, for the stakes for potential trainee lawyers are so high that embellishment will naturally occur.

Even at the end of the process, the recruiter cannot be certain they have made the right decision. I have heard stories of people leaving the day after their training contract finished at their own behest, of those not being offered an NQ job, and seen people let go before their contract has even begun as a consequence of sub-par performance in law school exams. It seems recruiters really don’t get it right all the time. No blame can be attributed though – if only there was a way to remove the element of guesswork, life would be easier for both recruiters and applicants.

Part two of the applicant’s perspective on legal trainee recruitment is available here

Crisis At Christmas – In the bleak midwinter…a ray of sunshine

In mid-November, my girlfriend mentioned that she wanted to do something to help the homeless this winter. She was feeling what almost amounted to guilt about being able to go home to get warm, a luxury unavailable to some people. She wondered what the best way to help would be, and considered donating to charity in various ways. I suggested that we look at the possibility of donating our time by volunteering at a shelter or similar scheme, to help in a practical way. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while as well, and so it was in this spirit that we applied to volunteer at Crisis At Christmas, the scheme run by the charity Crisis.

A Crisis At Christmas guest enjoys Christmas dinner (Image courtesy of Crisis)

We filled out the forms online, chose our shifts, and awaited confirmation. We selected our venue and found an induction talk at a time that was convenient. Neither of us really knew what to expect from the experience, but both of us were looking forward to it.

The induction for first-time volunteers was held in a university lecture theatre. The talk was designed to flesh out the volunteers’ knowledge of the charity, its history and the logistics of the Crisis at Christmas scheme. I think that many people were like us in as much as they knew only that they wanted to help and that this was the right organisation to do that through, but very little else. We learnt of the origins of the scheme, the work that Crisis does during the rest of the year, and the multitude of services available to guests. The talk was given by some of the people who would be leading shifts around the centres – volunteers like us, except with experience. Crisis has a team of people who work for the charity full-time and organise the scheme as a whole, but everything involved in the week itself, and much of the preparation, is done by volunteers.

We left the talk with a greater sense of the organisation and what we might be doing when we got to the centre at Christmas time. It still seemed a bit abstract though, and meant that despite this information, I still felt slightly unprepared for my first shift, which was on the afternoon of the 23rd of December. When volunteering, you’re asked to choose two shifts on different days, and they mustn’t be within 12 hours of each other (i.e. you can’t choose Thursday Afternoon/Evening and then do Friday Morning). The shift times vary depending on whether the centre you’re working at is a Day Centre or a Rough Sleepers Centre. Rough Sleepers Centres, as the name suggests, have beds for those who usually sleep on the streets and need people to do shifts around-the-clock. The Day Centres open at 9:30am and close at around 9:00pm, with shifts from 8:30-4 and 3-10.

We arrived for our first shift and signed ourselves in, getting a name badge which identified us as volunteers. We had a short briefing from the shift leader, and were then assigned our first tasks. There are a wide variety of tasks available, from “gap duties” which means manning doorways to either keep guests out of certain areas or regulate the flow of traffic to places like the Advice Centre, to serving in the canteen or cleaning the toilets. My first task was to be in charge of the men’s showers; if a guest wanted a shower, I had to give them a towel and some soap, and then clean the shower when they’d finished. It was great fun – I got to spend some time chatting to guests whilst they waited for the showers, and I didn’t mind the cleaning one bit. At the induction, one of the shift leaders had said that she was far more diligent and excited by cleaning toilets at Crisis than she was at home because they knew the difference it made to people, which puzzled me at the time; I can now understand exactly what she meant.

Whilst on shower duty, I spoke to a guest who reminded me of just how instantly the problem of homelessness can strike. He had come to London from Yorkshire for Christmas with some money in his pocket, visited a casino and lost it all. He’d been living on the street for a week and was hoping, whilst at Crisis, to use the computer to email his cousin to ask him for the money for a train ticket home. It was a real “there but for the grace of God go I” moment for me, and it brought the whole experience to a new level.

After a brief respite for a cup of tea, we had more jobs given to us, and I undertook a variety of duties that afternoon. The time flew by, and all of a sudden I was being given my final task of standing outside to make sure there guests left the centre without any trouble. When our debrief had finished and the volunteers were allowed to go home, we were on a massive high. I enjoyed the afternoon more than I’d ever expected, and it certainly didn’t feel like I’d spent 7 hours there. I was looking forward to the next shift.

 A short video press release about Crisis At Christmas 2010

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day passed, and on Boxing Day morning, the two of us returned to the Day Centre, held at a school in North London, for our second and final shift of the season.  We were some of the first to arrive, and were immediately stationed at the entrance to the car park to greet those coming towards the centre and to make sure that only the people who were permitted to use the car park gained access to it. We were outside in the cold for nearly 90 minutes, but that was immaterial as we watched guests arriving, some of whom we knew had been in the cold of the night for a lot longer than that. We had missed the pre-shift briefing and division of labour because we were outside, but as soon had we come in to thaw out we were seconded to the showers. There was a much lower demand for the showers this time, but we did get the chance to help a few guests who needed other things, such as a toothbrush or a place to shave. The showers were directly opposite the hairdressers’ room, and many guests took the opportunity to book a haircut or have a manicure. These services are provided by skilled volunteers, and are just part of the wide range of feel-good services available to guests. It seems like a minor detail, a haircut, but the feeling of being pampered and the thought that your appearance is improved really brightens the day for many guests. Other services Crisis provides at its centres are the option for guests to see a doctor, dentist or optician, and for guests to receive advice from experts in housing and law, amongst other things, in how they might go about remedying their situations.

After a quiet 90 minutes on shower duty, I was tasked with making an inventory of all the food that the centre had, so that menus could be coordinated based on what was going to expire soonest. All of the food is donated and there were mountains to get through. The centre was short of volunteers for the day for some reason, with only 60 on site as opposed to the usual 90 for a shift, so for my final 4 hours, I had a gap duty near the entrance hall. Usually duties are swapped around after stints of about an hour, but with fewer volunteers than normal I didn’t mind not being swapped. Even that time flew, and before I knew it, it was 3 o’clock and the final hour. I was joined for this hour by another volunteer (gap duties are usually done in pairs), a 20-year-old student who had decided that with nothing to do at Christmas he would volunteer on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. He had absolutely loved it, and we swapped stories about the things we’d seen and what we’d got out of the experience.

We were relieved of our duties by the afternoon team, whose shift leaders remembered us from our first shift and greeted us warmly. After our final debrief, we were free to go, and I felt a slight sadness that my time there was over and a tinge of guilt that I was not helping on any of the final 4 days.

In reflecting on the experience, I can only say that I enjoyed it immensely. I had not expected it to be fun; I thought it would be challenging at times, I thought I might have to do things that I’d tolerate rather than be pleased to do. Not a bit of it. I cannot begin to describe what a pleasure it was to be there. I didn’t get to spend as much time talking with the guests as I’d have liked, but the duties that were required of me didn’t allow that, which was fine. I am only sorry I didn’t do it sooner, and will definitely be volunteering again next year. The guests were very appreciative and the spirit around the Centre was astounding, between volunteers and guests alike. I made friends with some of the volunteers, and acquaintances of some of the guests, and left the Centre feeling pleased to have contributed in whatever small way possible to making someone’s Christmas a little bit better. It’s a very difficult thing to reflect upon without seeming even a little bit patronising, but I learnt a great deal about people and how easily and quickly circumstances can change. It’s simple to say it when the experience is fresh in my mind, but I have a new appreciation for what I have and what others have been through. Though I’ve disguised it well, my experiences left me speechless.

For further information, please visit www.crisis.org.uk.

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