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.

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.

Contempt of Caught? How the ICC upheld the Rule of Law

Two of my main passions collided last week in the latest instalment of the cricket “spot-fixing” scandal (the background to which is summarised brilliantly by cricket website ESPN Cricinfo), and it was pleasing to see the cricketing establishment being so respectful of the English legal system. The International Cricket Council (as opposed to the International Criminal Court) took a decision to ban the three Pakistani cricketers involved in the scandal for what is, once suspended bans have been taken into account, a period of 5 years each. However, it was the ICC’s decision to only publish an edited version of its spot-fixing ruling and making even that edited version “unavailable to readers in England and Wales” for fear of influencing the case which will be coming to the UK courts in March this year that was so impressive.

The ICC’s exercise of caution is excellent news in the wake of the media reporting of the Joanna Yeates murder case, which led to thousands of tweets about a suspect who was portrayed in many newspapers as being guilty by virtue of not being what fits into their definition of “normal”.

The Guardian sought to talk about whether the coverage of the Yeates case was rendering the Contempt of Court Act 1981 “threadbare” and “in disarray”. It is reassuring, therefore, to see that when the CPS is proactive in its protection of the justice system, as it was in this instance, that the public and the organisations who are affected will respond.

The CPS’ charging statement contained the following:

“I would remind everyone that these men are entitled to a fair trial and should be regarded as innocent of these charges unless it is proven otherwise in court. The International Cricket Council tribunal is due to announce its decision tomorrow, but criminal proceedings are active now.

“It is extremely important that nothing should be reported which could prejudice the trial.”

(Source: CPS blog)

This will not be a long post because, amongst other reasons, I won’t comment on the case itself and thereby contravene the very direction that I am commending the ICC for adhering to.

However, what I will say is that I am pleased that in, the wake of the “trial by [mainstream and social] media” that occurred in the Yeates case, the English legal system’s principles are being upheld once more.

Of course people will have opinions on these three cricketers (and the agent who was the subject of the News of the World sting operation), and will air them privately to each other and may even broadcast them publicly via the internet. But they must express them in such a way that it cannot influence the outcome of a case which has yet to come to trial. The CPS is doing the right thing in setting this example. The ICC has done the right thing in responding accordingly.

———

As an aside, I wonder if this article by Roy Greenslade, about the overturn of convictions secured after so-called “Fake Sheikh” sting operations run by the News of the World, is relevant to the Amir/Butt/Asif/Majheed case. I am unfamiliar with the rules pertaining to these kind of attempts to draw out incriminating conduct, and would be interested to know if convicting these men is likely to be impossible even before the trial has begun simply on account of the methods used to obtain evidence.

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

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!

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

“So, Candidate, why do you want to work at a City firm?”

In the course of my regular reviewing of the legal media, I was reading Lawyer2b, the prospective lawyers’ area on TheLawyer.com. They have an interview with Alex Brown, graduate recruitment partner at Simmons & Simmons, in which he talks about various aspects of his job and offers some insight into practice.

He’s asked the question “What top tips would you give to students who want to break into the legal profession?”. He answers this by saying that students should work out what would suit them rather than simply where they want to work. In a similar vein, the question “What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen candidates making?” prompts the response that applicants don’t stop to think about why they’re giving a particular answer and that it’s “easy to say that you want to work in a large international firm, doing large-scale transactions for big businesses but candidates need to address why that appeals to them and what skills they have that lend themselves to that environment”.

What is the lure of the City to law students?

He makes a good point, because without seeking to delve deeper into the reasons, it’s difficult for them to know that the candidate is genuinely interested in the work. Charon QC drew my attention to this issue the other day with an interesting blogpost about an article he’d seen in the Law Society Gazette. The article talks about how the majority of law students are seduced by the corporate/commercial work undertaken by City firms, based on the preferences expressed on their All About Law website profiles. So why is that? It’s the opinion of many, typified by the commenter that Charon identifies from the Gazette article, that most students simply wish to head for these firms because they offer to pay for legal education, which can amount to more than £20,000, and promise high salaries. It’s these applicants that Alex Brown and his counterparts want to root out when they ask about the deeper reasons behind a choice.

So why do people choose a particular option? Given that we’re all different, it would be crazy of me to try to speak for an entire generation of future lawyers. However, there are some noticeable patterns.

The first thing to note is that the survey data does not say what the article alleges it says. The survey data shows that law students want to know about commercial issues, and are likely to be more inclined to become City lawyers than to practice other types of law. As law students, we are bombarded with information about the City firms. They’re the ones who spend big money on recruitment, they recruit two years in advance, and they’re the ones who do presentations in the law schools and at law fairs around the country.

The motivation for many a student’s ambitions comes from this duality of the City being presented as the primary option because of the massive recruitment drive firms embark upon, coupled with students being conscious of the large debts they’re racking up going through law school. It’s difficult, too, to watch classmates fire off applications for Vacation Schemes and Training Contracts to top firms and sit there doing nothing, both because it may appear to others as a lack of ambition (when of course, the opposite may be true) and because it feels as though you should be doing something prior to leaving law school.

The result of this is that hiring partners like Alex Brown receive a flood of applications from candidates who might as well have been told to work in the City via subliminal messages from Derren Brown. There’s an idea placed in people’s heads and not everyone has the opportunity to develop it. Those who make it through the Vacation Scheme application process get the opportunity to experience life at a City firm, but without that experience it’s very tough to answer the question convincingly, hence the importance of these Schemes and the fierce competition for places on them.

I was talking with the Graduate Recruitment Manager at a City firm recently about work experience, and asked her how much work experience a candidate needed to have to be considered seriously. She responded by saying that it wasn’t a question of volume, and that she looked at work experience for two reasons:

1) To see a candidate’s commitment to the legal profession – she wanted to ascertain whether candidates had shown a drive to work in the industry;

and

2) To see whether they understood what working in a City firm was all about – this was the crucial one for her; the work experience had to be relevant. It was no good saying in an application form for a City firm, “I have legal work experience” if that experience was in a high street firm practising family law. She told me that because of the massive investment made by her firm, there was a need to be certain that those chosen for a Training Contract knew what they were getting themselves in for.

It may be slightly unfair of me to generalise in that way, and I will qualify my statements by saying that I know people who have already decided they don’t want to work in the commercial side of the City, eschewing that option in favour of the high street or niche legal practices. But those are the people with experience. As difficult as securing a Training Contract is, it can also be difficult to gain the experience which brings the wisdom over what area of law to practice.

Personally, I am very fortunate to have grown up around West End and City lawyers. It’s enabled me to see the kind of work that is done, and to see the lives that they live. Whilst to some, “seeing the lives they live” might mean the house they live in or the car they drive, to me it’s the time spent in the office or away on business, the stress and being unable to switch off when not at work, a mobile phone or BlackBerry that never stops going off. That’s what recruiters want to be sure that candidates know about – the realities of City life.

I can assure you that I would never be so arrogant to suggest that I am in one category and the rest of the students are in another category like some pompous idiot. I don’t have a training contract and so am in the exact same position as most of my fellow students. All I can say is that it is not coincidental that most people exit law school with the idea that going to the City is their ambition.

I’m not saying this to do my contemporaries a disservice, far from it: I feel that the system as it is can actually stop people from pursuing a career path for which they are well-suited. Alex Brown’s advice to students was to think about what area of law was right for them. Perhaps the system needs to be rethought to allow that to happen.

This post was re-published in its entirety on the Legal Week website on 7th January 2011.
On 16th February 2011, it was revealed to be the 3rd most-read blogpost out of the 50 published up to that point by Legal Week.
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