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.

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
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