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.

“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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