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.

Getting a Training Contract by Blogging: Mission Impossible

In September of this year, I was asked by a journalist to answer some questions on the use of social media in my fledgling legal career. He had been very excited when I told him of my training contract offer back in February, because “the storyteller in him liked the idea of a training contract obtained via the internet”. I was aware of this when I agreed to be interviewed, and thought that I might get the chance to shatter this particular illusion.

We chatted for a while, and I explained that despite my being quite proud of being published on one occasion prior to receiving my offer, most of my blogging had been done post-offer and in any case, my interviewers were not in the least bit interested in my writing. I explained that they were far keener to explore the personality-based parts of my CV, particularly leadership roles such as being the captain of a cricket club. During this part of the conversation, he reminded me that the focus of the article was social media; apparently, the truth was not on-message enough.

I felt happy to have set the record straight, and was therefore slightly taken aback, but admittedly not entirely shocked, when this article appeared following our discussion. I will not go into the fuss that followed – others, particularly the highly-respected legal blogger Charon QC, have dealt with the issue far better than I could or would. I want to deal with the problems that this falsehood might cause for prospective trainees.

Recently I received the following question on Twitter:

I responded that of course this was not the case, saying that unfortunately there is no shortcut available for those of us who want to become solicitors with any type of firm, particularly city firms with strict recruitment procedures and cycles. Where might the questioner get such an idea?

Students need to know that blogging or tweeting WILL NOT directly get them a training contract. How could it possibly do so? It is not something that is measurable or quantifiable, nor is it something that one can easily put on a CV. If you walk into an interview and are desperate to rely on the fact that you have X number of Twitter followers in order to land yourself a training contract, you might as well not be there. Not even people who are actually on Twitter would be impressed by that, never mind a partner in a big firm who believes it to be a timewasting enterprise only meant for narcissistic celebrities.

When the journalist repeats his mistaken belief that somehow it’s possible that anyone, let alone me, can obtain a city training contract just by their online activities, it encourages people to devote time into an area that simply will not pay dividends for them in the way they hope it will. Of course, there are auxiliary benefits to an online presence, such as the confidence that being taken seriously by the ever-expanding list of extremely impressive tweeters can give an applicant (as was the case with me), but saying that writing a blog is a route to a training contract is simply wrong. Repeating this claim to people who are looking for advice on what to do is actually irresponsible, as they will divert their time and energy away from building a CV that will be worthy of the offer they dream of.

Students – please do not place all of your eggs in the wrong basket. And magazines, Law Societies, newspapers – please do not repeat these claims.

And as for the journalist in question: stop writing this nonsense. You have been told countless times by numerous people, and I am telling you again. Your words are false. Your ‘spin’ is incorrect. You clearly do not understand trainee recruitment. I am flattered that you think that my blog is worthy of a training contract, but you are the only one who believes this to be the case. I am not even close to being the best exponent of this particular medium. When you write ridiculous paragraphs like this one:

But do these blogs actually get students training contracts and pupillages? To date, the only example I know of a student landing a job through their blog is Ashley Connick, a GDL student who, after failing in previous application rounds, built a re-vamped CV around his online writing activities – and netted a TC at a magic circle law firm. Surely, though, at a time when law firms are anxious to improve their engagement with blogging and tweeting – and bring in recruits with expertise in this area – there’ll be more Connick-style successes in the future.

you serve only to show yourself to be out of touch. Until you have seen my CV, you cannot allege that I have built it “around my online writing activities” – I did not. I hate to break it to you, but a “Connick-style” success is the same as anyone else’s success in this endeavour – one through the standard channels of city law firm recruitment.

Off-target: Do lawyers have a choice?

A few weeks ago, I spent 5 days (Monday-Friday) playing cricket away from London on a tour. In the bar after our final game of the week, I asked one of my teammates if he was going in to work the following day. He works for a US firm in London and he was fiddling with his work-issued BlackBerry at the time, so I figured it was reasonable to ask, especially given that he had been out of the office for a few days, whether there was anything that would need his attention before the start of the next working week.

“Go into the office on a Saturday?!” he replied, incredulously, “No way. I hardly ever work weekends. I might do one or two every few months, but very rarely.”

I was confused, and asked him about the targets his firm sets and how high they were. “They’re massive,” he said, “but I’d rather have a life than slog my guts out to hit those targets. If we don’t meet our targets, we don’t get a bonus. But as I said, I’d rather have my time than more money.”

I wondered if this was really the way law worked, before doing some research into the billable hour practises of the firm in question. Theirs is a system of staggered targets and a sliding bonus scale which renders each individual’s additional remuneration entirely unique to them. It’s a system that has had some mixed reviews, but offers lawyers the opportunity to make a decision – do they value time or money more highly.

I realise that law is not like a sales job, where targets are everything. In one of my periods of work experience I was fortunate enough to be part of a legal team defending an unfair dismissal claim in an employment tribunal. The claim was brought by a former employee of a business which was based solely around target attainment as a means of gauging performance, and I listened for two days whilst the representatives of the company explained how the claimant’s performance had been unsatisfactory. Law is clearly not an industry like that, but before having the conversation I recounted at the start of this piece, I was under the impression that targets were fairly important. Perhaps in most firms they are. I’d certainly be interested to hear whether individuals in other firms could make the same choice not to go for the top bonus level.

Recently, Tim Bratton blogged about the importance of taking a proper holiday and not just a ‘worliday’.  In his piece, he wrote the following:

Perhaps in twenty years’ time when the workplace is full of people who have known such technology since childhood they won’t see it as a tool which allows them to work whilst on holiday.  It might be that those of us who knew corporate life pre-Blackberry have got this all wrong.

Maybe taking a stand against high billable hours targets is another part of that evolution. Some people may have seen the Yale University Law School investigation entitled “The Truth About The Billable Hour”. It shows the time commitment required to bill 2200 hours per year. Do law firms read things like that and think, “maybe we should reduce our targets slightly”? Perhaps lawyers themselves need to take that stand before the firms will drop the target levels, if indeed they are too high.

The system implemented by the firm my friend works for may well prove to be a one-off amongst law firms. But then again, it may yet become the blueprint for remuneration. Yes, it’s nice to have some extra money and to be rewarded for hard work. But perhaps the decision to forego a bonus in favour of not working every weekend is one that more lawyers will be able to take in years to come.

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.

Flom-ergasted: Reflections On Sad News

I read a blogpost this week that was so moving that I had to write about it myself. The post comes from the Above The Law website, and tells of the untimely death of an associate at a US law firm from a heart attack. The associate in question was just 32 years old.

The post tells the cautionary tale of the pressure that associates can be placed under to fulfil their required ‘hours billed’ targets, and the high attrition rates this leads to. I advise everyone to read this post: In Re The Passing Of A Skadden Associate.

As a future law firm trainee, it is a story that sends chills down my spine. Yes it’s uncommon, yes I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for when I applied – I’ve seen the kinds of hours that members of my family and my friends spend at their offices – but it still shocks and saddens me.

The thought strikes me that the young woman in question was probably bristling with excitement when she found out she had passed the New York Bar exams and had secured a job at a top corporate law firm.

Now, that job she craved and dedicated her late-20s and early-30s to has contributed to the early ending of her life.

If anything good can come from this and the other stress-induced collapses that have occurred recently, it is that law firms may heed the lesson that the Above The Law article teaches. The poster writes:

…our team was addressed by the partner in charge of the case. He gave us the standard blah blah blah about taking care of ourselves and all that. But then he said (and I won’t forget this until the day I die): “You guys, you don’t have a thermostat. Nobody knows how far you can go before you blow.”

…[The partner was] reminding us that we ourselves don’t really know how much we can take, until maybe it’s too late.

It’s not a story that will affect me on a day-to-day basis, nor will it dissuade me from following the path that I have chosen. All who are applying for training contracts at the moment should already be aware that the life of a corporate lawyer can seem like a never-ending stream of hours, deadlines, instructions and meetings. That the pressure of work at some firms contributes to stress for the lawyer and those around them. That life as a solicitor is not a fairytale existence most of the time.

Writing for Guardian Law today, Alex Aldridge says that some firms have started to implement schemes designed to improve the balance between work and non-work in the lives of lawyers. But perhaps these have not gone far enough yet. There is a continuing trend of steady growth in the in-house legal sector in the UK at the moment, and an article published today on The Australian website shows that new graduates in the Land Down Under are shunning private practice in favour of working in-house. I know from my own work experience that the life of lawyers in private practice can be far more demanding in terms of control over hours and targets than it is in-house, although this can vary according to department, sector and seniority.

If this seems like a wistful blogpost, it is only because I read this story and could see a blank space for the name of both the lawyer and the firm, able to be filled by countless others across the world who work similar numbers of hours under similar amounts of pressure for similarly sustained periods of time. There is probably a degree of personal contribution to the stress levels, either by nature or diet or volunteering for extra work. But in general, any of the trainees who choose the corporate life could be leaving themselves open to an early demise.

It is a sobering thought for a 23-year-old prospective solicitor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duly noted – The journey to finding the right study method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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.

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.

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