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

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
%d bloggers like this: