“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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