Junior Lawyers forum – helping you secure a training position

Article by Jennifer Barnett

On Saturday 17th October the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) of the Law Society put on an all day event to give advice to aspiring solicitors so I thought I’d head down. The event program detailed a variety of different talks from trainees, associates, members of the JLD committee and a recruiter. With the pressure of obtaining a training contract in a highly competitive market, I was looking forward to getting some extra insight into the process.

Jennifer Barnett

Jennifer Barnett

After arriving at 10 am for tea and coffee, we descended into the ornate Law Society dining room for our first talk, Introduction and overview of the legal market by Charlotte Parkinson, student representative for JLD. This talk put the fear of God into all attendees, as she first mentioned the increasing number of law graduates in England against the decreasing number of training contracts on offer. She elucidated concerns with the Legal Practice Course (LPC); some have criticized this solicitors’ training course for failing to get students ready for the working environment, and saying that students finish with a lack of “commercial awareness”. I was eager for the afternoon talk on commercial awareness to shed more light onto this issue. Another concern raised was the “carrot and stick” tactic of offering paralegal positions to aspiring solicitors with the vague promise of a training contract, which never materializes. She emphasized that more and more firms employ full-time paralegals to reduce costs, and have no desire or ability to give them training contracts.

After being a little shell-shocked by this talk, we were greeted by three trainees who talked about how they secured their training contract. Tamasin Dorosti, who had a 2.1 for her LLB, undertook the LPC part-time and built up her work experience through work with the National Probation Service for one year, and a position on the JLD committee as well as commercial paralegal work. She was keen to assert that when applying for training contracts, strategy is key. Hone your search down to a “type” of firm i.e. size, practice area, location and keep a chart of your applications. She said it was always important to go for quality over quantity. She had to endure numerous assessment centres before gaining a training contract, but said that it is good to view this as a learning experience and not to take knock backs personally. She also said that finding a mentor in the legal professional could prove invaluable.

Next was Ashan Mian, a trainee with Stewarts Law, and his story was a little different. He went into law after a fairly long career in television developing documentaries for the BBC, ITV and C4. He knew that his age (mid thirties) would be unattractive to some firms; the average age of those entered onto the Roll in 2012-2013 was 29.4 years. He said a previous career could be useful, particularly in showing “commercial awareness”, which he simply described as an ability to have an adult conversation about the work of a firm and its clients. However, he said it is important to be realistic and filter your applications – look at the average age and background of the firm’s current trainees and consider whether you fit their mold. In reality, many firms have a preference when it comes to trainees’ backgrounds. Once you have found firms that you think are suitable, don’t undersell yourself and make sure to explain any previous non-legal work in enough detail to demonstrate your key transferrable skills.

Finally we heard from Tom Quincey, an associate with Baker and McKenzie LLP. He told us to find something that you are genuinely passionate about within the firm you apply for, and feel ready to back up everything that is on your CV. You should know at least three big current stories to do with the firm, and focus on one department you are interested in rather than a scatter-gun approach. In particularly, he said to research your interviewers beforehand and try to work in a little flattery! Again he was keen to say that knock backs are normal and all part of the journey.

The next talk was the one I was most interested in; Commercial awareness: what is it and how do I get it? Tom Capel, an associate with Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, helped clear up exactly what firms mean when they use this stock phrase. It does not entail trying to become an economist or memorize the Financial Times. What it means is that you should be able to apply what is happening in the world to the legal needs of clients. This involves a) practical, commercial advice for clients and b) spotting business opportunities. Key questions should include – is the market diminishing or expanding? How does the news impact the deal you are looking at? Think about where the clients need you to be. For the firm’s sectors, are there opportunities to get involved with emerging markets or industries? Of course, reading the Economist or the FT is great, but it’s all about application.

After a break for refreshments, we had a quick presentation on social media by Hekim Hannan, from Irvings Solicitors. He began by stating what hopefully most of us already knew; be careful what you post online. Firms do engage with social media, so follow the ones you are interested in on Twitter or Facebook. Twitter is important because it is quite often the place where news breaks first. Networking is also important, and it is good to follow up a meeting as quickly as possible with an email and/or Linkedin invitation. For aspiring solicitors, having a fair bit of detail on your Linkedin profile is a great idea. He also said that you do not want to end up on Legal Cheek!

One means of qualification that I had never looked at before is Qualifying by equivalent means: and alternative route. This presentation was made by Charlotte Parkinson and committee chair for JLD Max Harris. This is a new means of qualification set up by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). In order to be successful, you have to prove that the work you have done in the legal profession is the equivalent to a training contract. This involves an extremely long and detailed form, which costs a steep £600 to submit. It is important, if you are going to undertake this method, to treat it as a working document – every time you complete equivalent work, keep a record so that you do not forget. In theory, this route means long-term paralegals have a chance to become fully qualified. However, the presenters warned that this process is still in its infancy and it is difficult to tell how many firms would be happy to accept solicitors who have gone down this route.

Our last talk was a big one, named Preparing for assessment centres and video interviews by Sue Lenowski, HR resourcing and L&D consultant specializing in the legal sector. She understands that firms are becoming increasingly cagey about sharing their assessment activities, but the assessments have been shown to be the most effective way of obtaining suitable candidates for the job. She first talked about presentations, giving the following tips:

Treat the recruiters with professionalism – be formal with them
Don’t rush -make sure your presentation fits within the time limit
Practice!
Remember that the content of the presentation is even more important than delivery
Don’t rely too much on note cards – make eye contact with everyone on the panel
Film yourself and critique your own style.

She also reassured us by saying that recruiters will make allowances for nerves as this is completely normal.

In terms of general interview technique, she gave the following advice:

Think about some personal information such as favourite film/animal/book and why
Consider your biggest achievement, your biggest challenge to date and so forth
Ask fellow students what kind of questions they have been asked at interviews
Avoid humour – it’s too personal; if in doubt, play it safe
Be polite and inclusive with everyone you meet on the assessment day
The receptionist’s impression of you counts – be careful what you say in the toilet!
Wear something smart but comfortable – if what you are wearing doesn’t fit properly or hasn’t been worn in, it will show.

Group exercises, Sue explained, are somewhat “dodgy” but often used, despite the opportunity for some aggressive or obnoxious behavior by candidates. These exercises require you to:

Speak up – but don’t talk over others, and allow everyone a chance to contribute
Work to arrive at an appropriate solution, not hog all the attention
If one candidate is being too loud, repeat their name to them until they are quiet
Watch your body language including your hands and feet – little gestures can reveal a lot.

She also explained that written exercises require you not to ramble or be verbose, but plan your time well and give concise answers. Obviously, grammatical mistakes will not be well received.

Finally she discussed the new craze for video interviews. This involves questions appearing on your home computer screen. You will be given a short time to read and consider the questions, and then a minute or two to answer. There is no human interaction i.e. you cannot see who is watching you. To prepare for these:

Dress for a normal interview and make sure no one will disturb you
Consider what is shown in the background of your screen
Prepare answers to a mix of firm specific questions e.g. why this firm? Why are we “innovative”?
Prepare competency questions such as examples of teamwork, a time you overcame an obstacle, and job questions such as what you think a typical day for a trainee would be
Remember that whilst you can prepare beforehand, answer the questions in front of you on the day – there will not be time to make or read notes
Don’t forget to smile and look at the camera.

After this plethora of information, I was extremely glad I made the trek to Chancery Lane on a Saturday. The day gave me a clearer picture of the process and also the challenges I face. It was oddly encouraging to hear from people who had spent years pursuing their goal and were successful in the end; the training contract process will, for many, involve a lot of time and effort. After the talks there was time to chat with the speakers and fellow attendees over drinks. There were some lovely people at the event and a sense of camaraderie over the competitive career we had all decided to pursue. I would highly recommend that any aspiring solicitor attend events like this one; they are a great way to gain a better understanding of what you will actually need to do to gain that elusive training contract.

Many thanks to Jennifer Barnett, current City Law School LPC student, for this great insight into the JLD event.

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