Earlier this month, seven leading members of the legal profession gathered at the Google Campus to share their wisdom with a roomful of law students. The Future Lawyers Network team went along to view the action and report on the best career tips divulged by Matrix Chambers human rights barrister Matthew Ryder QC, phone hacking lawyer Mark Lewis, Riverview Law Director of Operations Jeremy Hopkins, Brecher Managing Partner Nicky Richmond, Hardwicke Building's PJ Kirby QC, 11KBW's Sean Jones QC and Norton Rose Fulbright partner Nigel Hewitson.
One of the main themes of the evening was how lucky the speakers felt to have graduated at a time when fewer people had degrees, and competition to enter the legal profession was less intense. Both Lewis and Kirby confessed that they had only got 2:2s at university, and wondered if they would be able to secure training contracts and pupillages today.
‘Times are very different,’ said Lewis. ‘I got a 2:2 from Middlesex Poly where I was actually paid to study [via a government grant].’ Who knows what would happen if he graduated today, Lewis added. What the high profile media lawyer didn't regard as having changed was the importance of staying true to your beliefs and passions. ‘If you want to do something, keep on trying,’ he said, before telling the story of how he quit his previous firm in order to pursue the phone hacking cases, going on to win acclaim for his representation of the Dowler family.
Hardwicke Silk Kirby, meanwhile, told the audience how his law graduate daughter – who has ‘ten times better academics’ than him – is struggling to get a training contract. His advice to her – and others in her position – is to be flexible. ‘OK, you haven't got into that dream City firm, and you are instead in a firm on Balham High Street. But actually you've qualified. You can then move on. Don't give up your ambitions, but be flexible.’
On the topic of academic performance, it was agreed that other aspects of an application – such as extracurricular activities and past experiences – are probably more important than ever to firms and chambers as they seek to differentiate between applicants. Reading between the lines, what they're really looking for is well-rounded people. Speaking candidly, Richmond admitted to being ‘a bit worried’ if an applicant's academics ‘are too good’ because it suggests that they ‘may be a bit geeky and not practical’. The leading property lawyer continued: ‘Our work is very commercial day-to-day, not esoteric. So we need people who reflect that’. One thing that Richmond wasn't prepared to overlook, though, was a lack of attention to detail. ‘When I receive an application that says 'Hello Mr Nicky Richmond' it goes straight in the bin,’ she said, prompting a ripple of laughter from the 80 law students in attendance.
Hewitson had a similar take, explaining that his firm, Norton Rose Fulbright, placed as much emphasis on interesting previous experiences as on academics. He commented: ’For the first time this year we have recruited more non-law graduates than law graduates. They tend to have done something else first, which often makes you a better lawyer.’
Riverview's Hopkins, who believes that the legal profession has suffered from a long-running ‘fail’ in its ability to recruit at entry level, is relieved to see law firms ‘finally getting it’ in terms of recruitment. He explained: ‘Historically law firms have recruited on an identikit career template that you must follow. This often shows a real lack of imagination and recruitment expertise within the organisation, with previous experiences tending to be undervalued. Thankfully that seems to be changing.’
In this environment of greater open-mindedness, what all the speakers agreed on was the need for future lawyers to show firms and chambers that they are authentic in their motivations for becoming lawyers. For Matrix's Ryder – who has recently been representing journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda in his challenge of his detention under the Terrorism Act – this means appreciating a legal career for what it is. Too many hopefuls fail to do this, Ryder suggested, confusing the law with TV drama generated stereotypes that actually have little in common with the reality of legal life. In particular, Ryder warned students to beware of competitive sports and acting analogies.
‘The way we conceptualise what it is to be an advocate is by and large a bit wrong,’ he said, adding that the two most common stereotypes – the competitive sports analogy and the performance analogy – are ‘dangerous and unhelpful ‘.
Treating advocacy like it's simply ‘you versus the other person can steer you in the wrong direction’, while approaching it as if it were a performance means ‘you think of yourself in the spotlight when in reality you should put arguments centre stage’. As Ryder put it in a recent Legal Cheek article: ‘What judges and juries want from an advocate is not showmanship but help. What is the right answer? And which of these lawyers is going to help us get there?’
Of course, in advocacy, just as in applying for jobs, a little humour can help too. Indeed, those gifted in the comedy department can – if sufficiently skilful – use wit to dress up otherwise fairly unremarkable past experiences during interviews. 11 KBW employment Silk Jones shared this story from his days as a wannabe barrister trying to get a foot in the door of chambers. ‘On my CV I put life saving appliances tester. They said, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'I tested life jackets.' They said, 'What did that involve?'. I said, 'Jumping in and out of swimming pools'. They said 'Wow! How long did you do that for?' I said, 'An afternoon.'‘
The moral of the story? ‘Avoid the X-Factor application form where you claim to have dreamed since childhood of being a tax lawyer,’ added Jones, who conceded, like the other panellists, that there is no dream ticket to landing a graduate law job.
As event host (and Bircham Dyson Bell solicitor) Kevin Poulter put it: ‘It's all about getting that delicate balance right’.