Heard the one about the student at an interview for university who set fire to the tutor’s newspaper when told to entertain him? Or the trainee who put down “sword swallowing” as his hobby? (He wasn’t asked to demonstrate but got the job anyway. And yes - he really did swallow swords.)
There are dozens of stories out there about what successful applicants had to do to get the job. But what’s the reality? How do you get that elusive training contract or work-experience. We spoke to a number of lawyers and law teachers to ask them what their advice would be.
“If I could give one tip to anyone going for an interview it would be to avoid coming across as arrogant or over confident . Firms want to see someone who is grounded, confident but also emotionally intelligent. Just because you have got good grades and go to a great university does not mean you are entitled to the job,” says Tim Newcome, second year trainee at Langleys. “Firms want to see that you will be able to get on with people – the clients, obviously, but also the people you are going to be working with in the firm.”
“Agreed,” says Sean Ferguson an associate in the Corporate Tax Department at Berwin Leighton Paisner. “It’s also important that you show you can communicate well and that you have a good sense of what is going on in the world around you. Students worry a lot about not having “commercial awareness”. But actually it doesn’t take a lot to show an interest in business – just check out the business pages in the newspapers now and again. After all it would be pretty weird if someone came to an interview at BLP and couldn’t talk a bit about the Eurozone crisis – its everywhere!”
Partner at Emsleys and Deputy District Judge Andrew Greenwood reinforces the message about demonstrating communication skills. “Applicants often think that you have to talk differently to a business client compared to, say, a personal injury client. But in reality there’s very little difference. A manager in a big corporation wants the law to be explained simply in just the same way as your claimant client does. So don’t try to bamboozle people with your knowledge of terminology. Just keep it simple.”
“Attention to detail would be my tip” says Steve Levett, Head of Business Development at the College of Law and former Government lawyer. “Whether you are applying for a vacation scheme, a university place or a pupillage with a set of chambers, you want to be a lawyer, and lawyers are alert to bad grammar, poor spelling and a lack of clarity of expression. Use short sentences in your written application. Get someone else to read it to see if they understand what you mean. Check your spelling two or three times, but do it yourself – don’t rely on Spellcheck.”
“Another top tip would be to treat each application as unique. Research the firm. Find out if they have been in the news recently. Make sure you address the criteria they say they want. And above all, don’t cut and paste! You would be amazed at how often students cut and paste into their application forms. I have seen application forms to a Top 10 US law firm where the student has got the name of the firm wrong because they have cut and pasted from a form they used before. It’s so obvious, it sticks out a mile.”
“A lot of my students worry that they don’t have any relevant legal work experience when they apply for a vacation scheme or a training contract” points out Professor Stuart Bell, Head of the School of Law at York University. “But actually often it’s not about how much legal work experience you have. It’s more about being able to articulate whatever work experience you do have in a way which shows that you have the sorts of skills and competencies that the law firm you are applying to says it is looking for. You might think you “only” worked in a bar, but can you think of how that shows you are a team player? Or can you give examples of how you gave great customer service? Does it show you are organized and can meet deadlines? “And, of course, if you haven’t got legal work experience there is nothing to stop you going to your local courts and watching cases. You would be amazed at how much you can pick up just from this.”
So what have we learned from these comments? All in all it seems the advice is be yourself, keep it simple, match your skills and experience with what the law firm says it wants, and make sure your application really is targeted uniquely at the firm you are applying to.