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Set for Success: Postgraduate employability tips

We caught up with John Watkins, ULaw’s Employability Director, who shared his top employability tips for postgraduate students.

By Editorial Team. Published 20 August 2021. Last updated 21 October 2021.

When you are looking for the ideal job opportunity, it’s important to ‘put yourself in the shoes’ of the employer. There will be common ground for all roles – employers want people who communicate well, operate effectively in teams, can handle a mix of clients and solve problems when they come up.

However, there will be some slightly more nuanced qualities that reflect the client base, geographical location, size and structure of the firm/business you are applying to. In the context of 2021, there is also the employer strategy in terms of remote/office working which will influence where you can apply to, perhaps broadening the geographical area, and the skills you will need to evidence in the recruitment process.

There is huge emphasis on securing a job for law postgraduates, and this is completely understood within the field. However, once in the workplace there are multiple decades ahead – the future is as critical as the present. Thus, new employees need to impress from day one to ensure that they secure the best opportunities and put themselves in a position to progress well.

ULaw is consciously offering higher level skills insights to equip students with the future skills they will need – management and leadership, dealing with conflict, navigating office politics, developing business profitably.

While these may appear to be less vital in the initial recruitment process, candidates can stand out if they can demonstrate awareness of such skills and some early development of them.

Any CV needs to be authentic and targeted towards the role for which it is being submitted. In the commercial sector any relevant experience will be useful to evidence that a candidate has more than just an interest – they have tried it and like it. Any work experience should have a commercial context and demonstration that the individual understands how their role added value will evidence a commercial acumen.

Hobbies and interests can also bring alive an attitude of looking at things with a commercial eye. It is about drawing out the commercial aspects eg. sports can be approached with a view to growing numbers at a club as much as the teamwork and leadership aspects.

In terms of seeking pupillage, while there are similarities across Chambers there are also cultural-fit elements which pupillage applicants should consider in advance, when determining where to a apply and then hoe to evidence this through submissions and interviews. Clearly, the relevant legal areas need to be explored and evidence provided of suitability and commitment.

Participation in pro bono schemes is widely encouraged to help enhance and strengthen CVs and every opportunity to engage in public speaking should be taken.

The pandemic has brought no change in the desire to secure talent. This continues to be through early identification and job offers, so current students are still very competitive. However, many firms are also valuing those who have gathered some work experience post university, indicating a shift towards those who have completed their studies. Given the economic uncertainty, some employers have held back on recruitment and are now looking at ‘immediate starts.’ So being ready for swift submission of applications (well ahead of deadline) is advisable.

Use your understanding of the employer and what they are looking for when gauging how to present at interview. You need to show that you will fit in. Essentially, though, in a professional environment you should exhibit professionalism very strongly. The language used, the understanding of the adviser/client relationship, appreciation of ethical and other standards expected are all key.

As a graduate or postgraduate, you clearly can’t go back and change what you did or didn’t do. However, you can reflect using an the ‘in the shoes of the employer’ context. This could be in the form of a skills audit, looking at where you might have had the opportunity to use or develop skills. It might also identify gaps or shortfalls. With the added maturity of a postgraduate and a determination to drive current behaviours in line with future ambitions, you will impress employers by showing self-awareness and a commitment to improvement.

Many skills desired by employers are transferable. Any form of work is likely to allow evidence of client/customer interaction, dealing with diverse and sometimes difficult people, working in a team, meeting deadlines, problem solving etc. Draw these out and show how they would apply in a legal workplace. At the same time look to enhance the legal experience – there are a multitude of virtual engagement opportunities even if in-person might be limited. Put yourself forward for pro-bono opportunities too.

The pandemic has had a wide-ranging impact and that means that many areas of law have the opportunity to prosper. Some businesses are collapsing, some are expanding, Brexit remains a factor. House sales have been at record levels, relationships have been put under intense pressure and wherever there is a crisis and government money there are criminals looking to exploit it.

Many candidates present with good academics, some work experience and a range of other activities, interests and hobbies which develop skills.

Ask yourself the question ‘Why would they employ me rather than someone else?’ Look for your differentiating qualities. If you don’t find any then seek them out. It may be language skills (cultural as well as communication benefits), IT proficiency (beyond the basic Microsoft packages), a diploma in body-language (even more important on a screen) etc.

Turn to your university for their added-value opportunities. ULaw offers the ULaw Virtual Leadership Experience and regular Commercial Awareness Challenges which take students beyond the standard fare and allows something distinctive to be added to the CV.

Authenticity is important, particularly in a world which is heavily focussed on diversity - recruiting a diverse workforce is a number one priority for the Top 100 employers. Interviewers will often reflect ‘have we seen the real person or something of a performance?’ The latter presents a risk so the advice is be yourself – the best version. It is worth noting that cultures are changing. Black Lives Matter, Me-too, Everyone’s invited plus Covid-19 are impacting on how businesses and individuals view the world and, collectively, they provide a great opportunity for fundamental and brisk change.


For more information on how ULaw’s Employability Service can help you, please visit us here.