I attended a law fair a few years ago and remember one friendly student who asked specific questions about the business. He starts his training contract with us in 2014.
As I’m a graduate recruiter and not a lawyer, I’d expect questions to be directly related to the application process, what we’re looking for and the culture of Shoosmiths. Law-related questions, and questions about the typical life as a trainee should be directed to the trainees and partners who attend.
We expect students to know a little about us before they come over. That might seem crazy because there are so many law firms there, and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Even if you’re not positive you want to work for a national firm, a much better approach would be to come over and say: ‘I’m thinking about working for a national firm, but I’m keeping my options open. What type of person do you look to recruit, and do you think I would fit in?’
Prepare a list of questions before you go to a law fair. You have the opportunity to interact directly with recruiters who will be assessing your application. You need to make a good impression.
Is it really true that you remember the good and bad candidates you meet at law fairs?
Yes, it absolutely is. I attended a law fair in Nottingham a few years ago and remember one student who was really friendly and asked specific questions about the business. He was at an open evening a few months later, recognised me, and made a concerted effort to speak to me. He attended further careers events and kept in touch with the firm via Twitter.
After completing a vacation scheme with us, hestarted his training contract at Shoosmiths in 2014. It’s a success story that really shows the importance of first impressions at careers events.
What information can a student get from a law fair that they can’t get from your website and brochure?
Law fairs are important because they give you the opportunity to get a feel for the firm and its culture. As much as we try to get this across in our literature, you’re never going to get a true feel for the people unless you go and talk to them. Hopefully, the students who come and talk to us leave thinking that we’re a friendly, approachable firm that they’d like to work for.
How do you manage the task of dealing with thousands of applications each year? How are applications assessed?
We receive around 2,000 applications every year for our 40 vacation scheme places, and 22 training contract vacancies. When looking at the applications, we assess candidates’ key qualities based on the firm’s values: pulling together, talking business sense, taking the initiative and being within reach and responsive.
We ask competency-based questions on our application form and look for people to show those qualities in their answer. When a candidate answers a question about teamwork, they will generally spot the skills that relate to this question; for example getting on with others and having a positive and encouraging attitude. We’re looking for people who not only demonstrate those skills but who also demonstrate other, less obvious qualities in their answers, such as commercial awareness.
We use a specific set of scoring criteria to assess applications, so we encourage candidates to treat the application like an exam and to build upon their answers with reasoning and evidence.
Do you read through every application in full?
We read applications that meet or are just below our minimum grade requirements of a 2.1 degree and AAB at A level – we will also look at applications where mitigating circumstances have been declared. We read in full every application that meets those criteria.
If in the first question you’ve made five spelling errors, that’s difficult to recover from.
We want consistently high achievers, so we look for somebody who can show that they’ve been dedicated to their studies and career over a long period.
A student who shows a positive improvement throughout their studies will be more highly regarded than those with three As at A level and only a 2.2 at degree
Other than law, what degree subjects are best for developing the transferable skills you need to be a lawyer?
We don’t have a preference of degree subject. We receive applications from students from many different disciplines – from straight law, law with business, history or psychology to geography. Traditionally, a history degree is regarded as being in sync with law because of the research skills you develop. But any degree gives you skills that you can use in a future career, and we relish in having trainees from a diverse range of subjects.
Ensuring our students do real work is an important part of the experience. They sit with a trainee, so if that trainee has a client meeting or tribunal to attend we’d get the student involved in those things. They literally live the life of a trainee for that week. We also set a mini-project that is non-legal and gives students a chance to showcase skills such as networking, research and presenting. For example, a previous project was around the Olympics. We asked the students to research sports law and how that could be developed within Shoosmiths.
Are you looking for future trainees during the vacation scheme?
Absolutely. A lot of our vacation scheme students will go on to the assessment centre: we recruit around 50% of our future trainees from the summer vacation scheme. I think students often look at vacation schemes as work experience where they can find out a bit about law and do something that looks good on their CV, but that’s not the way we view it. We see it as though they’re coming in for a long interview. We show-off Shoosmiths, and they should be out to impress us. Once we see students in a working environment it’s much easier to see how they would interact as a trainee.
We invite vacation scheme students to the assessment day based on their performance in the mini-project and the general observations of the team they’ve worked with.
How important is it to do a vacation placement? If someone applies and hasn’t done one, is that a problem?
If someone hasn’t done a vacation scheme with us it wouldn’t put us off. If somebody had done 15 vacation schemes and hadn’t been offered a training contract, that might put us off.
Any skills gained in other work experience, like a part-time job, are just as important as things learned on a week-long vacation scheme. In fact, those experiences may be even more impressive – if you’ve worked part-time for three years throughout university that shows commitment and longevity in a job. That’s much more important to us than whether you’ve done a vacation scheme.
Our assessment day has four key elements: a role play, which is similar to a client meeting; a group exercise, where candidates discuss information they’ve gained from the roleplay; a written exercise, in which candidates will have to use information they’ve been given throughout the day to create a persuasive written argument; and a competency-based interview.
How competitive should a candidate be throughout the assessment day?
We expect to see candidates working competently individually as well as together. It’s competitive, and everybody wants to show- off their best attributes, but candidates should remember to be respectful of others and not let their competitive side get the better of them.
You need to display motivation, encouragement of others, inclusiveness, note taking skills and the ability to move the group towards a decision. My advice is: speak – if you don’t say anything, you can’t be marked.
Let’s say that at the end of a group exercise you had to choose between four candidates: a wallflower, a geek, an entrepreneur and a leader. Who would your firm choose?
We screen people on academics at the initial application stage, so we already know that candidates are bright and academically able once they reach the assessment day. At the assessment day it’s more about looking for entrepreneurial and business sense – all our employees take a role in business development. For example, we’re holding a client open evening tonight in our Milton Keynes office, and our trainees are going to be there helping to meet and greet, and networking with clients. Everybody is responsible for business development. In that sense, we would choose entrepreneurial types over wallflowers – to be honest, I think most employers would.
Candidates are often surprised that our partners assess all the exercises at our assessment days, rather than purely HR people. It’s strange to think that a student might not get any partner interaction when they visit a firm when, presumably, that’s part of their career aspiration.