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Partner at law firm gives graduates careers advice

Five minutes with… Ben Wilkinson, partner at White & Case LLP

We asked Ben Wilkinson, partner at White & Case LLP, for the lessons he's learned in his 15-year legal career and his top tips for getting a training contract.

Interviewers are impressed by candidates who can clearly explain what it is that attracts them to that particular firm and why they are a good fit.

What made you choose to go qualify as a solicitor?

Since my early teenage years, I’d wanted to go into the legal profession. The genesis was certainly from reading the Rumpole series of novels by John Mortimer. I shadowed a judge and spent a couple of weeks doing a mini-pupillage, mostly spending time at the local Crown Court. The job seemed to combine the fun of public speaking, the satisfaction of problem solving and the intrigue of crime.

What motivated you to train as a solicitor rather than qualify as a barrister?

The lure of the Bar wore off during the second year of my law degree, as it became apparent that the odds were stacked against getting a pupillage. Given this, my tutor gave me a good piece of advice: ‘Only go for the Bar if you are prepared for those odds and for the financial costs.’ Meanwhile, City law firms were courting students with promises of paying law school fees and an allowance, and what seemed to be fantastic starting salaries.

How did you choose your training contract?

To research the role of a solicitor in the City, I also undertook a two-week summer scheme placement at Gouldens (now Jones Day), which I massively enjoyed. I then interviewed at a few firms, but White & Case was the one that stood out to me as the most international and the one that gave trainee solicitors the most responsibility at an early stage.

You mentioned research – how important is it to research your legal career options before applying for a training contract?

Well, the biggest change for students since I applied in 2000 is the huge amount of information that’s available online now. Every firm has a detailed recruitment section on its website, plus masses of data about the deals and cases it’s been involved in. There is really no excuse for any candidate to be unprepared and uninformed about the firm at interview.

Demonstrate the steps you’ve taken to gain insight into a legal career and the different types of law firm out there: open days, vacation schemes and graduate recruitment events at university. These all give you experience for your CV and application forms.

Aspiring solicitors often want to know how they can stand out in law interviews. What is your top interview tip?

I’ve been involved in graduate recruitment for most of my career. One of the things that can sway an interviewer is someone who can very clearly explain what it is that attracts them to that particular firm, and why they are a good fit.

Be enthusiastic and interested. It might sound obvious but, whether you’re at interview or you’ve got your training contract and are setting off on your career, the right attitude will get you noticed. It’s arguably the most important factor in determining how you’re perceived by those who are potentially recruiting or supervising you.

What advice would you give future commercial lawyers? How vital is commercial awareness?

Have a good understanding of the commercial world if you’re applying to a City firm that tends to do commercial work. This doesn’t mean you need to have studied economics or business, but you should have an interest in business, finance and the wider world – it can be as easy as reading the Financial Times or the business pages of another broadsheet. You’ll be well prepared for any topical questions at interviews, and will be able to develop your understanding of the broader context of the deals or cases you’ll be working on.

Do you have any advice about getting the most out of legal work experience? 

Don’t feel like you have to go crazy to get noticed at open days or vacation schemes – just be yourself, ask questions and absorb as much as you can.

Ben Wilkinson is a partner at White & Case LLP. He graduated with a degree in law from Oxford University in 2001.

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