What skills do law firms look for when recruiting graduates for trainee solicitor jobs?
Read the TARGETjobs employer hubs and you’ll notice that some law firms have specific competencies that they are looking for in their future trainees, such as creativity, enthusiasm and determination. But some skills are required by all commercial law firms, such as teamworking and commercial awareness. The key is to research the law firm well, and know what graduate recruiters are looking for in aspiring lawyers and future partners.
Hammad Akhtar, graduate recruitment and corporate partner at Ashurst LLP told The Guardian UK 300: 'Students thinking of pursuing a career as a solicitor in City law need the core skills: technical legal ability, commercial instinct and analytical ability. They also need communication and team working skills because it’s a service environment that involves a lot of contact with clients, colleagues and other professionals. Team work is important because the type of work that we tend to do is so big in scale and complexity that you’re unlikely to be working on a project by yourself. Lastly they need motivation, determination and drive. City law is massively rewarding, but in your early years you’re constantly stretched (intellectually and otherwise). I found this hugely appealing, as many people do, but it can be a challenge.'
The key skills and attributes graduate recruiters look for in future lawyers
‘Fundamentally, when working on a transaction, you need to connect with clients and lawyers on the other side of the table as well as the rest of your team. Your client could come from anywhere – you could be in the boardroom with established grandees of the City or budding entrepreneurs from a tech company in San Francisco. You have to inspire confidence in people so they can trust your advice.’ points out Vica Irani, corporate partner at Jones Day.
Commercial awareness, also known as commercial acumen or commercial sense
Law firms look for candidates who have a genuine interest in how businesses work and how this may affect the clients you will be working with. They will want to see evidence of your sense of the big picture so be prepared by keeping up to date with relevant news stories in the business world and expect to be asked your views at interview stage. When a big news story hits the headlines, ask yourself how this may affect the law firm in question. Also, check a firm’s website for press releases on recent transactions completed.
‘Gone are the days when being a lawyer was simply about providing fine legal advice to clients. Today’s lawyers have to be business-orientated individuals who understand that the firm they are working for are looking to make an annual profit/turnover and the clients they are working for are looking for financially beneficial solutions. Aspiring trainee solicitors should have it very clear in their mind that it is of paramount importance that they have an awareness of commerciality when working on cases and transactions,' says Anup Vithlani, graduate recruitment and development manager at Trowers & Hamlins LLP.
Stamina, energy and resilience
‘The lawyers who do best at work are those who sacrifice themselves a bit; it’s the nature of the job to work long hours and do whatever is necessary to meet client deadlines. It’s the energetic and the willing who go furthest,’ says Simon Levine, global practice group leader (intellectual property and technology group) at DLA Piper. Follow the advice of a trainee solicitor surveyed in the TARGETjobs Law Recent Graduate Survey: ‘Develop your personal life. Academic achievement is a given, but your soft skills set you apart. Do something outside law: get a job, join a choir, participate in a team – show that you have the motivation to do more than just study (but that you can maintain high academic standards at the same time). Everyone at my firm is proactive and involved in something.’
'It is important to respond to stress in a productive way. Also, learn to rely on the resources available as that will make life easier and ultimately less stressful,' a second-year trainee at Norton Rose Fulbright told TARGETjobs Inside Buzz.
‘It’s important to have faith in your own abilities and to keep going. While being sensitive and being able to relate to your peers and colleagues are important attributes, ultimately it’s important to strike a balance between being empathetic and having a thick skin,’ says Jonathan Moss, head of the transport sector at DWF LLP
Knowing your limits
‘I like trainees who can tell me what they are thinking, but more importantly recognise when they don’t have all of the answers. Being brave enough to say you don’t know – instead of being tempted to over-state something – is an important skill in a junior lawyer,’ states Jane Childs, partner at Mayer Brown International LLP
‘Things don’t always go as planned, particularly on larger deals where numerous people are involved. A good trainee will react to unexpected events in a calm and proactive manner,' reflects Guy Ruddy, solicitor at DWF LLP. 'Interviewers will invariably ask why you think you would be a good trainee and giving an example of when you have been able to adapt to a changeable, and potentially stressful, situation can impress recruiters.’
‘As a trainee supervisor, I encourage trainees to treat every task with the same degree of commitment, because it is all part of a greater whole. The trainees who understand this concept and assume responsibility for their contribution to the team are the ones that tend to get more work and yet more responsibility,' Mandip Sagoo, partner at Mayer Brown International LLP told us when we interviewed him for TARGETjobs Law.
Good communication skills...
Communication skills – both oral and written – are important to any successful solicitor, and it is up to you to demonstrate this at all stages of the application process. On the application itself give clear and concise answers to the questions. At the assessment day/interview stage answer further questions in an unambiguous and succinct manner. 'Trainees can expect daily interactions with numerous different colleagues and clients on the phone, in person or via email so the ability to adapt their communication style is vital,' explains Puneet Tahim, senior graduate recruiting coordinator at Latham & Watkins. 'They will receive instruction from various people on a wide range of topics therefore their ability to listen effectively is also crucial to their success – as is their ability to interpret and summarise large volumes of complex information. They are expected to develop these skills as they progress through their career and take on greater managerial responsibility.'
...particularly with clients
Graduate recruiters look for candidates with the potential to work well with their clients. ‘Although my grades were not the strongest of the candidates, I was able to show that I was a well-rounded individual with strong interpersonal skills and commercial awareness,’ says Luke Hurren, solicitor at Mills & Reeve LLP. ‘That’s not to say that academic ability is not important but being able to show an ability to communicate and work with people is also relevant. Being able to understand your clients’ needs and communicate with them in a way that they appreciate is crucial. The ability to adjust your tone as necessary in written and verbal correspondence is therefore very useful.’
James Burns, senior partner at Clyde & Co, backed this up when he told TARGETjobs Law: ‘Being a successful lawyer is as much about being a good business person as it is about understanding the law, and building good, strong personal relationships is a vital part of being successful in business. My advice is to get as close as you possibly can to your clients and understand their business – it helps you to become a better lawyer. One of the things that really shaped my early career was going on a client secondment for nine months.’ Kate Macnab, criminal solicitor and director at Cartwright King, told TARGETjobs Law: 'Criminal work usully involves lots of client contact, for example, visiting prisons and police stations, and attending conferences with counsel (ie barristers). The ability to help and identify with others is important in this field.’
'At the start of your career in City law, the focus is on being a good lawyer,' Hammad Akhtar, graduate recruitment and corporate partner at Ashurst LLP told The Guardian UK 300. 'As you progress, you understand that being a good lawyer is clearly essential, but you learn that law is a business. At partner level it’s about developing and maintaining relationships with clients and potential clients and I find that deeply rewarding.'
An entrepreneurial instinct
Cathy Bell-Walker, finance partner and global board member at Allen & Overy, advises training contract candidates to be business minded: ‘Be on the lookout for opportunities and not necessarily opportunities that someone makes for you. While you’re a student, look for business opportunities. Be entrepreneurial. Linked to this is common sense. It’s not easy to learn it unless you have seen it – remember to ask why a decision was made, not just take the instruction without understanding the motivation.’
Attention to detail
Trainee solicitors need a good eye for detail to be able to communicate effectively on paper with both colleagues and clients, advises the graduate recruitment officer at DLA Piper. ‘Attention to detail is part of providing a good quality service. Clients will form opinions about lawyers and the firms they work for based on the quality of work and communication. Errors in documents, emails, etc, create a negative impression. In addition, a good eye for detail is important within the sector, as what may appear to be minor mistakes can affect the meaning of contracts and clauses.’
One of the skills that recruiters test when screening applications and at interview is a candidate’s spelling, punctuation and grammar. An application for a vacation placement or training contract littered with mistakes is an immediate turn-off and may not be considered because of this.
The ability to work in a team...
Working as part of a team is a crucial skill for successful lawyers. Demonstrating your ability as a team player is important in securing a training contract. At interview you should draw from examples that show your contribution to a team and how you deal effectively with others, whether it be as secretary of your university law society, playing on a university sports team, or a team project undertaken for your degree. 'We ask competency-based questions on our application form and look for people to show those qualities in their answers,' explains Samantha Hope, graduate recruitment manager at Shoosmiths. ‘When answering a question about teamwork, candidates 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.'
...and to lead a team
‘Solicitors in my field need the leadership skills to hold the attention of different parties (shareholders, creditors, directors) with competing priorities,’ points out Richard Hodgson, insolvency partner at Linklaters LLP.
All recruiters all looking for a commitment to a career in law; they want to see that you've taken steps to check that this career path is right for you – that your decisions are based on something concrete (eg time spent within a law firm) not on something spurious (being an avid fan of Law & Order).
There's no getting around it – law is an intellectually demanding profession and recruiters want to see evidence of your intellectual ability before taking your application further.
What makes a good high street solicitor?
High street firms will have a slightly different list of key competencies to large, commercial law firms – it comes down to the different type of work and clients. Smaller, local firms tend to have a strong family law, private client, personal injury, crime and conveyancing practice at the heart of their business, and need to recruit trainees with good people skills, advocacy skills and a willingness to undertake early responsibility. ‘The best aspect of family law is the opportunity to interact closely with clients – clients can be working with you for up to two years – so the ability to relate to people is essential,’ says Michelle Mann, partner, Field Seymour Parkes. Long working hours are not exclusive to corporate law, as Kate Macnab points out: ‘Lawyers working in criminal law have to be available out of hours, which can sometimes make maintaining a work/life balance challenging. You have to be prepared to keep your telephone on and you might need to attend an interview at a police station at short notice during unsociable hours. While some days might not be very busy, on others you might be preparing trials at the office into the evening.’