Five minutes with... Joanna Black, legal recruitment advisor at Ince & Co
Because Ince & Co’s practice areas are relatively niche, it’s usually obvious from a candidate’s application whether they genuinely want to work for us. Researching the firm is important – if you haven’t had any experience of the sort of work we’re involved in you should read up on those areas and any relevant cases that have grabbed your attention. This shows you’ve taken an interest and gives you something extra to talk about at interview. Research and enthusiasm is important: sell yourself and be confident when talking about your background and interests.
After a day of training contract interviews, you have a choice of four candidates: a wallflower, an entrepreneur, a geek and a leader. You can only pick one. Who do you choose?
I like the sound of the geek. To me, a geek is someone who’s passionate about a particular area, focused, hard-working and a bit of an academic; these are all positive attributes that suit Ince & Co’s ‘expert in our field’ reputation. Our lawyers are often required to look for new ways to apply legal strategies, so entrepreneurial types, with their innovative ideas and creative ways of approaching matters, could also do well here.
Is it possible to be over-confident in an interview?
The danger with displaying confidence is that it can be misinterpreted as arrogance; it’s a fine line and something interviewees should be cautious of. To help us distinguish between the two, we look at things such as body language and the way you interact with your interviewers.
Be receptive: engage with your interviewers and listen to everything they’re saying. While standing by your point during the discussion exercise can be a good thing, it’s also important that you take on board any additional information that you’re given. The exercise can be intense but it’s important to be calm, measured and reasonable.
Do you ever get questions at interviews that leave a bad impression?
At the end of one interview, a candidate asked the partner and I for feedback on their application and interview. While we appreciate that feedback is important, it’s not really appropriate to ask for it during your interview. We’re always happy to provide feedback after a decision has been made at any stage in the process: they just need to contact us and ask.
What questions impress you and the partner at the end of the interview?
We let candidates know in advance which partner will be interviewing them so it’s worth doing a bit of research into their practice in order to ask some more insightful questions. I think this shows initiative and that the candidate has really thought about what they want to get out of the meeting.
We generally recruit an equal number of law and non-law graduates so it’s definitely not a disadvantage if you haven’t studied law before. Sometimes what non-law students may lack in legal knowledge they make up for in having spent their degree analysing texts, becoming fluent in a foreign language or working with complex mathematical or scientific problems. All of these backgrounds are transferable to a career as a lawyer, particularly at an international firm with quite technical practice areas, such as Ince & Co.
Language abilities are useful for us because we’re an international law firm. We don’t require candidates to have a degree in a foreign language, but some language background can certainly be useful. The languages of our international offices and any that are significant to the industries we’re involved in are most beneficial; Greek, Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Russian are all particularly attractive for us at present.
A level grades: What’s your view on the importance of A level grades versus a good degree grade?
Our literature says AAB and that’s ideally what we look for, but if a candidate hasn’t achieved that it doesn’t mean their application will be automatically declined. If they can show a clear improvement at degree level, or have work experience that is relevant to our practice and an impressive covering letter, then that can help to make up for any shortfalls.
You can never have too much work experience. Legal work placements are great to have on your CV and even if they have nothing to do with our practice areas, they still show you’re committed to a legal career and that you’ve thought about your future. You can use any experience as a means of justifying why you do or do not want to work for a particular sort of firm.
Work experience within our industry areas is advantageous but it’s not essential. Our trainees come to us from a wide range of backgrounds; we always like to see candidates who can demonstrate a passion for their past experiences and use them to outline why they’re now applying to us.
There are only a couple of us who review Ince’s trainee applications, so the application windows are our busiest times of year. Despite this, we read all applications in full and don’t have any filtering systems in place.
Ince’s application form is relatively straightforward: candidates apply online with a covering letter and details of their academic achievements, work experience and positions of responsibility. We pay a lot of attention to the covering letter and advise candidates to make the most of this section. Use it to really get across your enthusiasm and interest in our firm and the work we do.
When assessing a covering letter, will you stop reading if the candidate has made a lot of mistakes?
We’ll review the whole application; if there are a few mistakes in the letter but the rest of the application is strong we’re more likely to be forgiving. There is, however, no good excuse for spelling errors, especially when you’re applying for a job that requires scrupulous attention to detail. The number of applications we receive that contain errors is surprising. Your application is all we’ve got to go on so you owe it to yourself to ensure it’s not let down by something so easily avoidable.
Our placement students do real work during their two weeks with us. The aim of our scheme is to give its participants a good idea of what it’s like to be an Ince trainee, so they’ll sit with a partner and get involved in real casework from across our five business groups. Some get to go to court, do case-related research or write drafts for clients; one of last year’s participants was delighted when his findings were sent directly to a technical expert to assist their work.
Placement scheme students are given a lot of responsibility and although it can be quite daunting at first, it’s a very satisfying facet of the scheme and helps students establish whether Ince’s non-department structure is right for them.
Are you looking for potential trainees on the scheme?
We offer placements to people who we think could do well as a trainee here, but the fact that you’ve done a placement is no guarantee that you’ll be offered a training contract. You still have to go through our rigorous training contract interview.
We have some participants who do really well during their placement but then fail to do well in the training contract interview. Our interview is quite unusual in that it involves an in-tray exercise, which carries a lot of weight when we’re deciding whether or not to make an offer. The in-tray exercise is a prioritisation exercise that can’t be prepared for or rehearsed; it’s a way of testing a candidate’s thought processes.
Ince & Co’s in-tray exercise is paper-based and candidates are given 15 minutes to prepare before the interview commences. The interviewee is asked to imagine they have come back to their desk to find six emails in their inbox which they must decide how to prioritise. They then have to justify their decisions to the partner, who will inevitably challenge them and throw new information into the equation. It does fluster some candidates and it’s interesting to see how they respond when new information is introduced.
It can be difficult for students to stand out at law fairs; there are so many people and firms there that it can be overwhelming. We don’t take it personally if people don’t come to talk to us, but there’s a lot to be gained from making the most of the opportunity and speaking to a firm’s representatives. It’s nice when people come in for interview and say ‘I remember meeting you at my university law fair’, as it helps establish a rapport.
We inevitably get a few odd questions at law fairs. One of my favourites was from a student who asked ‘Does Ince & Co do law?’. Given that we were at a law fair, it’s a bit worrying if the answer to that wasn’t obvious. It’s true that recruiters often remember the people they’ve met at law fairs. I’ve definitely scared a few candidates when they’ve come in for interview and I tell them I recognise them from somewhere!
Is there anything about your firm that would surprise readers?
Our open door training policy is probably top of my list. Trainees sit with four different partners over the course of their training contract and the ethos is that you can get work from any area and visit partners or associates at their desks should you wish to ask them for work. We encourage trainees to show their face and to not be afraid about approaching partners.