Five minutes with... Zoe Reid, trainee recruitment officer at Osborne Clarke
Commercial awareness: How can candidates find out about your business aims and show that they’re commercially aware?
There’s a lot of information on our website, and they should also read legal publications such as The Lawyer and Legal Week. Twitter is another good way of following firms and finding out what they’re up to – our marketing team will tweet about particular deals that we’ve been involved in or, for example, our recent mergers in Spain and Italy. It’s a quick and easy way to keep up to date with us and they can then mention that information when explaining why they want to work for Osborne Clarke.
It's important to make a good impression, because if you’ve made a bit of a faux pas at a law fair and then you come for an assessment it’s entirely possible that we’ll remember that.
It’s not impressive when candidates haven’t done any research and are unfocused when they come to a law fair. It’s not a good idea to come up to us and say ‘What do you do, then?’. I would expect candidates to have had a quick flick through our brochure or a browse through the website so that when they approach the stand they know what they’d like to ask.
There are so many firms at each of these fairs and you only have a few hours – you’re not going to be able to make the most of that time if you’re not prepared and structured in your approach. It’s those candidates who come up to us who understand who we are, what our main business areas are and who come and ask considered questions that we really remember for good reasons.
All students will be offered a training contract interview at the end of their placement and we collect feedback throughout the two weeks that they're with us. At the end of each week, they will sit down with their supervisor and have an informal review so that they know where they are, what they’ve achieved so far and what they need to work on the following week.
We look for someone who’s a clear communicator, able to work well in team discussions but also able to motivate themselves, happy to take on responsibility and interested in the work that we do.
How important is it for somebody to do a vacation scheme?
It’s not a problem if somebody hasn’t done a vacation scheme, but bear in mind that if we are able to offer our vacation scheme candidates a training contract then we will do so at the end of the scheme – a large number of our training contract vacancies may well have been offered before the August recruitment round. Of course, there will still be vacancies but the vacation scheme students are considered first.
Can people make up for the fact that they haven’t done any work experience at a law firm?
Absolutely, they just need to be able to identify the key skills that they developed throughout their other kinds of work experience or extra-curricular activities and understand how those skills are going to be useful on a training contract.
If you’ve worked in a bar, then wastage, for example, will have an effect on profitability and you would have had to think about that in your role. It’s all about thinking about the role that you’ve done and how your actions are linked to the business.
There’s nothing worse than a candidate writing on an application form that they haven’t learned anything from their work experience – I have seen people put ‘not applicable’ in the ‘Skills learned’ box. You can learn something from everything that you do. It’s really important that you sit down and deconstruct what you did so that you can get that across in your application.
We initially have an online application form and a verbal reasoning test, which are used in conjunction to decide who to invite to the assessment centre. There are a number of skills-based questions on the application form that we assess, as well as the candidate’s academic achievement, and we take the score from the form and the verbal reasoning test to decide who comes through to the assessment day.
We then have a first-stage assessment where candidates do a group exercise, a written exercise and a presentation. Finally, some of those candidates will be invited back for a partner interview.
How do you assess applications?
Each form is scored entirely from front to back and we focus on the skills questions. We check that answers are fluid, easy to read, well structured and with no spelling errors. We also look to see whether the students have explained how their experiences to date have helped them acquire the skills that will be valuable as a trainee solicitor.
What really stands out on an application form?
The most important thing is that you make your answers very fluid and easy to understand. We’re not looking for candidates to be verbose; it’s about being very clear in your communication style so that on the first read we can understand what you had to achieve, how you did it and what you learned. An excellent application form is one in which the candidate has been able to convey quite a complicated situation to us in simple terms.
We’re quite unique in that we don’t assess a candidate’s commercial awareness until the assessment centre stage, so for us the application is really about how they can communicate and how they’ve demonstrated the required skills in the past.
What advice would you give to somebody who isn’t very confident about their writing skills?
Students should fully utilise their careers service – a lot of universities now have specific law careers advisers who are able to help on training contract applications. Get friends, colleagues and parents to read through your applications so you can get different opinions.
What kind of extra-curricular activities really impress you on an application?
Candidates should do what they enjoy, because they need to be engaged and interested in their activities to be able to really learn from them. We see a lot of candidates who have participated in societies, often taking on some kind of responsibility within that society, such as budget control. We also see people who have done debating or business courses and games. Extra-curricular activities that help build business awareness as well as softer skills such as team working are useful.
There are groups of about four candidates who will have access to information and they have to debate the information and come back to us with a proposal based on that. Even though the exercise has a legal context, we’re not assessing a candidate’s legal knowledge. It’s about dealing with the information in a business-focused way.
Imagine at the end of a group exercise you have a choice of four candidates: a wallflower, a geek, a leader and an entrepreneur. If you could only pick one, who would you choose?
That’s difficult, because we don’t have a particular type of person we look for. We’re looking for people who are creative and innovative, and we’re looking for technical experts who may be perceived as ‘geekier’! We have areas of the business where all four of those candidates would do well; it would just come down to whether they nailed it at interview.
It’s about how prepared they are. How interested are they in the firm? Are they asking the partners relevant questions at the end of their interview? Do they understand where we are as a business, what our future aspirations are and how trainees fit into that? We can tell that those candidates are really motivated to start their career with us, whereas candidates who have just skim-read things before their interview naturally don’t show as much enthusiasm.
What kind of questions should candidates ask at interview? What shouldn’t they ask?
Don’t ask something that you could have easily found out on the internet. It’s a better idea to demonstrate that you’ve done your research – perhaps there’s a particular deal or a particular sector that we operate in that you’re interested in and want to know more about. Questions should be very targeted towards us, rather than generic.