Five minutes with... Catherine McGee, graduate recruitment officer at Hogan Lovells
Supervisors look out for things like motivation: are you enthusiastic about the work you’ve been given and are you asking lots of questions? They also take into account how well you’ve performed the work and whether you’ve listened to the brief properly.
We understand that students haven’t been through the legal practice course (LPC) or even finished their degree yet, but it’s about whether you’ve used all the resources at hand to do the work that you’ve been set.
Do students need to do at least one vacation placement to impress on their CV?
We understand that vacation schemes are competitive. What makes the legal industry different to some other professions is that students have the opportunity to do more than one vacation scheme. Some do as many as five schemes in their penultimate year, which is impressive but isn’t completely necessary.
It’s all about how you use the experience and how you talk about it. We sometimes have candidates who have done lots of vacation placements but when they’re asked about it the work they did, they’re not able to talk about it intelligently or with enthusiasm. We need to know that you made the most of the opportunity.
Whether you did a vacation placement, work experience at a high street firm or at another commercial organisation, if you can pick out the skills that you developed from that experience then that’s excellent. It’s not the be-all and end-all if you can’t get a vacation scheme.
What do you think stands out about your vacation scheme?
We like to give students a good insight into the real life of a trainee at the firm. We do a lot of different case studies, workshops, social events and networking activities so that you get to meet a lot of different people from the firm from all levels of seniority – you get to meet our CEO, for example.
We try to give students a broad overview of the areas of law that we practise here. You'll spend three weeks on the scheme and for each week you will be in a different department, so it mirrors the trainee seat rotations.
How should students behave during the networking events?
The only real way to get an idea of the culture of the firm is to meet people. Treat networking events as an opportunity to ask questions and do as much information gathering as possible. It can be quite daunting when you’re coming in from university and you’re not used to speaking to senior people, but don’t be intimidated. The partners are always happy to share their experiences and provide hints and tips.
Do you use networking events to work out how well students would do with talking to clients?
Yes. We’re obviously aware that the students are a couple of years away from graduating, but at the same time it’s important for us to see that you can interact with people and are comfortable chatting. It gives us an insight into how you would be with clients and whether you have the interpersonal skills that are so important to the business development aspect of being a solicitor.
Students don’t always think about the fact that working in a shop or in a bar means they’re working for a business that probably has similar challenges and objectives to the sort of organisations they would come in contact with as a City solicitor. Use those opportunities to think about how a business works and the issues that businesses have, because those are the things that solicitors advise on.
Are there any extra-curricular activities you would recommend?
There are lots of opportunities to get involved in pro bono work through your university or law society, the Citizens Advice Bureau or Street Law. Those are ways to get more first-hand legal experience in a voluntary context and show us that you’re motivated to make the most of opportunities and have made an effort to equip yourself with relevant skills.
You can really help yourself to stand out by targeting the firms you might be interested in and doing research so you know what you want to ask. Research is very important: it’s not a good idea to show up without knowing what your objectives are. Show a lot of enthusiasm and interest when talking to the trainees and recruiters.
What information can a student get at a law fair that they won’t get anywhere else?
A lot of students approach law fairs as a chance to go around and collect brochures and read them all when they get home, but they probably could have got that information online anyway. The real benefit of a law fair is that you can go out there and speak to the recruiters and the solicitors. That’s how you really get an insight into the firm and work out how they are different from other firms.
People come in for the majority of the day and there are three assessed elements. The first is the Watson-Glaser critical thinking test, which they will already have completed once online for their initial application.
The next element is a group exercise based on a commercial case study; we give the students a problem based on something that a client has brought to us in the past and they must discuss it and find a resolution. It’s not about technical legal knowledge, but rather about how you approach the issue and work through the problem.
Finally, there is an interview with two partners lasting 45 minutes to an hour.
We emphasise that the candidates are not in competition with the other people in the group exercise. We put the group exercise together to emulate a team meeting and we’re looking for the students to work together; if they approach it like it’s a competition then they’re unlikely to come to the best conclusion for the client.
Imagine that after a group exercise you have a choice of four candidates: a geek, a wallflower, an entrepreneur and a leader. You can only choose one…who do you pick?
That’s difficult! I think our trainees probably fall into three of those four categories; I wouldn’t recommend people come out of the group exercise feeling like they’ve been a wallflower, because we need people to give opinions and speak in order to be able to assess them.
Leaders are good, as long as people lead in an appropriate and productive way. As I said, we discourage competition so that’s something to be aware of. It’s best to try and lead the team in an inclusive and efficient way.
We’re always looking for people to be innovative, so it’s good to be entrepreneurial. Business development is an important part of what solicitors do.
We do want candidates who are highly intelligent, too. Some areas of law are more academic than others – for example, tax law is a lot more about ‘black letter law’ than transactional law, which is quite commercial. All in all, I think we’d like the geek, the entrepreneur and the leader all in one!
If in doubt, always ask the partners about themselves. Ask how they got into their area of law, their client base, the type of work they do and what they enjoy about being at the firm. Those questions show that you have a real interest in the firm and the opportunities available, so if you’re ever stuck for a question then it’s a really good idea to try and get to know the partner a bit better in a professional sense.