Five minutes with… Tracy Foot, graduate recruitment adviser at Herbert Smith Freehills
At our firm, we use the same assessment centre structure for both training contract and vacation scheme applications. Our assessment days involve a group exercise, a competency-based interview and a case study presentation. Candidates are given 45 minutes to prepare the ten-minute case study presentation, which they then present one on one to a partner. The presentation is based around a role play situation, such as advising a client on a transaction, followed by questions from the partner.
Those candidates who have already been through the assessment centre to secure a vacation scheme place don’t need to go through the assessment centre process again for a training contract, but will have an interview at the end of the vac scheme with questions focused on their vacation placement experience.
How competitive should a candidate be at an assessment day?
We notice such different group dynamics at each centre. We don’t have quotas for each assessment centre so we tell candidates that the eight people in the room are not competing against each other: if eight applicants are great then all eight will get an offer at the end of it.
Successful candidates are those who have some good, original points demonstrating their commercial awareness while showing clearly that they are listening to other people’s opinions and building on those views. They can bring the quieter members of the group into the conversation and, if they want to question someone’s view, they articulate their point politely. I’m impressed by people who have a positive impact in the group: those who defend their own position well and can persuade others without talking over anybody.
Partners carry out all our interviews for training contracts and vacation schemes so they’d be better placed to answer this! Everyone knows that they need to come prepared with questions – ideally, questions that show students have done a load of research on the firm and genuinely want to know what’s going on within the organisation. It’s impressive when students can show they are up to date with something current that’s going on in the firm, such as a big deal or expansion within the organisation.
Do you ever get questions at interviews that leave a bad impression?
Bad questions are ones that demonstrate someone hasn’t done their research – basic questions about what the firm does, which could easily be answered by reading the firm’s brochure or website.
How can you spot whether a candidate really wants a vacation scheme or training contract with your firm?
What kind of work experience interests you most in an application? Do candidates have to do vac schemes to impress you?
Certainly in a training contract application, we would want to see some sort of legal work experience: not necessarily a formal vacation scheme, but any other legal work experience that shows the applicant has checked that this is the career for them. We’re looking for a clear motivation for a career in law at the training contract application stage whereas, for a vacation scheme application, applicants can show their motivation through extracurricular activities, commercial work experience or voluntary work.
Vacation schemes are useful for learning what it’s like to work in, say, a commercial law firm and to see first-hand how partners and associates approach their work and their clients. That said, other work experience is useful – it doesn’t all have to be legal experience.
Students on our vacation scheme are able to interview for a training contracts at the end of their placement; you’ll be questioned about what you’ve learned on the scheme and the work you did. For that reason, it’s useful to note down what you learn on your scheme as you go along so you can remember when it comes to the interview.
You can tell when someone has spent a lot of time on their application form. They are able to reflect on their extracurricular experiences, positions of responsibility and key achievements, and take the time to explain the skills and competencies they developed. Someone who can demonstrate a clear motivation for a legal career stands out – you’d be surprised how many people send in applications that don’t have a legal focus and haven’t picked out the skills that are transferable to the role.
What sort of extracurricular activities impress you in an application?
I’ve come across a real mixture of impressive activities. It’s more about how applicants are able to draw out the skills they developed – if you’re captain of the football team, what does that involve? What puts us off is when applicants have listed what they’ve done without explaining the leadership and teamwork skills that go with those interests. We also look for legal motivation, such as pro bono activities, mooting, debating, positions of responsibility in the law society or other commercial societies. It’s about linking it back to the skills needed for a successful career in law.
What stands out about your vacation scheme?
In each seat, students get to work on real trainee work. We’re very flexible so we try to accommodate vac schemers’ department preferences. It’s really important that they are sat in with a partner or associate so they get a feel for the role of a solicitor. We also arrange presentations from associates in different departments so students can get an idea of what it’s like to work in the various practice areas.
Those who accept a place on one of our schemes have the opportunity to apply to extend this and spend some time in one of our international offices in Europe, Asia or Australia. This is a great opportunity to experience the work they do and the city in which they live.
How do you determine who would make a good solicitor out of the vac scheme students?
We’re looking at their legal ability (that goes for non-law students as well) – how they approach a problem, their communication skills and their impact. Partners consider whether they’d be happy to bring that individual to a client meeting. Students need to be able to show an understanding of the commercial world and clients’ needs.
Supervisors (typically partners and senior associates) feed back to us on how vac scheme students do during their experience and they also let students themselves know how they are getting on during the scheme.