Five minutes with… Charlotte Hannan, recruitment officer, at Shearman & Sterling
Can you tell me about Shearman & Sterling’s application process for vacation schemes and training contracts?
It’s pretty straightforward: an online application form and covering letter, which must explain in 250 words why you’re interested in being a solicitor at Sherman & Sterling. Successful candidates are invited to do a verbal reasoning test and, if successful, are invited to interview with a partner and member of the HR team. For training contract applicants only, there is an assessment centre for those successful in the first-round interview. Our law firm interviews around 6% of applicants and makes offers to 3%.
What criteria do you mark applicants against in applications?
At the application stage, we’re looking for a consistently good academic background from aspiring trainee solicitors. We also look for strong written skills in the covering letter – an enthusiasm for joining our law firm in particular – and outside interests.
What are the main reasons you reject an application?
We typically receive 800 applications for 13 training contract vacancies. The most likely reason to reject an application is a generic covering letter from an applicant who hasn’t explained why he or she wants a career in law or to practise at our firm. You can spot the covering letters that have just been sent off to six or seven firms. Spelling the firm’s name incorrectly is another reason to reject an application.
What’s your view on the importance of A level grades versus a good degree grade?
A level grades are still very important: we look for AAB at A level. If you’ve got less than that and there are mitigating circumstances, do mention them when you apply to firms – extenuating circumstances are looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Can you tell us about the structure of your training contract assessment days?
We only run assessment days for training contracts, not vacation schemes. As it stands, the assessment centre lasts half a day – it includes a group exercise, one interview with two partners, a lunch and a tour of the office with trainees. There are typically six candidates per day and six partners assessing them. We want candidates to leave the assessment centre knowing what their answer would be if we made them a training contract offer, so we encourage individuals to ask questions.
Can you tell me more about the group exercise? How can candidates prepare?
Typically, the group exercise involves working within two groups of three candidates on a non-law focused case study, coming up with a solution and presenting this solution to a panel of, say, three partners. In 2012, the case study was based on a chocolate shop’s intention to expand and the candidates choosing between two options for expansion. We’re looking for analytical and communication skills – can individuals come up with their own ideas, can they justify their decisions and are they thinking commercially and realistically? Can they apply the current economic situation to this scenario?
It’s difficult to prepare for the group exercise itself but candidates can prepare for the assessment centre as a whole by making sure they know what’s currently going on in the press and the deals the firm has been involved in. Candidates should make sure they know why they are applying to us and what they still need to know.
What are some good questions you've heard candidates ask at the end of the competency-based interview?
The interview is a 45-minute session with two partners so it’s a fantastic opportunity to ask them questions and candidates should prepare for that. Asking partners about their background and how they got to where they are today is a good approach to take when asking questions at the end of a training contract interview. My top tip would be to pay attention when a partner introduces himself or herself at the start of the assessment centre so you know which practice area they specialise in. Then you can ask that partner about the type of work trainees are given in that department and what skills they look for in trainee solicitors. Poor questions are those about salary, working hours and asking what the core practice areas are – these can all be researched using the firm’s website.
What do the vac schemers who go on to get a training contract at Shearman & Sterling do on the scheme to show they’ve got what it takes to be a successful solicitor?
Those candidates who have shown promise on the vac scheme are fast-tracked to the assessment centre – in 2012, 20 out of 24 vac schemers went through to the training contract assessment day. Promising vacation placement students enjoy getting involved with different people and different types of work – they are interested and engaged for the whole two weeks.
Students who don’t get through to the training contract assessment centre after their vacation placement are those who are not best suited to train here. We only take up to 15 trainees each year so we’re looking for that fine balance between confidence and over-confidence in a candidate. Some vac schemers are just better suited to training in a bigger environment.
What sort of other work experience or extracurricular activity impresses you?
We like to see candidates who have taken on positions of responsibility but other outside interests that demonstrate energy and enthusiasm are equally interesting to us. When invited to, say, a client dinner, it’s important that trainees can talk about matters other than work.
As applicants (on a law degree, at least) tend to apply in the second year of their degree, they are only just getting positions of responsibility at university so it’s fine to use part-time jobs in retail or bar work to demonstrate your skills.