Five minutes with... Fiona Medlock, graduate recruitment manager at Mills & Reeve
Fiona Medlock of Mills & Reeve advises you on how to turn a good training contract application into an excellent one. She also gives top tips on how to shine in law assessment centres.
I read application forms from students who don’t have a 2.1 degree and 300 UCAS points – but they have to shine somewhere on the rest of the form if they are expecting a 2.2.
Can you tell me about Mills & Reeve’s application process for vacation schemes and training contracts?
The application process is exactly the same for both – an online application form. Shortlisted candidates will be invited to an assessment centre, which is a half day and consists of a group exercise, an interview and aptitude tests. The aptitude tests focus on numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning and perceptual reasoning.
Academic achievement is important but not our sole criteria. I read application forms from students who don’t have our preferred minimum of a 2.1 degree and 300 UCAS points – but clearly they have to shine somewhere on the rest of the form if they are expecting a 2.2. For training contract applications, I’m hoping to see evidence of some legal work experience or relevant service sector work experience. We do appreciate it can be difficult to get legal work experience. It’s more important for students and graduates who are not studying law to have completed some legal work experience – it shows a commitment to a career in law.
Then we have various questions which allow a student to demonstrate their teamwork skills, initiative and something that makes them interesting. Use recent examples, rather than activities you were involved in at school but have not continued at university. You could have done some community volunteering – I don’t expect everybody to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or bungee jump! Sell it as a worthwhile experience: explain what you’ve done and what you’ve learnt from it. You also need to address why you want to go into law and give a convincing answer to the question ‘Why this law firm?’
Do you have any advice for students on how and when they should mention any mitigating circumstances in their application form?
My advice is to include mitigating circumstances, but write about them in a positive way; I want to read about how you’ve turned your life around. If candidates don’t meet a firm’s academic criteria, they should acknowledge that – don’t expect graduate recruiters to ignore or miss this fact.
What are the main reasons you reject a training contract or vacation scheme application?
We reject applications that fail to convince us why a candidate is applying to our firm. I don’t want to read regurgitated content from our website or publicity materials.
If I can substitute Mills & Reeve with the name of another firm, an application has not been tailored enough. Typos, grammatical errors and not answering the question can also lead to rejection.
The writing style – a sharp, punchy style that’s easy to read. I read so many applications, so receiving one that is easy to read is like a breath of fresh air. Good applications are also straight to the point with no errors. Some people feel that they need to use the word count and fill their job application with long, unfamiliar words that they would never use in everyday life. There’s a perception that lawyers use this kind of language and I’ve no idea where it comes from. Stick to plain English: no ‘hitherto’ or ‘furthermore’. Writing style is important: as solicitors, applicants will be selling this skill to our clients when they draft documents or write letters.
It’s very difficult to convey commercial awareness in an application form – that’s the sort of thing we test on assessment days. But candidates could use examples of something relevant they have done, such as raising money for charity and explaining how they achieved this. They could have run a small business or used their initiative at work and realised the commercial outcome.
Your firm uses assessment centres for recruitment. What is it about assessment days that make them a useful recruitment tool?
Assessment centres are more objective than a straightforward interview. We like candidates to be seen by more than one person, so we use a group exercise. The group exercise will test different skills: we are looking at how people interact with each other, their team skills and their ability to follow instructions. They’re observed by several different people, so we get an objective view on each candidate at the end and see the different skills that you can’t test on the application form or in interviews.
The assessment centre also includes an aptitude test, which is completely objective. The aptitude test reassures us that the conclusions we’ve drawn from an application form are right. Academic results don’t always marry up with test results – you can prepare for exams, but that’s different to being able to pass an aptitude test.
What skills and competencies do you look for candidates to demonstrate on assessment days?
Communication skills and problem solving are the main ones. In group exercises, it’s good to lead but it’s the manner in which you do it; if you’re a confident person and in a group with people who are shy, take the opportunity to show your team skills and encourage other members of the group to say something. Don’t dominate the conversation: allow other candidates to have a say. I like to see people acknowledge what others have said, maybe by using their name.
How can applicants prepare for assessment centres?
Most careers services run mock group exercises and offer interview coaching so my advice is to investigate those opportunities. You can practise online aptitude tests. Firms use different suppliers, so don’t be surprised if you get a different type of test on the day, but the tests give you a general idea of what to expect. Candidates should also research the firm and be up to date on news and current affairs, because you will be tested on this. Read articles in the legal press as well as the broadsheets.
What do the vac schemers who go on to get a training contract at Mills & Reeve do on the scheme to show they’ve got what it takes to be a successful solicitor?
Students are assessed on the actual work they do while they are here. We take into account what stage they’re at in their studies and focus on the effort they put into the work. We’re not expecting legal geniuses, but participants must present work to the best of their ability and in a timely fashion. It’s also about interacting with people around you, going the extra mile and making the most of the opportunity of being here. Communication skills count for a lot because you mustn’t pester anyone, yet you must make yourself seen. If somebody’s not giving you enough work, ask for some more work. But that partner might be busy, so it’s about being patient and picking your moment. Don’t watch the clock and appear enthusiastic.
Aside from vacation schemes, what other sort of other work experience or extracurricular activity impresses you in an application?
Work experience in a service industry, such as professional accountants, surveyors, banks, insurance companies or anyone who might be a potential client is a good start. Getting involved in pro bono work such as working in law centres and clinics gives applications a legal flavour. It also gives you skills in interviewing clients.