Five minutes with... Helen Cannon, graduate manager at Irwin Mitchell

Training contract and vacation scheme candidates need to remember that law firms aren't just looking for legal brains. They’re looking for many more skills and attributes, says graduate manager Helen Cannon.

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We look for hobbies, voluntary work, activities and projects that the candidate has got involved in. It’s about being an all-rounder.

Read what Helen has to say about: applications | extracurricular activities | commercial awareness | vacation schemes | assessment day advice

How many training contract applications do you receive each year, and how do you assess them?

We usually have around 50 training contract vacancies. For both the training contract and placement schemes, we usually have over 2,000 applications.

We assess all applications – we don’t automatically reject applications on any criteria and there is no degree grade requirement. We have a number of competencies that we assess throughout the application form. We then have a telephone interview and, if successful at that stage, they will be invited to an assessment centre.

What are you looking for when assessing the applications?

You have to get the basics right: attention to detail and spelling and grammar are important for creating a good first impression. It’s important to make sure you research the firm and you really tailor your application. When answering the questions, make sure that you are answering what we’re asking – don’t just answer the question you want it to be.

Though I understand why many candidates are tempted to copy and paste their applications, there is nothing worse than seeing another firm’s name mentioned in the application.

While academics are important as it’s an intellectually challenging job, we are looking for candidates who can demonstrate depth and breadth of work experience (paid or unpaid) and a rounded work/life balance. We look for hobbies, voluntary and charitable work, activities and projects that the candidate has got involved in. There’s no one area that we heavily weight – it’s about being an all-rounder.

What makes an application stand out for the right reasons?

It doesn’t have to be anything quirky. It’s about standing out in all areas – there’s no one magic answer. We look for people who can demonstrate that they use their initiative, they’re proactive and they’ve gone out and got lots of experience outside of their academic life. It also stands out when candidates can really show they have researched the firm and demonstrated why they think they would be a good fit for the firm.

What extracurricular activities would you recommend students get involved with?

I would say that people should try and get involved in some law-related activities and other things that really interest them. It’s not just about filling your CV; it’s about pursuing your interests and passions.

While at university, there are so many societies and clubs that people can get involved in, both law and non-law. Holding positions of responsibility in these type of groups helps demonstrate commitment and leadership skills. Mooting, debating, law clinics and mentoring schemes are all widely advertised and add to the CV. Volunteering at the likes of Citizens Advice and legal clinics can also give valuable insights and experience.

Generally, any voluntary and pro bono work stands out – especially where individuals can demonstrate an ongoing commitment. There is so much out there – charities or organisations are always in need of volunteers and fundraising.

How can a candidate demonstrate business acumen and commercial awareness?

It can be through a number of different ways. We ask specific questions on our application form that are designed to tease out commercial acumen. Candidates need to remember that we’re a business as well as a law firm. Business development plays an important part of being a trainee and a solicitor, and trainees must understand that the client is at the heart of what we do, be it an individual or a business. Applicants should think about what experiences and skills they have had and how these can be transferred to the role of a trainee solicitor, such as experiences in sales or customer services roles or charitable work that has involved networking and fundraising. It’s not just about being a good legal brain: we need people who can build trusting relationships with clients.

What stands out about your legal work placement scheme?

We’re a national firm, so we run placements across seven locations: Sheffield (our head office), London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol. The feedback we have from legal placement students is that they really get involved in hands-on work and it isn’t about making tea and photocopying – students may get to draft letters, attend client meetings or go to court, for example. It’s an important part of the recruitment process and there is lots of interaction with partners, solicitors and trainees throughout the placement.

How many of your trainees do you recruit from the placement scheme students?

Over the last few years, the majority of our training contract offers have gone to people who have undertaken a placement with us. It’s a chance for them to get to know us, for candidates to showcase their skills in a practical environment and for us to see whether they would be a good fit for our firm.

There is no formal assessment process throughout the placement itself, but there is a partner interview at the end. It’s important to impress throughout the scheme: it’s about showing enthusiasm, being diligent, having attention to detail and building relationships with the teams in which you are placed. Getting a legal work placement doesn’t guarantee you a training contract, but it does mean you’re in a positive position.

Is it a problem if a candidate hasn’t done any kind of vacation scheme at a law firm?

It's not a deal breaker but legal work experience does add to the application even if it’s just some short spells of work shadowing. It demonstrates an interest and commitment to the law. It’s important for us and for you to know that you understand what law is really like in a practical sense. If you can’t get on a formal scheme, then you could try contacting a local firm for some more informal experience. If somebody has real breadth and depth of experience elsewhere in areas that are very relevant to our practice, then the fact that they hadn’t done a placement wouldn’t take away from their application.

What’s the overall structure of your assessment day?

The assessment day usually runs for about four hours. Candidates will be invited to an assessment at the location they have applied to. They’ll go through a series of exercises and will be met by a number of partners, associates and a member of the HR team. There will be a mixture of group and individual work.

How competitive should candidates be during the group work?

Candidates are not competing against each other in that group. It’s about working as a team and completing the task that you’ve been given. You need to think about the commercial impact of your decisions and should encourage and support other members of the team when they’re giving their ideas – if a group member is quiet, a good leader will encourage them to speak and draw out their ideas. Those who treat it competitively tend not to do well.

How can you tell when somebody really wants the job?

Candidates who really want the job will be enthusiastic and energetic throughout the whole assessment day and will give maximum effort in every task. It is quite a gruelling thing to go through, but it’s just about being well prepared, researching the firm and showing passion through the way they communicate and behave throughout the day.

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