Five minutes with… Kate Osborne, graduate recruitment specialist at Kirkland & Ellis

Kate Osborne, graduate recruitment specialist at Kirkland & Ellis, offers excellent advice on how to show your motivation for a legal career in your applications, interviews and on vacation schemes.

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Each partner has a different interview style: some may ask commercial questions; others may prefer to focus on your experience.

Tell us about the application process for training contracts at Kirkland & Ellis

The application process is all online. We ask candidates to complete an application form and to submit a covering letter. The online form is very straightforward – contact details, academic results, language skills and so on. It’s the covering letter where candidates can express their legal motivations and reasons for wanting to work for Kirkland & Ellis. The good cover letters will be from those candidates who show they have done their research: they know what we do and they understand how our training contract differs from other law firms. The not-so-good are those who cut and paste, spell my name incorrectly or don’t actually know how to address a business letter properly.

What are you looking for from the covering letter?

It can be difficult knowing what and what not to include in a cover letter. I’m looking for reasons behind your motivation, what you know about the firm and a little bit of your personality. Try and limit your letter to a page or page and a half maximum.

In terms of other requirements, we’re looking for a minimum 2.1 and strong A level results, as well as work experience in a similar environment to ours.

How can a candidate get their motivation across in the cover letter?

Make it clear that you understand the role of a solicitor in the business world. Talk about why you have chosen a legal career, whether that was down to studying the subject or knowing someone in the family who is a lawyer. The work that we do is international, our clients and their business interests are all over the world – show some enthusiasm for wanting to work on international deals.

Do candidates need to do a vacation scheme to impress you?

Yes. We recruit ten trainees a year and expect them to have very strong academic results and an understanding of the type of work that we do. The type of training that trainees get here is very different to the type of training they would get at one of the magic circle firms: our associates work in small teams and trainees are given huge amounts of responsibility early on. Work experience helps you sound more convincing at an interview – if you make an application without any vacation schemes or work experience then we question how you know a career in law is for you.

Your experience doesn’t necessarily have to be at a US firm but it can help. At Kirkland & Ellis, our structure is much less hierarchical than traditional City law firms. Our culture is very collegiate. We work in teams and we need to know that somebody is going to fit into that team environment.

Tell us about the Kirkland & Ellis vacation scheme

We recruit a lot of our trainees through the vacation scheme and one way of looking at the experience is as a two-week interview. You will sit in one department for the whole of the two weeks but you are encouraged to seek work from all the different practice areas.

We have a mock transaction that runs throughout the two weeks; this is usually a big sponsorship deal involving a negotiation exercise. On the final day you sign the deal and there is a champagne closing. The associates play the part of the client and, although it’s not formally assessed, they give feedback on everyone’s performance.

How can somebody impress on the vacation scheme?

It’s about being enthusiastic and showing that you’re willing to get stuck in. Be personable and polite and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make the effort to come to the social events and network with your colleagues. Because our solicitors work in small teams, we need to be sure that you are personable, confident and that you can get along with your colleagues.

What’s the final stage of your recruitment process?

It differs between training contracts and vacation schemes. For the vacation scheme, we run a number of assessment days. The successful candidates are invited in for a short interview with the recruitment team and complete a written exercise. We also have a presentation on the firm, lunch with associates and trainees, and a Q&A session with a panel of our lawyers.

For the training contract, candidates are interviewed by partners on a one-on-one basis. If I haven’t met the candidates beforehand (ie on the vacation scheme), then they will also have an interview with me. All in all, there can be up to four half-hour interviews back to back.

What will be covered in the training contract interviews?

The interviews are straightforward. They are a conversation about who you are, what you’ve done and why you’re interested in the firm – they are not competency-based and we don’t brief the partners beforehand. Each partner has a different style: some may ask commercial questions; others may prefer to focus on your experience. The partners are trying to ascertain whether you would be a good fit and have the potential to succeed here.

How can someone prepare for the interview day?

Again, it all comes down to research. You need to have a thorough understanding of the firm, our practice areas and any recent deals or cases we might have been working on. All of this information is readily available on the internet.

Interviews can be stressful but hopefully you can keep your nerves under control: it is obvious when candidates are nervous and it does affect their performance. Practice will help with that. However, it’s best to be genuine and not too rehearsed – there’s nothing worse than asking a question and the candidate doesn’t listen to it, they just give an answer that they’ve pre-prepared.

What’s the difference between a good and a bad answer for questions such as ‘Why do you want to work in law?’?

A good candidate will demonstrate they understand that the role of a solicitor is as an adviser who must understand their client’s business. Clients don’t always want or need to know the law. They want their lawyers to advise them on how they can best approach a particular deal or case.

Bad answers will be very general ones about ‘exciting clients and deals’ – answers that only scratch the surface and don’t show an understanding of what it’s really about. We can always tell when candidates haven’t done their research because they come out with clichés and start to repeat our recruitment literature back at us.

Should candidates ask questions at the end of interviews?

Candidates are encouraged to ask questions. In fact, if somebody didn’t ask questions, I would wonder why that was. Questions such as ‘Why do you enjoy your job?’ or ‘Why did you choose Kirkland & Ellis?’ are good to ask. Ask the partners about any previous firms they worked at and what they think Kirkland & Ellis can offer junior lawyers.

Avoid obvious questions that could be researched on our website. I remember at a previous firm doing a presentation when an audience member stood up and asked a senior partner how much he earned. He was quite persistent and as a result was remembered by the recruitment team for all the wrong reasons!

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