Five minutes with… Nichola Rowe, HR manager at Cleary Gottlieb

Nichola discusses the importance of vacation schemes and reveals how best to answer the question ‘Do you have any questions for us?’ at the end of an interview.

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Recently, some of the best interview questions have been about the impact of the recession, such as 'How are you dealing with the economic downturn? What effect has that had on your business?'

What makes an application for a vacation placement or training contract stand out?

A well written, succinct, persuasive covering letter crafted by an aspiring trainee solicitor who has really thought about the firm stands out. Ask yourself: what sets this firm apart from other law firms and how do my individual skills and experiences marry with that firm?

Academic excellence is fundamental: someone who has excelled in their discipline is impressive. We’re interested in well rounded people with an international outlook; language skills can be useful.

How important is it for students to do a vacation scheme?

Our firm’s strategy is to recruit the majority of our trainees through our winter, spring and summer vacation schemes. As a result, around two thirds of the 2,000 applications we receive each year are for vacation placements. The vacation schemes offer us an opportunity to get to know a candidate, to review the work they produce and observe how they interact with others – and likewise, for candidates, it’s a chance for them to see what the firm is all about.

We run two open day assessment programmes (one in mid-January before the 28 January deadline; one in early February) in order to select 30–36 vacation scheme students.

What stands out about your vacation scheme?

For an hour each morning, a couple of experienced lawyers give an informal overview focusing on current matters and clients in each of our practice areas. In addition, we get vacation schemers involved in real work. Each vacation scheme associate is allocated a mentor, but they sit together in pairs rather than with a supervisor. We aim to strike the right balance between exposing students to the profession and our firm in particular, and getting to know them socially outside the vacation scheme by arranging events such as bowling and cookery classes.

How can aspiring solicitors do well on a vacation placement?

Be yourself, manage expectations, ask questions, use your initiative, get to know people and seek out work that interests you most. Any candidate has done very well to get onto a vacation scheme and should use the opportunity to work out if a legal career generally is the right path, and in particular whether the firm is the right them.

How do you determine who would make a good solicitor out of the vac scheme students?

We look at the quality of work produced, and how a vacation scheme associate can manage the expectations of multiple parties. When someone briefs you, make sure you ask questions if you’re unsure of what’s expected – then make sure you deliver. We observe how well people draw on the research resources available to them and how vac schemers conduct themselves. We’re looking for aspiring solicitors who want to excel but can work in a smaller environment where colleagues with ‘sharp elbows’ aren’t appreciated.

Most law firms will accept candidates from any degree discipline, but what degree subjects are best for developing the transferable skills you need to be a lawyer?

A non-law candidate brings different, but equally valued, skills. Choosing to study whatever subject you're studying, be it history, economics or humanities, doesn’t put you at a disadvantage.

Are you looking for a commitment to law or legal work experience from those with a non-law background?

We’re definitely looking for a commitment to law, which can be demonstrated in many ways, such as engaging with your careers service. I expect to see that a candidate has made a commitment to exploring what a legal career is about.

Do you use an assessment day as part of the process?

We invite around 36-40 students to our assessment day, which includes lunch and a presentation by partners about the history, clients, regions and culture of the firm. This is followed by group workshops and skill sessions – on, for example, commercial negotiation or competition law – and an interview with a partner and associate, plus a tour of the office by trainees. The day ends with a drinks reception with the entire office. We’re looking at how people present themselves in different environments – in a social, networking setting, interview environment and when working in groups.

You have a choice of candidate in a group exercise: a wallflower, an entrepreneur, a geek, a leader. Who do you choose?

Can I choose a combination of a geek, an entrepreneur and a leader? Wallflowers would not survive in this kind of environment! As we recruit so few trainees (typically, 13–15 trainees each year) their contribution is valued and there’s no room to hide.

The word geek suggests someone who is smart but bookish and not able to interact – the smart aspect of a geek is important, but they need to be good communicators on top of that. We want lawyers who are entrepreneurial in order to come up with innovative ideas. We’re recruiting trainees for a long-term future at the firm so leadership potential is important.

What’s the best question a candidate has asked you at interview? And the worst?

Recently, some of the best interview questions have been about the impact of the recession
: ‘How are you dealing with the economic downturn? What effect has that had on your business? Have you ever made redundancies?’. When you’re asked at the end of an interview whether you have any questions, you should jump at the opportunity to show that you’ve thought about your future. Other good questions include: ‘Is the firm opening new offices? What’s the culture of the firm like and what principles underpin it? What does the future outlook look like?’

The candidates who ask these types of questions are usually better researched, more self-assured and more confident that they won’t be tripped up by engaging in this type of conversation.

The worst questions are technical questions about, say, the firm’s pension arrangements. Think about what’s important to you in your career and ask a question about it.

What can you say about your firm that would surprise our readers?

People compare us to other US firms but lots of candidates don’t appreciate the difference between individual firms – there’s an individual culture and structure that exists within each firm. Our firm set up in London only three years after opening in the US: we’re not a satellite office!

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