Five minutes with... Sam Lee, graduate recruitment manager at Womble Bond Dickinson

Sam Lee’s advice on how to stand out at law fairs for the right reasons (hint: don’t try hugging the recruiter) and make a good impression during a vacation scheme.

Hero image for Five minutes with... Sam Lee, graduate recruitment manager at Womble Bond Dickinson

The commercial questions on the application form are especially important; if people do really well on those, it will make me sit up and take notice.

Read what Sam has to say about: law fairs | applications | commercial awareness | degree subjects and grades | vacation schemes and work experience | assessment day advice

Do you really remember the good and bad candidates you meet at law fairs?

Yes. I had someone hug me at an open day once! I was talking about the fact that we would not necessarily rule someone out of the application process because they had a 2.2, and I got hugged. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed by that!

So, number one: don’t hug the graduate recruiter. Tip two: I’ve seen some impressive candidates who have done their research and who come to the stand with a notebook and a list of questions. When you can see that they have a different page for each law firm, it shows that they’ve really thought about who they want to target.

I like it when someone follows up with an email thanking us for our time if we have gone out of our way to be helpful. It’s also a good idea to follow up if you think you’ve been impressive on the stand; it’s hard for us to keep track of everyone’s names so if you send us an email then we’ll have a record of you.

How do you manage the task of assessing training contract applications?

We receive about 700 applications each year for 10–12 training contract places. We have two deadlines – one for the vacation scheme and one for the training contract – and in each case we wait for the deadline to pass to begin screening. There are three of us in the team and between us we screen from a competency framework.

Tell us a bit more about the competencies and skills you look for

We use the competency framework to assess candidates at every stage of the application process. The competencies are: communication and influencing skills, commercial focus, adaptability, analytical thinking, relationship building and motivation/drive.

When reading the application form, we start off by looking at academics and work experience and we apply the competency framework to that. We then have four competency questions on the form: two of them are commercial questions, one of them is a relationship building question and the fourth is an adaptability question.

What makes an application stand out for the right reasons?

For me, it’s the applications where the examples used are a bit different. You need to give answers that are relevant, current and well structured. The commercial questions are particularly important; if people do really well on those questions, it will really make me sit up and take notice.

How can somebody answer the commercial question well?

The candidate is asked to think of a current commercial issue and explain why it’s significant and of interest. I’m always impressed by those candidates who have been able to take a very current commercial issue and make it relevant to our business.
We see lots of people talking about, for example, the Apple/Samsung case. That’s an obvious example and people can do very well with it if they know about the issue in detail. However, I’m more interested to see slightly different examples that are perhaps more relevant to our energy or retail practice. Candidates can impress by using an example that is linked to our sectors and explaining why it might be relevant to us.

Are there any non-law degree subjects that you think are especially helpful for developing the skills you need to be a solicitor?

We’re open-minded about the academic stage, but there are some degrees in which you develop your analytical skills a bit more, such as languages or history. We also like to see candidates from a scientific background; our intellectual property team is crying out for people who have science or engineering degrees.

How important is someone’s degree grade?

I would much rather see someone who has a 2.1, good work experience and extra-curricular activities than someone who has a first but has done nothing else.

Work experience demonstrates an ongoing commitment to the profession. It tells us that somebody is motivated and has thought carefully about whether this is the right career path for them. We need people who have a broad range of skills – being academic is not enough any more.

How can students demonstrate the competencies you look for on the vacation scheme?

There are a few simple tricks. Be enthusiastic and have a go at everything. Ask questions and be interested. Produce work to the best of your ability and have a go at every task before you ask too many questions – we like to see trainees stretch themselves, but make sure to get clarification when you need to. Get on with everybody and don’t underestimate the influence that secretarial teams and support staff can have. Get involved in social activities but don’t over indulge on nights out – we once had a vacation scheme student who didn’t make it in on time for their final day for that reason!

Is it a problem if an applicant hasn’t done a vacation scheme?

No. We look at a broad range of work experience. If somebody hasn’t done a vacation scheme, then we look for evidence of some legal work experience, such as work shadowing or a placement at an in-house legal team.

Any kind of experience, such as a part-time retail job, is valuable because you will have learned useful skills. Commercial work experience is always impressive.

What’s the structure of your assessment day?

We have a full-day assessment centre. We start with a group exercise, which lasts about 45 minutes. We then do a role-playing exercise, which is an individual exercise with two assessors. The assessors will act as clients and the candidate must draw out relevant information from them and build a rapport. Assessors are a mixture of partners, senior associates and graduate recruiters, and there will be two in every exercise.

We then do a verbal critical reasoning test before a speed networking session and lunch. The networking session is an opportunity for candidates to ask trainees some questions and it is not assessed. However, if someone says something inappropriate then the trainees would report that back to me.

After lunch, candidates do an abstract reasoning test; this involves spotting similarities and differences between shapes and patterns. Finally, there is a structured interview with two assessors.

How competitive should a candidate be in the group exercise?

That depends on the firm you’re applying to. You need to think carefully about the firm you’re applying to, their culture and the values and behaviours they are looking for. Our exercise is not a competition; we’re looking for people who can work collaboratively and who can build relationships.

I’ve seen group exercises descend into aggressive discussions and I don’t like that. That happens when everyone is trying to fight for air time. What’s most effective is when somebody recognises when someone is trying to have their say and then gives that person room to talk.

Imagine that at the end of a group exercise you have to choose between a geek, an entrepreneur, a leader and a wallflower. Who would you pick?

We would probably go for a combination of entrepreneurial and leadership qualities. We’re looking for partner potential at the assessment day. We want people who are potentially going to be future leaders and we like to have people who will challenge the status quo.

As a profession going through a lot of change at the moment, it’s important that we get people who are capable of innovation. Someone who does very well in the group exercise would be someone who has really given some good thought to their ideas, can back those ideas up with good evidence and who can then influence the rest of the group.

You don’t need to be hugely confident to do well in the group exercise but you do have to push yourself. Sometimes I have seen candidates in group exercises who at first seem shy, but after some reflection they will come out with one or two comments that will lead the discussion into a different direction – those types of people can do very well.

How can you strike the right balance between influencing somebody and forcing somebody to accept your ideas?

It’s down to style, the approach you take and how persuasive your argument is. If you can back up your ideas with sound logic, then people are likely to pick up on that. Some people are naturally very good at it, but it is something that you can improve on. One way to do that would be to put yourself into a situation where you have to attempt to persuade someone, such as fundraising.

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