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As one of the world’s preeminent commercial law firms, Clifford Chance has always prided itself on being a pioneer, something that really shows in its unique multi-award-winning SPARK programme.
Open to first-year students from all degree backgrounds and universities, as well as secondyear students on four-year degrees, it offers the opportunity to secure a training contract (the two years of on-the-job training required to qualify as a solicitor) a year before law students traditionally start to apply for them. Once you have a training contract offer, the firm keeps in touch with you throughout your degree. They will arrange for you to take part in a number of ‘cultivation’ activities all with the sole focus of helping your personal and professional development. These range from business awareness training courses to LIFT internships with other top-name organisations, such as the Invictus Games Foundation.
During the SPARK week, you’ll experience life at Clifford Chance and its different practice areas (specialisms), taking part in interactive workshops and work-shadowing opportunities. What’s more, the programme will be tailored according to your interests and development areas. You’ll be paid £450 for the week and there is a bursary to provide financial assistance for those who need it. No wonder that it has won multiple awards for being the best work experience programme out there.
Meet Oliver and Tyra
Oliver James and Tyra Ntege completed the SPARK programme (in 2017 and 2018 respectively) and received training contract offers. Oliver has just started his, while Tyra is about to begin her vocational training course. But back when they applied, they saw the programme more as an opportunity to explore law and City life. ‘There was a buzz among my fellow students around how you could get a training contract,’ recalls Oliver, who studied law at UCL. ‘However, I also saw it as a brilliant way to discover what a commercial law career entails.’
Tyra, who studied law at the University of Kent, now mentors students interested in law careers and always recommends SPARK: ‘It really is the best of the best. There aren’t many first-year schemes that offer you so much access to the work of the firm and its people. Sometimes students don’t realise that they can apply to a top-tier law firm, but I’d encourage you not to do yourself out of an opportunity; after all, I found my place at Clifford Chance.’
Both were delighted to have secured training contracts – as Oliver says, ‘It means that you don’t have to stress about your career and can focus on enjoying your degree.’ They agree that the reason they’ve remained committed to careers with Clifford Chance is the culture of the firm.
An inclusive culture
‘I first came across Clifford Chance when I took part in careers programmes aimed at BAME students,’ remembers Tyra. ‘The head of graduate recruitment spoke about how the firm is passionate about increasing diversity. She admitted that they weren’t yet where they wanted to be, but I saw that there was a genuine willingness to change.’ Tyra has seen that commitment grow – particularly through the BAME employee network, REACH. ‘I’ve read the statements released by the managing partner, as well as other members of the firm on LinkedIn, around Black Lives Matter,’ she says. ‘I do read these sorts of statements with a critical eye, but I was impressed. They were prompt, thorough and straightforward.’
The statement from the managing partner was followed up with a support pack from REACH, empowering employees to learn more. It ties in with the firm’s specific diversity targets around increasing the number of females, those from ethnic minority backgrounds and those who identify as LGBTQ+ at partner and senior business professional level.
Oliver was only recently out when he went on the SPARK programme. ‘On SPARK, I attended an amazing talk by the head of Arcus, Clifford Chance’s LGBTQ+ network – the prominence of Arcus showed me that this was somewhere I could be my true self,’ he says. ‘At Clifford Chance people don’t say “It doesn’t matter that you are queer”; they say, “It does matter and this is how we will support you”.’
SPARK’s focus on practice areas
What stands out to Oliver and Tyra about SPARK now is how much insight it gave them into business and law. ‘I got a lot out of the practice area talks, which included networking and case study sessions,’ Tyra recalls. ‘Before that week, I didn’t think I’d ever be interested in tax law, but now I’m considering doing a seat (rotation) in it during my training contract!’
They built on their new knowledge when work-shadowing. ‘I sat in real estate with a senior associate who let me listen in on a client call,’ Oliver says. ‘He was super busy but made time to give me a detailed brief and I got so much more out of the call because of it.’
The consideration shown by the senior associate was typical of Oliver and Tyra’s experiences on the programme. ‘Everyone at the firm seemed invested in us, even before we had been offered training contracts,’ recalls Tyra. Oliver also remembers a casual conversation he had with the managing partner on the SPARK programme: ‘He shouldn’t have had time for me, but he found time. The best thing about Clifford Chance is its people.’
Stretching your potential
Throughout the week, the firm puts on training sessions designed to develop your skills and your confidence, whether or not you join the firm. Tyra recalls one she found particularly helpful: ‘We had a skills session with an award-winning trainer about moving out of your comfort zone. He explained how, at first, he wasn’t comfortable giving presentations, which surprised me because he came across so well,’ she says. ‘This inspired me to stretch myself – for example, I was nervous about asking “silly” questions, but this encouraged me to not worry about it.’
In fact, throughout the SPARK scheme, students were encouraged to ask questions, even awkward ones: ‘A lawyer in one of our talks was pregnant and the girls asked her about what working in the City is like when you are pregnant; I didn’t feel that she held back in her answers,’ Tyra says.
Socialising with the firm
Another important element of the programme is the social side. ‘We got to do stuff that you don’t usually get to do as a student: everything from immersive theatre to going to the club Bounce,’ says Oliver. ‘I’ve since been invited back for further socials. Probably the highlight was when I went along to Clifford Chance’s box at the O2 to see Britney Spears.’
This content first appeared in the UK 300, a product developed and created by the editors at TARGETjobs.