5 minutes with Joanne Smallwood
What really stands out in an application form?
The application form is your opportunity to provide a positive first impression. As a lawyer you are expected to communicate your thoughts in a structured and succinct way. The application allows you to demonstrate your written style. Applications that stand out are those where the question has been considered and a well thought out, detailed answer is given, with a flow and structure to it. This shows the recruiter how much consideration you have given to the application.
What criteria do you mark candidates against in job applications?
We use a scoring matrix throughout the recruitment process looking at six main behaviours; Thinking, Communication, Drive and Enthusiasm, Resilience, Teamwork and Commitment to our business and our clients.
What kind of extracurricular activities really impress you on an application?
There is no one particular activity that impresses, all experience is good experience. We are interested in meeting well rounded applicants, which means you need to show interests outside of academia. Make sure you have a genuine interest in your extracurricular activities, your enthusiasm really comes across during the interview and it will look less like a 'tick box exercise'.
What are the main reasons you reject a training contract or vacation scheme application?
Lack of effort: an application that clearly comes across as a 'rush job' will not make it through. A successful application takes time and effort.
We what to learn who you are, see your individuality in the application.
What makes the difference between a good application and an excellent one?
Getting your personality across. Most applicants will have solid academics, alongside work experience, society positions etc. Showing your personal motivation and drive really makes an application standout. Don’t be afraid to be yourself or second guess what we are looking for, we honestly want to get to know you, there are no right or wrong answers in our process.
How can candidates get across their commercial awareness in an application?
Commercial awareness is a tricky one as it can mean different things to different people. For me it comes down to general awareness. Awareness of the firm you are applying to; have you done your research (not just a quick internet search); why you are applying to the firm? do you know about their client base and the markets and locations in which they work?
Proactively engaging in the community you will be working in, is a great way to demonstrate your enthusiasm and commercial awareness. For example staying up to date with developments via your local Chamber of Commerce or local enterprise partnerships.
What do the vac schemers who go on to get a training contract at your firm do on the scheme to show they’ve got what it takes to be a successful solicitor?
They get involved with the business as whole. Realising this is an opportunity to gain an understanding of the firm's culture, support network, the people who work in the business and a feel for the work of a junior lawyer.
Taking every opportunity open to them and keeping them too.
How do you assess vacation scheme students?
Applicants are assessed by their supervisors, wider team and the training contract interview; which takes place during the placement week. We are looking for someone's potential; we do not expect them to be the finished article.
How can people make up for the fact that they haven’t done any work experience at a law firm?
We do not expect applicants to have legal experience, we appreciate how difficult it can be to find. However, there is no excuse not to engage with law firms, there will always be firm presentations on campus, law fairs, firm insight days and you are always welcome to contact the recruitment team directly if you have any queries. Applicants must be proactive.
How can somebody make the right impression at a law fair?
Be interested. Come prepared with questions you want to ask not questions you feel you should ask. Please do not approach an all service law firm and ask what their specialism is; this will highlight your lack of research and genuine interest in the firm.
What skills and competencies do you look for candidates to demonstrate on assessment days?
As with the application the behaviours we would like to see during the assessment day are; Thinking; Communication, Teamwork, Drive and Enthusiasm, resilience and a Commitment to our business and our clients.
Our assessment days comprise of an individual exercise, a group exercise and an interview. All three activities should allow you to demonstrate these behaviours.
Thinking about your assessment day, what skills are you looking for from the group exercise?
Depending on the activity, the group exercise will allow us to see your resilience, thinking style, communication, teamwork and drive and enthusiasm (engagement).
Always take your natural position within the group, do not try and be something or someone you are not.
What’s your advice to those who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in group exercises?
As a lawyer you will be expected to work with different groups of people, whether internally or externally, with your clients, in-house lawyers or other professionals.
We do not expect everyone to be leaders, nor do we want just leaders coming into our business. That is not how a team works. However, we do expect you to engage with the exercise and make a contribution. This can be in the form of scribe, active listener, time keeper etc.
At times you will need to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, this will happen throughout your careers. See this as a learning experience, an opportunity to grow and develop a skill set.
How can you tell whether a candidate really wants the job?
One of our behaviours is drive and enthusiasm. We cannot teach you this, this is something you come to us with and this behaviour allows you to demonstrate your desire to join our business. Being present and engaged in the process is key.
If you are motivated to join us you will take the opportunities given to you; come and meet us on campus, attend one of our events, speak to people during your assessment day.
What kind of questions should candidates ask at interview? What shouldn’t they ask?
We do not expect you to ask a question at interview if you do not have one; there is so much more information available to candidates these days, whether on our website, social media platforms or campus events.
If you would like to ask a question, consider your research. Did anything surprise you about the firm, what does the future look like, are you interest in a certain sector / piece of work carried out ….
Law firms tell us that they try hard to encourage STEM students to apply for training contracts. The link between law and science may not be an obvious one. Why do scientists make good lawyers?
All non-law students (not just STEM) can make great lawyers. They bring something different to the table. We work with a diverse group of people and therefore need a diverse team to succeed. For example scientists are inquisitive, analytical thinkers. Law offers opportunities to work with emerging technology, pharmaceutical companies, intellectual property, chemical manufacturing and healthcare, to name but a few of our sectors.
How can non-law students show their commitment to a career in law when they haven’t necessarily been exposed to university law societies, law clinics and mooting events?
There are many ways to show your interest in law. Visit public galleries within your local law courts and tribunals. Visit the law fairs and attend the on-campus presentations. Most universities have non-law societies; if yours does not have one; set one up.
Law firm open days and internships are also open to both law and non-law students.