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June 26 2020

How to kick-start your Legal Career

Legal Career Tips

Harry Mellor

Harry Mellor

A motivational sign and a laptop

Starting your legal career is the hardest part of the journey, and with current conditions, this has never been more true. To help those currently starting this journey, Mary Bonsor, co-founder and CEO of Flex Legal, and Sophie Gould, Flex’s Head of Learning & Development, recently based one of our monthly Virtual Lunches this topic, in order to hear from the experts what works and what doesn’t when it comes to applications and assessment days.

We were very pleased to be joined by Angela Tang, Innovation Consultant at a Magic Circle firm; Oliver Searle, Senior In-house Counsel at Chevron Lubricants; Amber Parslow, Co-Vice Chair of the London Young Lawyers Group and future trainee at Baker McKenzie; and Harry Clark, Founder of the More from Law podcast and future trainee at Baker McKenzie.

Getting into law

Depending on your current stage, it may seem like the route into law is a straightforward one: apply for vacation schemes at the start of your second year of law school, receive a training contract offer off the back of these, before heading straight into your LPC after you graduate. Although this works out for some, it is certainly not the only way into a legal career.

For Amber, it was only after she graduated and attained some practical experience through a paralegal role that she felt it was the right time for her to excel at training contract interviews.

“I went to university in 2014 and attended my first assessment centre in 2015. The whole process knocked my confidence - everyone there spoke well and was really confident, and I just felt like the odd one out. I graduated in 2016 and went travelling around America for two months. This helped my applications more than I realised because it allowed me to show my personality and interests in a unique way. I also worked at a legal recruitment firm for a few months which helped to develop my transferable skills like ringing clients, emailing, and organising my workload. I then got my first paralegal job through F-LEX, working in the Gherkin! This was great, but I found I had a lot of extra capacity, so I volunteered to take on the firm’s internal GDPR compliance project because I had an interest in data protection and privacy law. It was this experience that allowed me to secure a paralegal role at Baker McKenzie, which ultimately led to my training contract offer.”

Similarly, Harry went through three rounds of vacation scheme and training contract applications before he was successful in securing his training contract at Baker McKenzie.

“I made all sorts of application mistakes along the way and these are the reasons I’ve been trying to write about them publicly for the best part of a year now. One particular example I will give is during my initial rounds of applications, I had the terrible strategy of copying and pasting my answers onto various application forms. On one occasion I forgot to change the name of the firm, so the opening line was addressed to a different person at a completely different firm! I think I got that rejection back in about 24 hours! Of course, don’t do this, but in the bigger picture it is important to really tailor your application to the firm you are applying to. You shouldn’t be able to swap out the name of that firm with another.”

Some professional insights

Oliver’s experiences highlight the changes that have occurred during his time within the legal industry.

“Diversity within the legal field is still something that we must work on and we still have a long way to go. However, in my workplace, I always feel I can bring my authentic self to work in a way that wasn’t possible in the past, so there is the capacity to change. The current situation can be unsettling in terms of security but it is important to remember that new roles are constantly being created with the increasing use of technology, so with a greater skill set, comes greater opportunity.”

Although times are tough, Angela thinks that firms have learnt a lot from 2008.

“The best law firms will continue with their graduate recruitment because they are completely aware of how valuable you are as an investment. I joined the legal sector after the last recession and from my perspective, law firms have learnt an awful lot. They know how to be more robust and more agile. A lot of the things firms learnt how to do more than a decade ago, they are simply doing again now, which I think is massively positive.”

How to write a successful application

Tailor your applications: You shouldn’t be able to swap out the name of the firm you are applying to with the name of another firm! If you can, it is unlikely that your application will impress. Consider the following: have you met the firm/its representatives? Do you know its core practice strengths? Trainee intake size? Seat rotations? Clients? Secondment opportunities? Values? Culture? It is important to understand these characteristics to determine whether the firm will complement your skillset and aspirations.

Why commercial law? Having a watertight answer to this is key, both during the written application stage and at interview. When a law firm offers you a training contract, they are investing in you. And like any investment, firms expect to see a return at some point in the future. However, if a trainee decides that commercial law isn’t for them during their training contract, the firm will never see a return on their initial investment. Convincing firms (and being certain yourself) that you want to pursue a commercial legal career, and the reasons why, is crucial to getting an offer. So how do you do this? Write a narrative that is personal to you. What piqued your interest? An open day at a firm? A module you studied at university? Then explain how you furthered your interest and consolidated your understanding: did you gain further work experience? Attend networking events? Having a genuine story about why you want to pursue commercial law will impress a lot more than your ‘excitement to work on cutting edge global deals’.

Utilise your strengths: You all have a specific set of superpowers - you just need to identify what your individual superpowers are. This has been particularly apparent to Oliver, who has found that his strengths lie in approaching problems from an empathetic and creative point of view. Also, consider how these strengths can add value to a law firm: drawing on a range of legal and non-legal experiences, as well as considering different perspectives, helps to create innovative solutions and makes you stand out as a candidate.

Ask for constructive criticism: This isn’t always easy, however understanding what went wrong from the firm’s perspective allows you to target this area for improvement. Also, never be afraid to simply lay your cards on the table! Mary was initially rejected from the firm she trained at, however was offered a training contract for the following year after contacting HR and explaining that she would be happy to wait. This won’t work out for everyone, but having the confidence to communicate with firms is a key skill.

Commercial/current awareness: This must be continually developed, and cannot be swotted overnight. Having a general understanding of how current affairs and the wider business sector is impacted is key to becoming the ‘trusted adviser’ that clients seek - and certainly key to impressing a firm. Consider subscribing to daily news digests like Finimize or listening to the FT News Briefing for quick updates, or better still, read a reputable broadsheet paper on a daily basis.

Writing style: Even if you have all of the above down to a tee, your application can be disregarded if you don’t communicate in a clear and concise manner. The person reading your application will likely have a large pile left to read after yours. Be kind to them - convey your point in simple terms and make sure every sentence adds value to your answer.

General tips to consider

Have an open mind about the type of law you want to pursue: There are lots of different legal areas. Make sure to explore different departments outside of your vacation scheme/training contract seat. You won’t know if you want to pursue a type of law until you try it!

Actively listen instead of waiting for your turn to speak: It is easy to miss verbal/behavioural nuances when you aren’t paying proper attention.

Always ask yourself how you can improve: Even when you have been successful at something, consider how you can do it better next time.

When asking for help, provide some possible solutions (even if you’re not sure they’re correct): This shows the person you are asking that you have given proper thought to the problem and aren’t simply turning to them to take it off your hands.

Keep a sense of perspective: Just because you haven’t succeeded at this moment in time doesn’t mean that you won’t eventually, and be more resilient as a result. A year or two is a drop in the ocean when looking at the bigger picture of your legal career

And most importantly, be yourself: Don't change who you are because that one firm doesn’t think that you’ll fit their working culture. There is an employer who will value your exact skillset, you just need to find them and let them see your authentic self.

A non-exhaustive list of key skills

Adaptability - Especially in the current climate. Having candidates who are flexible and responsive to challenges is ideal for firms..

Emotional Intelligence - Empathetic nature and curiosity to drive innovation.

Creativity - Free thinking approach to problems which allows for innovative ideas to be developed.

Entrepreneurialism - Always thinking about how to elevate the business.

Commercial understanding - An understanding of how different sectors and current affairs impact clients.

Collaboration - Being able to work effectively within a team is an essential skill. Similarly, having the confidence to ask senior team members for help when necessary is key to working effectively.