Essential credentials for securing a contract

Claire Smith reports on what recruiting law firms are really looking for when they go about selecting their trainees.

Educational excellence, good interpersonal skills, a list of positions of responsibility, work experience in City law firms and FTSE 100 companies, the ability to speak another language, a good sense of humour – the recruiter's list goes on and on.

Securing that training contract in a top City law firm may seem like it borders on the impossible, but graduate recruitment partners insist they are not looking for a superhuman.

The first thing they all vehemently deny is a preference for Oxbridge candidates.

“We have trainees from most academic institutions in the UK,” says Alison Beardsley, graduate recruitment partner and partner in the corporate department at Allen & Overy.

“Over the years we have recruited from all over the place, although some universities are obviously more fruitful than others,” she says.

“It is quite clear that Oxbridge is not the only place for legal minds.”

According to Herbert Smith recruitment and litigation partner Paula Hodges, moving away from Oxbridge makes for a more interesting life.

“We never take more than half our trainees from Oxbridge,” she says.

“We like a mixture from a number of universities, because a good sprinkling of universities means a good mix of personalities and people.

“The people from Oxbridge are not necessarily the brightest candidates.”

So assuming your choice of university has not let you down, and that your CV is riddled with top grades and fascinating hobbies, what exactly have you got to prove when you get to the interview?

“A sense of humour is very important,” says Freshfields graduate recruitment partner Hugh Crisp. “We use what we call 'the wet weekend in Wigan test'. If we'd be happy to spend a reasonably long length of time with you, that is probably a good sign.”

Tim Shipton, recruitment and corporate partner at Linklaters, takes a similar view. “We want someone who fits in with our organisation, a character we would like to see in our corridors. If we think we can work with them and they are a person we'd like to talk to, they are probably halfway there.”

But how do you know if you will fit in with the organisation you are approaching? The answer is a combination of work experience and meticulous research into the firm.

“Work experience is always good, so that we can be confident that the person knows what they are taking on,” says Crisp.

“If they haven't done a placement we need to be certain they have spoken to a lot of people and they know what they are doing.”

He says it is not obligatory to have work experience in a City firm. “At the end of the day we are in a service industry, so experience as a waitress or on a checkout can be useful.”

Clifford Chance recruitment and litigation partner Simon Davis also dispenses with the idea that work experience at a big firm is the only way to get a foot in the door.

“Experience in any kind of work environment is useful,” he says. “If not at a City firm then some experience of an office is useful.”

It might not be a good idea to dispense with the work experience plan altogether, but long lists of placements are not what the recruiters are looking for.

“It helps if people have done a vacation placement,” says Hodges. “But one is enough, you don't need to rack up three or four vacation schemes.”

Beardsley says: “We like to see some City work experience, not necessarily with a firm like us, and ideally something to compare that with, either a small firm or a regional one.”

All the recruiters admit that what it really comes down to is showing that you know what you want, and being able to convince the interviewer that their firm is the one for you.

“One thing I would say to students is that it is all about being prepared and knowing about the firm,” says Cary Kochberg, recruitment and litigation partner at Lovell White Durrant. “They need to do some research on what attracts them to us, not just any large firm but why us rather than someone else.

“Many people are quite well prepared, but there are still a lot who aren't and it's a big disadvantage to them. They should go to the large number of resources available to them and find out as much as they can.”

He adds: “We don't want them telling us what we tell them we offer them. We want to know on a personal level what we are offering them, and we like somebody to put a little thought into that.

“People say they have always wanted to work in the City, but we want them to say why.”

And as if endless swotting up on the firms was not enough, they also want to see a decent knowledge of the commercial world that you want to step into.

Shipton says: “Very often we start a conversation by asking them if they follow the world of commerce. We ask them to talk us through a business story they have been following and that way we can see if they understand the commercial activity. They need to read the newspapers and understand the deals, it is no good coming up with superficial answers. They should have views about the euro and be able to discuss the increasing amount of M&A activity.”

As firms become increasingly global the attraction of language experts and those who have spent time travelling is obvious, but no recruiter would yet describe them as essential.

“Languages are very helpful as we expand our foreign network,” says Kochberg. “But they are not in any sense a prerequisite.

However, Kevin Mooney, recruitment and intellectual property partner at Simmons & Simmons, says his firm is increasingly looking for linguists. “Languages are of considerable use and they could certainly make a difference to an application,” he says.

“We are thinking of making some kind of language a must. Students with a language would have an advantage and we would offer training to those without.”

Travelling is only regarded as a plus if you can justify it.

“If people have taken a year out it depends very much on what they have done,” says Kochberg. “We don't want people who have just sat on a beach, they have to have done something productive to widen their experiences.

“With all firms becoming more global it helps if they have travelled and dealt with people from different cultures using different languages.”

But while the firms might agree that justifying yourself is the key to everything, they cannot agree on exactly what they look for in potential trainees.

“We are not looking for trainees just to stay as lawyers,” says Kochberg. “We want to see them progress as lawyers and hopefully become partners. We want people who are not scared of responsibility, we don't take people on just to help us out.”

But Robert Halton, human resources director at Dibb Lupton Alsop, takes a more proactive view. “Our job is to develop our trainees and bring them on. We have to think are they going to make a good trainee rather than are they going to make a good partner.

“We recruit to retain. If we can find a good trainee we can turn them into a good associate, and from that into a good partner.”

And he adds perhaps the most encouraging comment of all: “Born partners are few and far between.”