Training: Children of the crunch
18 November 2013 | By Becky Waller-Davies
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Even the prestigious City firms are facing challenges when it comes to recruiting the best as recession-hardened students get tempted by other institutions and with new skills on the must-have list
The legal profession’s rapid evolution is sending shockwaves through many parts of the industry. Unlike regional firms focused on less high-end work, City firms have traditionally been seen as somewhat insulated from the harsh winds of change.
But the evolution of firms’ roles from simply providing legal advice to understanding a client’s business innately, being able to predict business activity and put in place measures to ensure clients’ security in the market, has brought new challenges for legal graduate recruitment.
As firms’ concerns reflect concerns in other parts of the City, so the type of graduate that recruiters need to attract edges closer to that model. Law firms are not just competing with each other for the best but are battling with banks and management consultancies as well as their old rivals the accountants.
More routes into the profession have also heaped pressure on recruiters. Candidates who were once faced with a single option – studying for a degree and gaining a training contract – are now able to secure an in-house training contract, possibly with a City establishment. Other candidates, talented but without the safety net of parental financial support, may choose to become lawyers via the apprenticeship route as university and professional education fees increase.
“There are different types of talent,” RPC HR and graduate resourcing manager Kali Butler says. “You need people who can do law, yes, but you also need good business people and they may not be from the routes we would have looked to five or six years ago.
“That means the talent you’re looking for is even more closely aligned with what is needed in other City roles such as accountancy or banking, because roles are so much broader in terms of the skills they need.”
Butler acknowledges that to a certain degree the legal sector has always competed with other City institutions. But she believes competition has heightened as the skill-set needed to be a successful City lawyer has broadened.
A broader skill-set should mean that a greater number of students are attracted to firms, but the cream of the crop of those students is always the goal for every recruiter.
Hogan Lovells associate director of legal resources Clare Harris believes the key challenge for many City firm graduate recruiters is communicating to graduates the scope of a lawyer’s required expertise.
“We don’t have a lot of difficulty in attracting people – we attract more people than we need,” she says. “But helping candidates understand what is involved in being a professional services provider, what is involved in serving clients, having to show flexibility and adaptability, and a genuine interest and understanding in what their businesses are all about – it’s trying to convey that to them that’s the hardest thing.”
She adds: “A lot of people understand that you have to be clever and you’ve got to be able to read a lot of material and be good with words, but the other thing is more tricky to grasp. It’s what differentiates a brilliant trainee or lawyer. It’s the old thing of clients not wanting to hear every point of law – they want to know how to solve the problem.”
The rest of the City is not the only talent drain for firms. An increasing number of candidates are being attracted by less traditional options. According to Butler, PR and marketing are increasingly common culprits, tempting graduates historically drawn to the City.
This is not necessarily a disadvantage for candidates. Future solicitors may shy away from revealing that other career aspirations have ever crossed their minds, but recruiters often find these admissions only add to a candidate’s appeal.
“You get applicants who have looked at different sectors – teaching, marketing, banking or accountancy – and the more a candidate has looked at a variety of sectors and then chosen the one they want their career to be in, the more motivated you’d hope they are,” Butler says. “The more you sift out ideas, the more it adds to a candidate’s skills – they have more to talk about and can talk with more passion about the industry they have decided on.”
To combat the drain on talent from other industries firms are approaching students at an earlier stage. Giving sixth-form career talks and targeting first-years at university is now the norm.
Butler recognises that graduates are being forced to make career decisions at an earlier stage than before, and that this leaves less room for experimentation.
She says: “Rewind six years and [students] would have been able to apply to summer schemes in the legal sector and also in another industry such as accountancy, and then make that decision, but now they are having to decide much earlier. Firms have started to look at younger people, at A-level and first-year undergraduates, and I suppose that makes it more competitive in some ways but it’s also opening up awareness at a younger age.”
Harris believes that asking students to decide their futures at such an early stage can have a detrimental effect on how sure students are that a career is for them. This uncertainty then raises another hurdle for graduate recruiters to jump.
“We see students who are not sure about what they want to do,” she says. “Often with law students it’s a question of being able to step back from their peers and ask themselves whether they want a career in law just because they studied it. Some people don’t see beyond the two-year training contract. Some think they will get the training and go off and do something else. That’s often as a result of following the pressure from somebody else rather than doing what they want to do.”
This pressure is often greater for students who chose to study law, rather than their non-law counterparts.
“It can be compounded for law students because we target them when they are quite young,” Harris adds. “If you look at vacation scheme applicants we target them the year after they leave school. There’s often a marked difference between non-law students, who have had a bit of extra time, and the law students.”
Targeting 20-year-old students is inherently problematic. Although some candidates are honest with themselves and with recruiters, many are not. It is then a recruiter’s role to sift through candidates, questioning motivations and drive until they can say for certain that a candidate wants that role and that role only, rather than regarding an offer as just one career option.
“I suppose firms have had to become more aware, as everybody in recruitment has, that the kind of candidates you want have broader skills and will be considering multiple options,” Butler muses. “It’s not a done deal that someone will have done a law degree and want to become a lawyer.
“Candidates are very savvy nowadays. If you’re talking to a graduate, or somebody who is just about to graduate with good grades – usually non-law, but not always – they’re asking specific questions but are still weighing up their options.”
Questions heard regularly by graduate recruiters about a decade ago at the height of the boom, such as ‘How quickly could I make partner?’, have been replaced with questions on how firms will develop and nurture their staff, and how they might future-proof them.
Many students and graduates have gained awareness and determination in the downturn.
“The recession has focused people,” Harris notes. “I’ve noticed on my university visits that students are a lot more focused. There’s less swagger and less ‘what can you do for me?’, which you used to get in the boom-time. That’s changed.”
“They’ll be thinking about training and learning and development and where their career can go,” Butler says. “Candidates are more demanding in the questions they ask firms. What kind of learning and development will I get? What kind of training will I get? How much are you going to invest in me?”
This future-proofing is evident in some candidates’ inclination to view the legal profession as a back-up, protecting themselves if a preferred bid for another industry does not work out.
“One problem in a recession is that people look at you as an alternative career; they might really want to do finance or management consultancy,” Harris acknowledges. “We’re quite good at sifting those people though. And vacation schemes help. If they knuckle down and do some work and get a feel for the dynamic of the office and are honest with themselves, they are better prepared.”
The chosen few
As candidates jump the various hurdles to getting a training contract, so recruiters are able to whittle down their selection to those focused on law.
“By the time we make an offer, if that offer is declined it’s never to go and do something else,” Harris says. “It’s to go to another law firm. At the offer stage we don’t lose out to other industries – thinking about other industries has stopped by then. Even by the beginning of the second year many are focusing on the vacation schemes.”
She believes there is no question that the battle for talent is intense. As lawyers become ever-more commercial in their thinking, so greater commercial nous is required from an early stage.
“Even if you just look at the people who have got good grades from GCSE or A-level onwards, you have to ask if they are entrepreneurial – are they business-focused?” Harris stresses. “You want to make sure you get people who thrive in this environment and that’s always the thing that you have to work on as a recruiter.”
For those candidates who remain unsure in the early stages of application, trying to measure and assess opportunities in different industries, Butler believes transparency is key, benefiting both recruiter and potential recruit.
“They will want to see what other options are out there, so as a firm it’s about being honest and genuine about what we can offer,” she says. “You can’t make promises you can’t keep. The route we’ve sometimes taken is to be quite bold in putting someone off and telling them when it will not be right for them.”
Technology, especially the stratospheric rise of social media, has changed the way firms communicate with graduates.
It is easy to forget that less than a decade ago Facebook use was limited to Ivy League university students and Twitter had not even been created. Now every firm, and every student, has both. Both groups are constantly checking the feeds in their pocket, updating their profiles and scanning the profiles making up their feed.
Law firms are not the most obvious candidates for social media domination. A firm’s intrinsically cautious nature and safe, measured, controlled image does not usually make for chatty off-the-cuff posts and updates.
The exception to this rule is the graduate recruitment team. Even the most traditional firm knows the power of free advertising. The challenge of establishing a brand presence, and the presence of a human behind that brand, has fallen to graduate recruiters.
In addition to establishing this presence, recruiters have to worry about what other social media users might be saying about their institution. Generation Y is not just bombarded with information, it is surrounded by it. If an unfavourable stray Tweet about a firm lands in a student’s newsfeed, chances are they will think twice about working for it.
“There is now more information available to [candidates] more quickly,” Butler confirms. “Firms have had to be more open about what the work looks like.
“It comes back to firms needing to be more honest about what this role and this industry is like – what people can expect and where their career path will take them as well as the pitfalls of going down this route, being bolder about the truth and not sugar-coating it. Hopefully, we have done that and I see other firms working in that direction too.”