There’s more to becoming a successful lawyer than passing lots of exams. But fear not, the College of Law’s Rachel Harris is here to help

Q.Friends are talking about applying for vacation placements: is it essential?

A.No, it’s not essential, but is highly recommended as more and more firms are using vacation placements as an integral part of their recruitment process.

Recruiting and training are a big commitment for any firm and obviously a major commitment for you. Vacation placements give both parties a chance to ‘check each other out’ before making a decision that could result in the firm recruiting the wrong person, or the candidate joining the wrong firm.

Vacation placements are fiercely sought after (often it’s harder to get an offer of a vacation placement than it is a training contract), so get your act together early, check application deadlines and treat your application as seriously as you would an application for a training contract.

Q.I’ve recently been for interviews where the interviewer has asked why my results weren’t better. I can’t really claim ‘mitigating circumstances’, so what should I say?

A.Firstly, don’t go on the defensive; the interviewer wouldn’t be wasting their time and yours if they felt that you didn’t stand a chance of getting the job.

If, as you say, you don’t have genuine mitigating circumstances, don’t come up with excuses such as “I had a bad teacher”. Employers want to see a positive person, who takes responsibility for their own actions.

Be honest but positive. A response could be: “I was disappointed with my results, which I don’t feel reflect my true potential. Since then, I have gone on to achieve…” and talk about all the other strengths and experiences you would be bringing to the table.

Q.Why is all the literature on large corporate or commercial firms? I want to work for a small local firm – how do I find about them?

A.The larger firms obviously account for a large proportion of all trainees. Roughly a third of all training contracts are with City firms, which have the resources to orchestrate sophisticated recruitment campaigns.

Smaller firms that occasionally recruit one or perhaps two trainees do not have the need or resources to promote themselves on such a massive scale. It can therefore be more difficult to research a smaller firm.

Start by looking at any literature published by the firm, if there is none, carry out more general research into the practice areas offered by the firm and any literature published by other similar-sized firms in the area. The legal press, legal directories, and specialist journals, such as, Family Law Practitioner, are also good sources of information.

Remember: find out what a firm is like, the best way is to go and see it. Give the firm(s) you are interested in a call, explain your situation and ask if you could either come and talk to someone or do some ‘work shadowing’. One thing leads to another and once you have a foot in the door, it may be your route to a training contract: it was for me.

Q.What is ‘Carter’? I was asked if I had any views about it at interview and couldn’t answer the question.

A.Keeping up with developments in the legal market is essential for a would-be lawyer. It is very common for interviewers to ask for your opinion on topical legal issues, to check that you are savvy enough to have done your homework and are aware of the bigger legal picture.

You don’t say what sort of firm you were being interviewed by; if it was a legal aid firm, they would be particularly keen to see whether you were aware of the climate they are operating in.

In a nutshell, Lord Carter published his review of legal aid procurement in July this year, recommending significant changes in the way that practitioners work and are remunerated. For further details, do a search on the legal press online.

But well done for following up on a question you couldn’t answer. After every interview, write down the questions you were asked and a note of how you’d answer them differently with the benefit of hindsight. It’s the best possible preparation for next time. n

Rachel Harris is director of careers at the College of Law