Firm assessments

Law firms think they know what trainees want, but few are pushing the right buttons when it comes to graduate recruitment. Vivienne Wilson finds out what law students really really want from their prospective employers. Vivienne Wilson is senior reporter at Lex magazine.

Legal graduate recruitment is becoming more competitive. Brochures are getting glossier, advertising more widespread and law fairs are turning into Cecil B De Mille-like productions, all in the quest to lure the right students through the door.

Graduate recruitment heads tour the country with smiling trainees (and sometimes smiling partners) to spread “the message”.

Presentations, sponsored events and careers evenings have become a staple part of the student calendar and undergraduates become slowly submerged under piles of brochures, posters, mousemats and stress balls – each of them proclaiming that firm X is the right choice for a traineeship.

This frenetic and rather desperate process still leaves students paranoid about their chances of getting a job and the graduate recruitment heads knee-deep in application forms from solid 2:1 applicants.

Very few students target their applications to fewer than 15 firms, and firms are left asking themselves what students want out of their legal careers.

A recent survey, Tomorrow's Lawyers – student attitudes to a career in the law, shows numerous reasons for choosing a career in the law and what students want from the law firm they eventually join.

The cynical money-loving influence of the 1980s seems to have dissipated into a much more touchy-feely 1990s ethos.

Although most students will tell you that what they really want at the end of the LPC is a secure job offer and an end to their need for an overdraft facility, according to the survey, the top reason for choosing a career in the law is the promise of interaction with clients and working with people.

The two next most popular reasons for joining the legal profession are the challenging nature and variety of work. Perceived financial rewards actually came sixth, behind the chance for debating/advocacy and the intellectually stimulating nature of the work.

Bringing up the rear is job security, enjoyment of previous experience, the teamwork aspect and, finally, the perception of an interesting lifestyle.

Most law firms would claim, not unreasonably, that they cater for all of these desires.

However, firms are not communicating their strengths to potential candidates. Persuading a student to apply in the first place is difficult, but the difficulties grow as the student has to work their way through the application assault course.

Once an offer is made, the balance of power shifts from the recruiter to the recruited. The real crunch time for graduate recruiters comes when the chosen few are left to pick one firm over another.

The real question is, therefore, not which firms can offer what the students want, but whether the firms have really got the right message across. Have they shown themselves to their best advantage?

One of the major problems of presenting information to law students is the presumption within a law firm that students somehow inherently grasp the fundamental differences between themselves and their major competitors.

Although a lot of the brightest (or simply more diligent) students swot up on the City firms, they only gain a superficial knowledge of certain areas and can develop rather jaundiced and partial views. Sometimes they are more confused than ever.

When firms make the assumption that “everyone knows who we are”, they put off some of their potential recruits by not explaining the most basic points about themselves and by projecting an image of smugness.

Students may be ignorant of the politics of the legal market but they are extremely judgmental about the people skills of law firms and other potential recruiters.

Arrogant or patronising partners will not be tolerated. Students at particular universities have been known to avoid certain major firms because of the attitudes and the behaviour of the representatives of the firm at presentations.

Unfortunately a bad experience with these representatives can prejudice the students against the firms even if they have the best brochures, the most impressive stand at the law fair or the biggest pay packets.

Students want many things in a traineeship, and luckily the majority of firms can provide the teamwork, the intellectual stimulation, and the variety of the work and so on.

However, some continue to make the mistake of relying on their name and position in the market to sell themselves to students. In these cases the acceptance letters usually go to the other firms which have shown their candidates exactly where they will stand.

What other choices do students have?

It is not only other law firms that graduate recruitment departments have to compete with but also the lure of other careers. Of the students surveyed 85% intended to pursue a career in the law, with 12.5% undecided. Of the 2.5% who decided not to take this route the alternatives were varied, from retailing, tax consultancy and the diplomatic service to general business.

Although a career in the law is still seen as very attractive, just 17% said they were fully dedicated to law to the exclusion of all others. Banking and finance (15%) and general business (14%) were nearly as attractive, with 8% saying they might opt for a job in the public sector and 6% in entertainment or media.

What do students want from the law?

Company/commercial came top of the list of intended practice areas, with 31%. Proving perhaps that all the resource of commercial firms cannot reach everyone, crime and family both scored well, claiming 10% of participants in each case.

This article is based on the report Tomorrow's Lawyers – student attitudes to a career in the law, compiled in April 1999. It is based upon the data received from a questionnaire sent out with the Spring Term 1999 issue of Lex. The report is based upon 521 responses. Tomorrow's Lawyers is available from New City Media for £99.