There is a wealth of advice available about how to bag a training contract at a magic circle law firm but this is not where all lawyers choose to work and not, statistically, where the majority will end up working. So what about the small and medium sized firms? In a talk provided by Darlingtons Solicitors, Westminster University law students got an insight into this world. Jane Taylor shares what she learned.

Personal development, steps, ladder, career

Changing world, changing clients….

The population of practicing solicitors has exploded in the last 30 years, giving firms and clients alike more choice about which solicitors they choose to take on. This inevitably means that competition between law firms has increased as they start undercutting one another and, as we all know, it is getting harder and harder to find training contracts.

At the same time, a cultural shift means that clients have changed and their expectations are higher. Deference is dead. Clients are no longer content to meet with a cold and unapproachable lawyer; they want a service and, to boot, they want more value for money.

Technology disrupts the lawyer’s traditional role….

We’re yet to see a takeover by robot lawyers but technology has still had a profound impact on the legal industry. In many professions, notably medicine, the internet has played an important role in changing the balance of power between the professionals and service users. Law is no exception. Clients are more willing to take an active role in their cases as they research their problems online and self-diagnose.

Also, in the increasingly litigious society we now live in, clients also sometimes try to push new lawyers to cross the line from giving legal advice to making decisions for them and thus shifting liability onto the lawyer.

Lastly, the internet has made brand building more important than ever and the default option for legal advice is no longer to walk into the local solicitor’s office but to check online, including on social media. For this type of potential client, if your firm doesn’t have a real web presence, they might as well not exist.

Dynamic firms are constantly looking for ways to boost their online profile in novel ways, such as by providing sponsorship for events or causes. Firms are under pressure to invest in cyber security too, with more of their client interactions being conducted online and internet fraud on the increase.

Accountants and estate agents are the lawyer’s new best friend…

With SMEs providing the bread and butter of many law firms’ caseloads, it seems unfair that fees of accountants and estate agents are routinely budgeted for, while legal fees are not. Lawyers struggle to get a look-in because they suffer from an image problem that their services don’t save the client money. Accountants are seen as the trusted advisors, which means they have the ear of the client.

However, lawyers can exploit this connection by building business relationships with accountants and estate agents to get their recommendation.

What does all this mean for aspiring lawyers and what do small and medium sized legal firms want?

According to Darlingtons marketing manager Craig Sharpe, progressive firms now want someone who has the social skills to gain the trust of their clients, provide legal advice with customer service and work in a team with their fellow lawyers and other professionals with common goals and mutual benefits. They want someone who can see not only the legal implications of a strategy but the client’s perspective of financial risk, proportionality and costs.

Most importantly, they want someone who will take an active role in growing the legal business and add value to the firm, not just sit at the back of the boat while everyone else is paddling.

Think like a law firm

Just as law firms need to understand their clients, law students need to understand their potential employers. If you want to get a training contract, learn to think like a law firm. The harsh reality is they get so many applications that boring CVs, no matter how good the grades, risk being thrown in the bin.

Aside from the obvious of decent grades and work experience, demonstrate that you have an entrepreneurial spirit by starting something; fundraising, a blog, a student law clinic. Look for opportunities to show teamwork.

Nobody said it was easy!

Above all, reach out to law firms and boost your online presence. One example of a success story given in the talk was of ‘Paralegal Tony‘, an innovative aspiring lawyer who started a Twitter account and built an online network just by making comments about legal issues and connecting with law firms, daring to share his opinion with them. He ended up getting several offers for training contracts.

The comment that stood out for me most in the talk was that for Darlingtons, their trainees were usually “the ones we’ve got to know”. Use the transferable skills from your degree to research and think creatively to find a way to connect with your potential employers outside of job applications and CVs.

Jane Taylor is a GDL student at Westminster University