How to get a foot in the door at a law firm

Article written by online Marketing agency Atom42

We interviewed five key decision-makers at legal firms to find out exactly what it takes to get your foot in the door at a law firm in 2014. Shirking the generic and tired advice that you can read on 101 other websites, our expert panel dissected exactly what a law student entering the job market in the next few years will need if they’re going to make it in an extremely competitive marketplace where thousands of graduates are left jobless every year.

 “Ally McBeal and similar are not a true reflection of life in a law firm,” writes Mark Mullaney, a panel manager for National Accident Helpline, proving that our experts were pulling no punches in their assessment.

1.    You’re reading a law graduate’s CV. What would make you bin it immediately?

First impressions are vital. All five of our solicitors agreed that spelling, punctuation and grammar are key, and the main reason they’d reject a candidate’s CV outright.

FBC Manby Bowdler Partner Craig Ridge indicated that “getting the firm’s name wrong” is a cardinal sin, while Mark Mullaney, head of National Accident Helpline’s northern panel, said he’d bin a CV immediately “if it were written on coloured paper”.

Emsleys Solicitors’ Corinne Pujara says that “attention to detail is really important,” adding that a candidate’s CV would be binned immediately if it “was poorly presented and it had spelling mistakes on it.”

2. What’s the best or most unusual thing you’ve read on a law graduate’s CV?

“I read someone’s CV whose hobby was underwater cave diving. People who are able to demonstrate something out of the ordinary are more interesting to read about,” Mullaney informs us.

Pujara says: “We had one person who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro! That was really impressive. She’d done it for charity and it was a bit of a “wow” story.”

So you might not have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro like one clearly impressive candidate had, but try to pull out the most interesting and individual facet of your personal or extra-curricular life  and take some time to explain it. It’s not all about quirky hobbies or amazing achievements, however, as Crispin Edmonds of Burroughs Day explains: “A recent candidate had done unpaid work at a law centre throughout her LPC, which was impressive.”

3. Is there any work experience you’d say is essential?

While all five of our legal experts agreed that no one piece of work experience was “essential”, they all agreed that having work experience could make a real difference.

“It’s essential that you’ve actually gone into a law practice and shadowed the solicitor,” Pujara reveals, before adding a stark warning: “I think, without that, your CV is not going to even be looked at.”

Ridge explains that, while you should have some legal work experience, showing other areas of expertise might also stand you in good stead. He said: “A variety of work experience is important to me. A breadth of experience in different areas tends to breed a more rounded candidate.”

4. If you could give a law student one piece of advice before their first interview, what would it be?

“Prepare!” exclaims Ridge. “There’s nothing more discourteous than interviewing a candidate who knows little or nothing about the firm they are applying for a job at.

“Understand who the partners are, what areas of work the firm covers, how the training process operates, who the significant clients are, whether the firm has been involved in anything high profile recently,” he advises.

“Give practical examples of the skills you wish to be judged on,” Edmonds mentions, while Mullaney simply adds: “Relax and be yourself”.

If you’re worried about remembering a big stack of information before an interview, Corinne Pujara says she’s “often impressed” when people bring notes with them. “It shows they put the effort in and that they care.”

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail was the prevailing view from our solicitor panel. More specifically, research the key decision makers, know as much as you can about the firm you’re applying for and consider writing a list of questions which are specifically related to their firm that you can ask.     

5. What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve heard being given to law students looking to find work?

“That they should apply to as many places as possible,” Ridge tells us. “A candidate who is more focused and targeted in their approach is much more appealing. They will have usually given proper thought to why they want to work at the firm.”

Edmonds contradicts this view however, stating that candidates should avoid “focusing on one area of law, or a few law firms,” he says. “Generally you need to have a broad view of potential career paths within the law.”

6. Are there any misconceptions when it comes to working for a law firm that students should be aware of?

A lot of students watch TV programmes and assume, or perhaps at least hope, their lifestyles will parallel those played out on screen.

“Ally McBeal and similar are not a true reflection of life in a law firm,” Mullaney says without a trace of a smile.

“I think people think it’s more glamorous than it actually is!” Pujara says, adding weight to Mullaney’s comments. “It’s a tough job, but a very worthwhile job.”

Ridge echoes Mullaney and Pujara, and explains to us how students underestimate how much “commerciality” is involved when working in private practice. “By this I mean the importance of time recording, file management and a diligent approach to payment – risk assessing every client and case in terms of merit and, ultimately, how much the firm is to be paid.

“Candidates who can tune into these types of issue in their interviews or applications give themselves a good chance of being recognised.”

7. Should I do the LPC if I don’t have a training contract yet?

“Yes, if your CV is excellent,” says Edmonds, a view which Angelina Rigby of Geldards LLP seconds.

Ridge goes into more detail, warning candidates: “My advice would be that the candidate gives proper thought before starting the LPC as to their strategy and prospects of getting a job so they can properly weigh up the decision.

“This is a decision for each particular candidate, especially given the financial commitment they are undertaking and the risk of not getting a job.”

It’s a difficult job market out there for aspiring lawyers, with fewer vacancies and opportunities than there were before. While an LPC undoubtedly adds some clout to your CV, it does require a heavy and somewhat risky financial investment.

8. Any final advice?

“Be wary of preparing to the point that answers or content become standard or clichéd,” Ridge advises, adding that “the candidate who answers the questions honestly and naturally rather than in a contrived, textbook way is the more visible and, in my view, the more appealing.” Food for thought for anyone reaching interview stage.

Pujara says: “Know that if you work really hard and you get the experience, you will be successful. During the seven years I’ve been at a law firm, it’s become much more competitive.”


The panel

Mark Mullaney (Panel Manager North)
Craig Ridge, Partner at FBC Manby Bowdler
Crispin Edmonds, Burroughs Day
Angelina Rigby, Geldards
Corinne Pujara, Emsleys

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