The elusive nature of the legal graduate recruitment market is no secret to any law student. With such a high number of applicants for each available position, not to mention the often exceptionally high quality of these applications, it is no wonder that many students decide to pursue alternative career routes to law. However, if you are certain that a career as a commercial lawyer in the City is what you want to do, you should consider applying for some open days.
It came as a great surprise to me during my first year at university that City firms tend to recruit two years in advance. As a law student hoping for such a career, this gives you only a fairly limited amount of time before you have to start thinking about the recruitment process. To this end, I found myself spending my Christmas holidays applying for the open days that I had only found out about accidentally when a second year law student dropped the topic into conversation. With hindsight, I am rather glad we had that conversation.
Open days are portrayed as an opportunity for students to find out more about a firm, the type of work they carry out and whether they feel they could fit in. As graduate recruitment websites come across as, by and large, very similar, it is useful to attend such days to differentiate between the firms and to find out which areas of law interest you. Consequently, you can target later applications for vacation schemes and training contracts to those firms you liked, and the firms that are the best in their field for the areas of law you would be interested in exploring further.
City firms vary a lot in terms of their size. This will affect their culture, the nature of the work they carry out and the type of trainees they attract. It is important for you to see which type of firm you prefer. At this stage, apply to an array of firms from the Magic Circle to the smaller regional firms, as well as some American firms with UK offices too. The recruitment websites are very helpful to give you an insight into what the firm is like, but you can’t tell properly until you visit for yourself. I took this approach when making my applications and I feel it has helped me to target my upcoming vacation scheme applications to firms of a similar size.
Open days will tend to be oversubscribed and most City firms will be inundated with applications. It is important to try and make yourself stand out as a candidate so they are keen to meet you. Ensure you make each application form or covering letter specific to the firm to which you are applying. Do not be tempted to copy and paste – it is worth putting in a bit of extra time to personalise each application, increasing the chance of being offered a chance to attend. As obvious as it may seem, read your answers or covering letter through two or three times at least to ensure you haven’t made any spelling or grammatical errors. If you can, get someone else to read your application to ensure it makes sense to another person. Finally, check out the closing dates well in advance to avoid making your application on the last day. That way, it is less likely to be rushed and you can give some real thought to the answers you are giving.
As part of the open day, graduate recruitment are likely to organise various sessions and networking opportunities. One of these sessions often will take the form of a skills session, such as a negotiation or presentation exercise. When I first went to an open day, it had been a while since I had done a presentation and I had never taken part in or watched a negotiation exercise before. With hindsight though, these sessions are some of the most valuable you will have during an open day experience. They are all tailored to be very similar to what you may expect on an assessment day for a vacation scheme or training contract. It is a great opportunity to practice developing these skills in a less pressured environment and to give you a head start for when it matters the most! Not only that, feedback will usually be given to each group individually so it gives you an idea of how strong your performance is and the aspects you can improve on in the future.
Open days provide you with the opportunity to get your questions answered. Whether it be about the application process, the level of responsibility given to trainees, or what life is like as a partner, you will be given the chance to put those questions to the people who know the answers. Here are some questions I have had answered during my time at various open days:
‘What kind of work do you get up to as a trainee?’
This varies from department to department but I am always kept busy! I will typically spend time doing tasks such as drafting documents, proofreading or carrying out legal research. While they may not sound particularly important, their value shouldn’t be understated on a broader scale. Their significance to an overall deal may be imperative.
‘What secondment opportunities do you have here?’
There are client secondments and international secondments. Both of those allow you to spend one of your seats either working with one of our clients or at an office overseas. Client secondments are great for building relationships and seeing things from a client’s perspective. Equally, international secondments are an amazing opportunity to see how the firm works in another country. They are competitive, but you can take your pick of an office from almost anywhere in the world.
‘What are your hours like?’
I have been fortunate with my hours so far, but it does vary a lot from each department. I have friends who have worked well into the night for the completion of a deal or for an early morning deadline. When you do stay late you are never on your own and there is always a bit of excitement that keeps you going. In my current seat, I would say I usually leave by around 7.30pm.
‘What are the common mistakes you tend to see when reading applications?’
A lot of students make very simple spelling or grammatical errors. This shows a lack of attention to detail, which is an important skill for a lawyer to have. I wouldn’t dismiss a candidate’s application solely for a couple of small errors like that but it would make me question how much time and effort they put in to writing their answers. Another mistake we see quite a lot, are candidates who fail to personalise their answers; often they could apply to any firm in the City. We do occasionally see applications with the wrong firm name in too, which is never a good thing!
‘When I apply for a vacation scheme, can I put this open day down on my application form?’
Absolutely! You can reference it in the work experience section of the application form. It shows you have an interest in commercial law and the firm more specifically, which is something we like to see as recruiters. It also shows that you’re motivated enough to put yourself out and come to visit us.
I have prepared a brief plan for what a typical schedule at an open day may be like:
Arrival and registration
Welcome presentation from a partner
Life as a trainee
Q&A panel with trainees
Networking lunch with partners, associates and trainees
Negotiation skills session
Application process session
Wrap up and close
As mentioned above, open days are an opportunity for you to find as much as you can about a firm you may be interested in applying to for a vacation scheme or training contract. It is worth remembering though, that while these days are fairly informal you should always remain professional and keep in mind that this could be your future employer. You may find yourself having a conversation with a partner that could interview you for a vacation scheme in 12 months time so you want them to recognise your face at a later date for all the right reasons. It is important to remember where you are.
Finally, do your research well in advance, have a look at their client base and any recent deals they have been involved in. Make sure you dress smart, ask intelligent questions and smile!