Hannah Salton is a qualified career coach and a former recruiter for Allen & Overy. Hannah discusses legal recruitment, working with law students and graduates, and networking. Hannah also gives advice on how to stay focused on your career goals in light of COVID-19.
Could you first give me a brief background of yourself?
I work as a career coach and consultant. I specialise in helping graduates and professionals get more from their career. In terms of my background, I spent the first eight years of my career in graduate recruitment in the corporate world; I worked for five years at BT and spent three years at Allen & Overy, before becoming a coach in 2017.
What was recruiting for Allen & Overy like and what were the most challenging aspects of the job?
I’d never worked in the legal sector before joining A&O, so it was all brand new to me! I’d worked at BT for five years and was really passionate about graduate recruitment. I wanted to change industry and just came across the Graduate Recruitment Manager role at A&O which seemed really interesting.
It was definitely a challenge learning all of the legal terminology and so on, but the principles of graduate recruitment are similar across industries. There are always nuances—little quirks and different things—but a lot of the principles and recruitment methods are quite similar. In terms of challenges, we were lucky that we always got a lot of applications; but as with any big firm, it’s always a challenge processing high volumes of applications and making hiring decisions when there are a lot of good candidates out there.
In legal recruitment, would you say that obtaining a vacation scheme is easier than obtaining a training contract?
I actually think it varies a lot between firms. Candidates often assume that it’s easier to get a vacation scheme over a training contract, but that’s not always the case. Some firms recruit all of their training contract hires from their vacation scheme programmes, so you need to secure a vacation scheme in order to get a training contract.
It may well have changed at A&O but when I was there, we made about 50% of our training contract hires from direct training contract applications and the other 50% from our vacation schemes. Sometimes, numbers-wise, vacation schemes can be more competitive than direct training contract applications, but this varies massively between firms. I would recommend making the decision about whether you apply for a training contract or a vacation scheme based on your personal judgement and how much you think doing a vacation scheme would benefit you. If you’ve done legal work experience or if you are already committed to a specific firm, don’t be afraid to apply directly for a training contract if you feel like that’s the right decision for you.
What would you say are the most important factors for securing a vac scheme or a training contract?
In my opinion, there are three really important skills and qualities that most firms look for in their training contract and vacation scheme hires:
Commercial awareness—having a genuine interest and passion for the legal industry and the context in which it operates. Commercial awareness is not about consuming information academically, it’s about processing and engaging with the information. It’s about forming opinions, being able to engage in discussion and being aware of the general political and business context. It’s not a memory test, it is about genuinely understanding commercial issues, being interested in them and being able to engage and have opinions on them.
Secondly, your motivation and having an understanding and a passion for the sector is very important. Whether you’re applying for finance roles, legal roles, marketing roles—you need to demonstrate a passion and a commitment for the career path that you’re applying to. Law firms also want to know that you understand the challenges of the career you’re embarking on, so they believe you are committed to it regardless. Try not to formulate textbook or generic answers to demonstrate your motivation for becoming a lawyer—reflect deeply on what specifically appeals to you about the profession personally, so you come across as authentic and genuine.
Thirdly, I would say resilience is important in law firm hires. By this, I mean being able to process setbacks, learn from feedback, deal with failure, and be able to keep going despite adverse circumstances. When you’re in the corporate world training to become a lawyer, it’s normal that you might make mistakes or not get everything right first time. You are going to come up against challenges and receive constructive feedback. If you’re willing to process this, learn from your experiences and keep going, then you’ll get a lot further than people who have never experienced setbacks before.
Discussing the importance of resilience—
The resilience you can get from rejection can actually be really developmental—even though it might not feel that way at the time! You can learn to use any rejections or failures you experience as fuel to keep you going; it can make you more committed. My advice to anyone going through recruitment processes is—try not to see every rejection as proof that you’re not good enough. The reality is that when there are huge volumes of candidates, sometimes good applications get rejected.
All applications can evolve and get better, so do reflect on how you can improve, but don’t assume you made a huge mistake or that there was something fundamentally wrong with your application. Rejection is common in any competitive recruitment process so it’s important to remember that, just because you get rejected from a firm, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t good enough.
Why did you decide to leave legal recruitment and pursue your own path?
There were a few different reasons; I had done what I was doing for coming up to three years and I wanted a change. I also knew that I was really passionate about coaching; I had experienced mentoring and coaching a few times throughout my career and I’d found it to be really transformational in terms of the impact it had on my self-awareness and my confidence, particularly. Confidence is something that I have definitely always struggled with—and still do now. I have learnt that confidence is a skill that can be improved through focused effort and taking action. It’s not something you are born with—so I’m really passionate about empowering my clients to take steps to become more confident in themselves.
Training to become a coach was something that I had thought about for a really long time, but it was something that I didn’t really know how to make happen. I’d not seen anyone go down the exact same career path as I wanted to pursue; a lot of coaches that I knew had gone into it much later in their career. I contemplated for a long time before I did anything about it, but I knew I always wanted to do it ‘one day’. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave my previous career, there was definitely a lot I liked about the security and stability of working in the corporate world. I look back fondly and I’m so grateful for everything that I learnt, but I love what I do now so I’m very happy that I made the move.
Do you miss working with law graduates?
Luckily, I feel like I still work fairly closely with students and graduates interested in the sector. I hadn’t necessarily planned to stay involved—I was fairly open-minded about what type of clients I worked with. Since becoming a coach, I’m lucky that the reputation of A&O has helped build trust with a lot of graduates who want to become solicitors; so, I still get to work with similar people to those that I used to hire.
For me, picking the legal sector to enter was quite a random choice rather than something I ever aimed for, but looking back I’m so grateful it was a sector I worked in for those years. Having said that, I enjoy working with clients from all sorts of backgrounds too, so I wouldn’t want to exclusively focus on any one sector I don’t think.
Do you have any tips for students and graduates applying for training contracts and vacation schemes in light of COVID-19?
Life will always throw up unexpected challenges, and the coronavirus crisis is a prime example of this. I would recommend trying not to see any world event or crisis as the end of the world. The corporate world is resilient, just like we all are as individuals.
The best thing you can do is to stay focused on your journey and focus on what you can control. Focusing on what you can control is one of the simplest, best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. It’s so easy to worry about things that are out of your control and to almost try and predict the future.
We have full control over our actions and behaviour; taking full responsibility for managing yourself and your own journey—doing whatever is within your power to make stuff happen—is a good start. There are so many amazing, free resources out there at the moment: virtual internships, free videos and webinars. I would encourage people to continue to make the most of these.
However, try not to fall into the trap of information overload. Sometimes, students and graduates assume that they always need to know more and read more. This constant absorption of new stuff causes information overload and actually, a bit of a panic. So, my advice is to really reflect on and process what you’re reading and learning about. It’s not a memory test—engage with and reflect on all the learning, and process what you’re taking in.
The other thing I would say is that networking is incredibly important, and a lot of younger people are—understandably—a bit nervous about doing this. Try to learn to network on your own terms and in your own way. You can network at big events, but my favourite type of networking is the more focused and more personal one to one networking—reaching out to people on LinkedIn or getting introductions from friends. The insight you can get and the confidence you can build up through putting yourself out there a little bit is really powerful. Big events can be useful for networking, but don’t rely on them. Try and create your own connections, have your own conversations; then you can also be quite targeted with who you actually want to ideally speak to, rather than just trying to network with whoever easily comes your way.
Discussing virtual networking in light of the current situation—
This year there will be a lot of virtual careers fairs and a lot of big virtual webinars, and it is harder to network when there are five hundred other attendees there. That’s not to say that you can’t make it work, but I think the real opportunity comes when you proactively reach out to specific people that you want to reach out to outside of the structure of large events. You can have amazing, powerful conversations and you never know what they might lead to.
Getting a job is only one possible benefit of networking. There are so many other opportunities that you can get from networking, like insights, gaining greater information about what the firm’s culture is like, and also gaining self-confidence. You can learn from practising networking, and that will stretch your comfort zone and get you that little bit more comfortable for next time. For example, in an interview situation, you might be a bit more confident because you’ve been practising that professional conversation through networking.
Hannah is a qualified executive coach, career consultant and former corporate graduate recruiter. She spent the first eight years of her career recruiting graduate talent for leading international corporations, including telecoms giant BT and elite law firm Allen & Overy.
In 2017 she transitioned to a career in coaching and professional development, specialising in helping graduates achieve ambitious career goals. Through her personalised one-to-one coaching programmes, she helps people develop the skills, confidence and awareness to secure their dream job.
Article by Storm Evans