ISE sector insight: legal

Our blog series, based on the recent Institute of Student Employers (ISE) conference, continues with an insight into the legal sector from Nicola Meikle, Careers Information Adviser.

The panel focussed on the English legal jurisdiction with speakers from the following commercial law firms: Allen & Overy, Latham & Watkins, Pinsent Masons and Mishcon de Reya LLP, who provided key insights and general principles for legal applications. While specific to these firms, many of the considerations discussed would be applicable to other commercial law firms.

What changes were made to recruitment processes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Ranged from firms running:

  • Digital recruitment selection processes
    • The benefits of recruiters working through recruitment more quickly were highlighted so early recruitment stages with high volumes of applications are likely to stay digital.
    • For instance, interviews can be set up remotely that work for both candidates and partners. This has sustainability advantages with reduced travel for candidates travelling to interview and recruiters travelling to law fairs and/or printing marketing material to display at fairs.
  • Virtual vacation schemes with large external providers while other firms partnered with smaller organisations to deliver a virtual work experience.
  • Zoom sessions
  • Interviews via Microsoft Teams

It was felt the same on-the-desk experience can’t be offered virtually so firms are keen for vacation schemes to take place in offices. However, due to current restrictions, it’s unlikely that this will happen this year.

A centralised approach was used for campus events and law fairs

  • Firms worked with organisations such as Legal Cheek and LawCareers.Net to participate in virtual law fairs which reached out to many more universities than pre-Covid in-person law fairs.
  • From a diversity and inclusion perspective, as a sector, this centralised approach enabled firms to broaden access.

This approach is expected to remain but speakers highlighted that they are still very much open to working with universities.

What are future developments to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales?

From September 2021, changes are being made to ensure the way solicitors qualify in England and Wales is consistent with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), “a single, national licensing examination that all aspiring solicitors will take before qualifying” (Solicitors Regulation Authority).

Overview of current route for those with a non-law degree (including the Scots LLB)

  • Graduate diploma in law (GDL) is required before completion of legal practice course (LPC) in advance of starting a training contract.
  • Lots of students will secure a training contract via a vacation scheme during their law or non-law degree.
  • Once students join a firm on a training contract, they undertake work experience for two years, complete professional skills course during that time and then qualify.

New route with introduction of SQE

  • A long period of transition until 2032.
  • GDL & LPC will disappear to some extent and be replaced by SQE.
  • SQE split into two parts
    • SQE1 – legal knowledge
    • SQE2 – practical legal skills
  • There will continue to be two years of qualifying work experience. Trainees will be able to obtain qualifying work experience through up to four organisations instead of currently one firm: work experience could be from a commercial law firm, different area of law, legal advice centres or paralegal work.

Speakers emphasised that firms are managing the SQE in different ways. This will impact on the 2024 cohort and in some cases the 2023 cohort. It is important to research what this means for firms you are interested in applying to and when firms are going to make those changes, including their policies on qualifying work experience.

What makes a good applicant?

  • Look at the role you’re applying for and the type of firm – consider the skills that the employer might be looking for and then reflect on your strengths.
  • Recruiters are looking for well-rounded applicants; they view non-legal work experience just as valuable as legal work experience. Remember, team work, resilience and commitment can be demonstrated through bar work, hospitality, retail and even labouring work.
    • An interesting example of a stand out candidate was used…one of the trainees worked as a bin man before he started at the firm but the way he talked about his skills and experience demonstrated his passion!
  • Opportunities for in-person work experience have been non-existent due to Covid-19 so consider alternatives such as virtual work experience.
  • Your level of commercial awareness feeds into all aspects of the process but speakers acknowledged that there probably won’t be a specific question on, “what do you think commercial awareness is?” So, candidates will need to think how they can weave this through their answers.
    • For instance, you can show an interest and understanding of how the firm’s clients work and the markets that they work in. Reflect on commercial aspects of your work experience. Check out our advice on how to build your commercial awareness.

The theme of resilience was highlighted…

  • It is an extremely competitive landscape and if you’re rejected from one firm, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be a solicitor – remember, there are nuances between firms.
  • Applicants are encouraged to adopt the mind-set of what they can do the following year that will make them stand out to secure a training contract.

What does the future hold?

The consensus is that the number of opportunities will remain similar although the number of traditional training contracts might reduce slightly as trainees will be recruited for roles such as project management and/or technology and innovation.

Key points to take away

  • Be authentic with applications instead of trying to write an application of what you think a solicitor from a particular firm should be.
  • Do not self-select yourself out of processes e.g. “I don’t think I have a chance at this firm.” Firms are looking for diverse candidates.
  • Focus your efforts on fewer firms and undertake research – it is recommended to pick five firms that meet your strengths.
  • As well as doing your research, networking is particularly important in the current circumstances. Online etiquette is key! Don’t just send a generic LinkedIn request to a recruiter – explain that you attended an event and what you enjoyed about it.
    • Watch our ‘Getting the most out of LinkedIn’ video which provides advice on making connections and creating an effective profile.

(Image credit: Alessandro Macis on Pixabay)







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