22 November 2015.
AN INTERVIEW WITH AN ASSOCIATE AT A REGIONAL OFFICE OF AN INTERNATIONAL FIRM
So first off who are you?
— I am an associate working in the regional office of an international City firm.
Where did you study and what did you study?
— I studied History at a Russell Group University. I got my training contract in my final year of university. I then studied the GDL and moved to London for my firm-specific LPC course at the University of Law in Moorgate. Both the GDL and LPC were funded by my law firm.
Did the fact that your law firm funded your LPC play a big role in your decision to train with them?
— For me that was an essential requirement, as I needed to do both the GDL and the LPC, the fact that it took me to London was great because it meant that I got to experience the atmosphere of London before I started work. When I was studying the GDL I was in a class with some students who had not yet secured a training contract and were self-funding. Their plan was to secure a training contract during the GDL year and that would then enable them to have funding for their LPC. I got the feeling that trying to get a training contract during the GDL year was a very stressful undertaking, given the workload of the GDL.
Yes, funding is still very important. The issue we are seeing though, which has more long term consequences, is that students are applying sometimes exclusively to firms that pay for the training, regardless of whether their areas of speciality encompass the kind of law that they want to do. When you were going through the application process what part did you find the most challenging and why?
— The first time I put pen to paper to answer these types of questions, I wasn’t sure what they were looking for, and being a historian without any experience with answering these types of applications I didn’t know whether to use a historian’s writing style and language when really what was wanted was an example of how a lawyer would write. I understood this to be concise, punchy and factual sentences and the word count reflected that. Every word counted to get your message across. I found that very challenging initially.
So how many application forms did you do before you got your winning ticket?
— I did one vacation scheme application in my second year. I made one training contract application in my third year, which I really focused on, as well as a handful of selected firms for vacation schemes. Because of the timing, the interviews and offers that I received for the vacation schemes came after I got my offer for a training contract so I had to say no to them.
What work experience did you get before applying then?
— I had carried out a week shadowing partners at a high street firm which did criminal defence work and one day shadowing a family member who is a partner in a personal injury law firm. I used this experience to explain how I knew that I didn’t want to be a high street solicitor and that I wanted to train at a larger firm. I used this limited experience to demonstrate my interest in a career in law and show that I didn’t want to go into the areas of law that I had gained experience of.
How did you get that week shadowing?
— The one day shadowing was set up through my family. The week shadowing I obtained by going round the different high street law firms in my home town with a CV and a cover letter in hand and asking them if it would be possible for me to have some work experience. I just handed the cover letter and CV to reception. I got some responses back, and took it from there.
Ok great, and once you had dropped off the CVs did you follow up with a call or did the phone just start ringing?
— Once I had dropped the letter and CV off I called them afterwards. I didn’t want to hassle them too much but equally I wanted to be sure that it had gotten in front of somebody’s eyes.
A huge problem and a reason why many students don’t manage to get any work experience is that they send an email, or CV and cover letter by post but don’t do any follow up and then when they don’t hear anything think, OK the firm is not interested. You would be amazed at how few people actually call. Very few people realise almost that you are allowed to do this and that you are not breaking some unwritten rule or code of conduct and that you won’t get shouted at. When you actually came to apply, it is obviously very competitive. What do you think made you stand out from the crowd?
— I think it all comes down to the little things. For example I attended an open evening at my university when the firm came to visit. I had some questions about applying so I made sure I waited around at the end and met with the graduate recruitment manager. There were a few people waiting and the manager turned around to talk to me and I simply said that the lady standing next to me was before me in line to speak to her. This simple display of manners seemed to impress her. When I did get a chance to speak to her, she had already taken a shine to me and she took my name at that point and said she would look out for my application. It goes to the heart of the key message which is that the little things are so important when making a first impression. Your body language is everything, your posture and how you hold yourself is very important because recruiters will be thinking: would I feel comfortable putting this person in front of a client as a representative of the firm.
Can you remember what you were wearing at the open evening event at your university, was it a suit?
— Oh no! Jeans and a cardigan. I looked like I had walked straight out of a Gap display window.
What would you say now to someone who is debating whether to join a London international firm, or a regional firm?
— I think it is largely a personal choice and comes down to where you want to live and where you want to base your life. That is quite an early decision to make. However the fact there are now London City firms with regional offices, offering training contracts, adds an extra dimension to that decision. You can train in the regions and still do an international secondment. What I would say is that you have to think about what you want from it: if you want exposure to the top deals in London and international opportunities then you are definitely looking at international firms, rather than regional firms. The best thing about training at a magic circle firm is the opportunities that are available to you and the doors that open for your career in the future.
How important do you think foreign languages are when applying?
— I think they are a nice additional string to your bow, but not having them does not preclude you from getting a training contract. Obviously if you are looking to do an international secondment with a firm, speaking the local office language is a big advantage and sometimes a requirement. I think someone who studies a language at university does not have an advantage over someone who studied, say, Chemistry. That said for an international firm it is a major bonus.
What would you say to students who feel like if they don’t get a training contract with one of the top firms they have failed?
— I would say that in the last year or two things have changed a lot; many international firms have grown massively, such as Norton Rose, DLA Piper, Herbert Smith, Kingwood Mallesons and so with whom you have a greater opportunity for international deals and secondments that before you only found with the top London firms. All is not lost if you don’t train with a “top” firm. Wherever you train, seek to make the most out of the experience and opportunities available to you.
So coming now to the kind of work you do now. I understand you are in the banking department which is transactional work, but what is your role?
— I usually act for banks to help them put in place financing with corporate borrowers, typically secured lending. We handle all the finance documents that set out the terms for the loans, their security and so on. On a simple secured lending transaction, we may act for the bank, which would involve negotiating the loan with the company and their solicitors, putting the security package in place to support the loan and handling all the registration of the security and so on. From a non-lawyer’s perspective you might say that we prepare all the documentation for the financing.
Do you do any restructuring work, or is that handled by another department?
— There is a specialist restructuring team within our banking department, and I can be involved in matters with the team.
What is the team size that you typically work with?
— It depends on the size of the transaction. At magic circle firms you typically have much bigger teams on larger deals comprised of a partner, a managing associate, an associate and a trainee. At my firm it can be an associate, a partner and a trainee for the smaller deals, which means you get great experience as a junior lawyer and can get lots of responsibility.
What do you think separates a good lawyer from a great lawyer?
— Speaking as a transactional lawyer, being proactive rather than reactive is very important. Someone who really drives a deal forward and can keep the bigger picture in mind.
What soft skills do you think are most important to a lawyer?
— Communication is obviously paramount, but also empathy and understanding with the client, the ability to really know what the client wants (sometimes before they do) and to be in synch with them.
Thanks very much for taking the time to share your experiences with us, I am sure they will be very helpful.
— No problem, glad to help!