Courting a job in the law?

Susan Hazledine discusses recruitment, applications and expectations at Allen & Overy, one of the leading London law firms.

Susan Hazledine has been a litigation partner at Allen & Overy since 1999. For the past four years, she has also acted as Graduate Recruitment Partner. She tells us what interviewers are looking for from their candidates.

Who are Allen & Overy?

Allen & Overy are one of the coveted "magic circle" of leading London law firms.

With a network of 28 offices in 20 countries, they offer English and international legal advice to a global client base of top-name businesses, financial institutions, governments and private individuals.

Why did you join Allen & Overy?

I wasn't one of those people that decided to become a lawyer at the age of 5.

read law at university but it wasn't until my third year that I decided that I wanted to practise as a solicitor. I applied to Allen & Overy because of their reputation for high quality training.

I really clicked with the people that I met at my interview and I had a gut feeling that it was the right place for me.

What's the most difficult part of getting your first break into commercial law?

Distinguishing yourself from the crowd. There is enormous competition for vacation schemes and training contracts, particularly at the magic circle firms.

Allen & Overy take on around 120 trainees each year but we get at least 20 times that number of applications; and can only interview around 15% of applicants.

What marks out a good candidate from the rest?

Academic prowess is essential but a series of A-grades at A-level is no longer sufficient to separate you from the pack.

When you're interviewing for vacation scheme placements, a lot hangs on the results of your first year exams at university. Someone with good first year grades will be in a significantly stronger position when applying for a vacation scheme than someone with poor grades.

By the time you apply for a training contract, your second year grades should be available as well. If you're reading law, results in particular subjects are important.

A weak result in contract law is always concerning since contract law is at the heart of a lot of the work that we do.

Strong candidates are genuinely passionate about wanting to work as a solicitor. Studying law at university is very different to practising as a lawyer, and good candidates will understand why.

Solicitors work hard; you need to see this as a rewarding experience, not an interruption of your social life. But it's not all about work. We are looking for candidates who have done a range of activities beyond the academic.

What character traits and skills are essential to make it as a solicitor?

Creativity - lawyers need to find ingenious solutions to novel problems, whether deciding how to document a ground-breaking transaction; or how to defend your client from a multi-million pound litigation claim.

Good communication skills - so you can de-mystify complex legal issues for clients who may not have a legal background.

Precision in drafting - so there is no room for misunderstanding the advice you give.

Drive - lawyers have a lot of responsibility and you need to be confident to deal with whatever comes your way.

Good team skills - because you'll be dealing with a large number of people, each with something to contribute but each with different strengths and depths of knowledge, perhaps across a number of jurisdictions. You need to be able to draw out the best in other people.

If you can't tick all the boxes, you shouldn't necessarily give up. I'm not looking to hire the finished article.

As an interviewer, I'm looking at your potential to be a great lawyer. However, if you haven't demonstrated your potential to be a good lawyer by the time you're 20, I'll be asking why not.

Should I be honest if I have poor grades?

You should never lie on your application form; the truth will always out in the end.

It's essential that we have all the relevant information about you when we are deciding on your application.

Life does not always go according to plan, so if there is a reason why a particular set of grades was poor, make sure that you put this in context up-front.

How many applications should I make?

Don't make any more than six to eight applications for training contracts.

By this stage, you should know the sort of firm for which you want to work and can focus your applications accordingly.

It takes time to complete an application form properly and then to prepare thoroughly for an interview. Although many firms are looking for the same skill sets from their candidates, each application form is different.

It's essential that you answer the exact question asked. It's obvious when applicants have simply cut and pasted an answer from a slightly different form and those applicants don't usually make the short-list.

What should I expect at interview?

You'll be asked a series of questions designed to test your commitment to law; your determination; your team-working skills; and your organisational ability.

At Allen & Overy, we also ask you to participate in a case study, based on the sort of work that we do here.

It's the same style of interview whether or not you are reading law at university.

We're not testing technical, legal knowledge but rather your commercial nouse and judgment.

We don't expect you to answer as a fully-fledged, practising solicitor. The process is designed to test your potential to be an exceptional lawyer.

How should I prepare for an interview for a vacation scheme or training contract?

Very thoroughly.

You need to be clear about why you want to be a lawyer. You should be able to talk intelligently, and enthusiastically, about why you want the job for which you are applying.

Think about the qualities that you need to possess in order to be a good lawyer. Do you have those qualities? What examples can you give from your life to demonstrate that?

That question might be easier to answer if you have legal work experience. But if you don't, think about other things that you have done that can prove the same point... captaining your college soccer team might demonstrate good leadership skills; editing your school newspaper might show creativity and organisation. What evidence do you have that you're good at juggling lots of different tasks? What evidence do you have that you can prioritise and drive things forward?

Know your chosen firms. Absorb as much information about them as you can. The interviewer will love to hear something good about their firm but it goes beyond that.

It's more than just knowing how many offices the firm has and where (although that's useful information too). You need to know about the type of work the firm does; and the clients that they've worked for.

Research some recent deals or cases that are of interest to you so that you understand the role that the firm played in them.

Understand the differences between the firms to which you are applying. The differences go beyond the number of offices or employees.

Firms have different specialisms or different depths of coverage in particular areas. Some of the differences are cultural so talk to as many people as possible - existing employees or other students who have completed vacation schemes there - to learn about the personality of the different firms.

Commercial awareness is essential. It's very obvious if a candidate has picked up the FT for the first time that morning, so make sure you start your preparation early. If you are not interested in the corporate world, consider whether this really is the job for you.

Be confident. Re-read your application form before coming to interview; and be prepared to expand on any examples you have given. Some careers services offer mock-interviews. These can be useful preparation if you've not interviewed before. But don't over-prepare or sound scripted. There's a fine line between selling yourself and sounding arrogant.

If I did not get a vacation scheme placement with Allen & Overy, is it worth me applying for a training contract?

We accept applications for training contracts from candidates who have and have not completed vacation schemes with us.

If you were turned down for a vacation scheme, you will need to work harder on your application for a training contract if you want to get a different result.

Try to gain some additional work experience elsewhere; do some more research; and improve the responses on the form.

Will current market trends affect recruitment going forward?

No; we are recruiting people for the long term and can't afford to be swayed by market trends.

There is a huge time lag between students applying for jobs in the legal sector and their start dates.

Students being interviewed this year for training contracts will not start with the firm until 2010/2011; and it will be another two years after that before they join their chosen departments as qualified solicitors. Who knows what the markets will be doing then?

In any case, it's best not to get pigeon-holed into too narrow a specialism.

If market conditions change, lawyers can shuffle from one specialist area to another more buoyant one.

What are the hours like?

On average, trainees work from around 9.30am until between 6 and 8pm each day.

When there's a deadline approaching, hours could be longer; but it works both ways and there is no kudos in hanging around the office when there's nothing left to do for the day.

Once you've qualified, the hours might increase a bit.

I suppose I tend to work around 50 hours in a typical week.

And what is the pay like?

The starting salary for a first year trainee is currently £36,200.

Once you've qualified, this rises to £65,000 (with about a further £8,000 to £10,000 per year thereafter) with the potential to earn a bonus on top calculated by reference to the firm's overall profitability.

Eligibility for a bonus depends upon your overall performance, commitment and contribution to the firm, rather than the straight number of hours that you've clocked up sitting behind a desk.

Can you dispel some myths about practising as a lawyer?

People often assume that larger firms are unapproachable; but really they just comprise a group of individuals. Allen & Overy is a very friendly place to work. The traditional image of a grey-suited, middle-aged, public school-educated man no longer holds true. Our lawyers increasingly come in all shapes and sizes, from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Finally, imagine for a moment that you were not a lawyer. What would you do?

Lots of things. I'd take an educational role in a museum. Or I would travel the world, writing and taking photographs of my experiences.

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