Law firm applications: how to do your research

Kaplan Law School Careers Service on the best way to go about it

Proper research is a key step in every successful law firm application. It's a crucial part of identifying the firms best suited to you, and will help you produce standout written applications and sparkling interview performances.

We chatted to Kaplan Law School's Gemma Baker, Head of Careers Service, and Anna Williams, Careers and Pro Bono Adviser, to find out how it's done.

Research yourself first

Start, says Gemma, by thinking about what you want from your legal career. "It's important to be honest with yourself about whether you really want to work very long hours, or work in London."

How Kaplan Law School can help

Kaplan Law School Careers Service runs a wide range of events to help its students find out more about the legal and commercial worlds, including law firm-run skills workshops, law firm open days exclusively for Kaplan students, and commercial awareness discussion groups.

Kaplan is more compact than some of its competitors, which means the careers advisers here get to know students making applications well, so can provide personalised advice on choosing which firms to apply to, written applications, and interview technique.

During the 2011/12 academic year, 65 per cent of Kaplan students who consulted the Careers Service obtained training contract offers and another 30 per cent gained vacation scheme places or interviews.

"It's easy to be seduced by the term 'global law firm'. International work is exciting, but will mean being in the office in the early hours rather than whizzing off to New York or Shanghai."

You also need to think about your CV and what it might mean for which firms you choose to target, says Gemma.

For example, if you don't have a record of pretty much straight 2:1s and above plus some legal work experience, you'll struggle to get into a large commercial firm.

Understand the legal market as a whole

Next, you need to get a good sense of all that's out there in the legal world. "There's not simply a divide between large corporate firms on one side and small high street firms on the other," says Anna.

"There are many areas of the profession and within each one there's a range of different firms."

Gemma recommends legal industry journals The Lawyer and Legal Week - "they talk about many different firms and their work, and will help you start recognising them and seeing how they're connected."

Gemma adds that legal directories like Chambers and Partners and Legal 500 are another good way to understand the legal marketplace. They're arranged by practice area, so you can find out about the different types of work lawyers do and which firms are most highly-regarded for each one.

But remember, says Anna, "just because a firm isn't ranked, it doesn't mean it doesn't do good work in that area."

Think clients

Commercial law firms are increasingly organising themselves around client sectors (such as pharmaceuticals or infrastructure) rather than practice areas (such as real estate law or employment law).

So, says Anna, "identify which parts of the commercial world interest you and which law firms operate there."

Doing so will also help you at the application stage: "Many firms are now looking for applicants to be interested in the client sectors they work in as well as their practice areas," says Gemma.

Find out what firms really do

Don't apply to a firm if you only want to work in an area that's a marginal part of its business, says Gemma. "You might not get a seat or be able to qualify there." Instead, you should identify firms whose core strengths match the practice areas and client sectors you're interested in.

Anna explains that the size of different teams and the location of overseas offices will show you where a firm's priorities lie. "If the firm has lots of offices in countries with large oil and gas reserves, it probably does a lot of oil and gas-related work."

Psychoanalyse the website

A firm's website, says Anna, "is its idealised vision of itself, so you shouldn't take it as gospel truth." But "there is some incredibly useful information there."

News items about new joiners and new offices can tell you how the firm is hoping to develop. Press releases on recent deals show what work the firm is proudest of, while profiles of its lawyers give a sense of the type of people it actually recruits.

And don't forget, she says, to consider "the feel of a firm's website - the visual images, the buzz words, even the fonts used.

Some firms try to emphasise their human side, others their professionalism or entrepreneurial nature. Some firms have a very traditional website, while others are more modern, and that can also give you a clue as to the kind of atmosphere you'll find there."

Up close and personal

There's some information about a firm that you're only going to get by meeting its employees. "They all have different approaches, different environments and different philosophies," says Gemma, "and the best way to find out if you're going to fit in is by speaking to its people in person."

But it's important to get it right at law fairs, open days and other recruitment events: "Target the people you particularly want to speak to," says Gemma, "and ask them sensible questions - perhaps 'What does your vacation scheme involve?' or 'What attracted you to working at the firm?'

"Don't suck up to them or be confrontational. Aim to show you're a dynamic and enthusiastic individual who will benefit the firm."

Get those extra marks

"Often the most impressive candidates," says Gemma "look carefully at partner news and/or the firm's strategy." Knowing about them will mean you'll understand the firm in detail and can really tailor your application to suit it.

Anna adds that attending legal industry events such as conferences can also give you valuable information: "A couple of Kaplan students recently went to an emerging markets symposium that a lawyer from a firm they were applying to was speaking at.

"It's a great way to find out more about a firm's work and is sure to impress recruiters."