The competition to get into top law firms is tough, and only the very best candidates will be successful. So how can you make sure you get an offer? We've broken down the application process into three key stages - and we asked a graduate recruiter at a leading City law firm for her advice on each one.
Before you apply
How many firms should I apply to?
Some students will apply to three firms while others might apply to 16 - there's no hard and fast rule, but you need to be aware that completing a good application does take a considerable amount of time! Your interviewers will ask you where else you've applied and expect you to be able to explain your strategy - how you've done your research and made your shortlist. They want to see you're committed to pursuing a career at a particular type of law firm, so will look for logic and consistency in your approach.
Law firms often say they want applicants to have "commercial awareness". But what does the term mean and how can you acquire it?
Commercial awareness means understanding the financial and business world and how different elements affect each other. When you're talking to clients as a lawyer, you need to be able to discuss in detail anything that might affect their business. So, in a legal context, commercial awareness doesn't just mean knowing there's been a debt crisis in Greece but is also about understanding the global effects of that crisis and what it means for a law firm and its clients.
You can start acquiring commercial awareness as a student by reading relevant publications, particularly the Financial Times and the Economist - they discuss recent deals and give an insight into their context..
When you're reading articles, don't just scan the information but also think about how it will impact other global events you have read about, and the effect it will have on the law firms you're applying to and their clients. Commercial awareness is about using a wide range of different sources, putting pieces of information together, processing them and forming your own opinions.
Are non-law students at a disadvantage?
No. Law students who apply to us do so in their second year of university, so their knowledge of the technicalities of legal practice is limited too. Commercial law firms tend not to ask students technical legal questions at interview; you're more likely to get business and finance-focused questions, for example: "Talk me through a deal that has interested you recently?" or: "Why do you think the financial crisis happened?"
But both law and non-law students should do thorough research about careers in law and working at a law firm - talk to careers advisers, go to law fairs and gather as much information as possible. You can never be too prepared.
What do you look for in an application?
You need a consistently good academic record. First year grades count because law firms often recruit students in their second year.
Include all your work experience, not just legal work experience. It's great to see you've worked in a shop or pub because it shows you have customer service experience and good interpersonal skills.
Also put down your extracurricular activities, even if they're non-legal. We like to see your hobbies and interests - it shows you're making the most of your time at university, getting experience of teamwork, and building your communication skills. They're also an appropriate way to show us a bit of your personality. For example, if you're in a white water rafting society it could be a good talking point in an interview that will help you build a rapport with your interviewers.
Finally, your writing style needs to be clear because expressing yourself well in writing and verbally is crucial for a lawyer.
What mistakes do you often see?
Spelling and grammar errors. Being able to write well is hugely important in the legal sector, but students often overlook errors in their applications. I see five or six applications every year with another firm's name or with "Shearman & Sterling" spelt wrongly. We won't consider these applications any further. We might overlook one or two minor errors elsewhere, but if an application's riddled with mistakes we'll be put off because it's doubtful you have the attention to detail solicitors need.
What makes an application stand out?
Applications focused on the firm. When I read these I can see the student has researched far beyond the first page of our website. They describe in detail what it is about Shearman & Sterling in particular that makes them want to work here, which will be different for each firm they apply to. They might mention a deal we've worked on and explain why it was of particular interest to them. Or they might mention something that has happened in our London office recently that caught their attention.
Applications that demonstrate the student has a real interest in working in law also stand out. These applicants don't just state they have this interest, but also write about their experiences in a way that shows they're thinking about the skills lawyers need and how they've demonstrated them. For example, they might give an example of a situation where they improved their teamworking or communication skills and then link it to their future career as a lawyer.
The interview/assessment centre
How should students prepare beforehand?
Reread your application, because it'll be used in the interview. I'm amazed by how many people look blank when I ask them about something on theirs. Think about the skills lawyers have and what skills you'll need as a trainee before coming into the interview so you can consider how you've shown in the past that you have these. Third, make sure you know about some of the deals the firm you're applying to has been involved in recently.
What mistakes do you often see?
First, interviewees are often overly shy and nervous. Nerves can help you perform well, but lawyers need to have the confidence to meet clients and interact with a variety of people. So have a strong handshake, make eye contact, and remember we're not here to catch you out - we just want to get to know you a bit better and to think about whether our firm is going to be the right place for you to develop a career.
Another common mistake is not preparing answers to basic questions like: "Why have you applied to us?" or: "What are your strengths and weaknesses?"
What makes a candidate stand out?
An excellent candidate comes across as both professional and engaging. They're able to converse well rather than just answering with stock phrases. For example, we asked students last year for their views on the London riots. Those that answered the question really well didn't have a perfect solution, but discussed the issue intelligently with us and politely defended their own position if we challenged their views.
What is a good question to ask interviewers/assessors?
Don't ask a question if the answer is easily available on a firm's website, like: "What will my salary be?" Good questions show you have a real interest in the firm and that you want more information about it. You might ask a partner about their professional background and why they chose to work at their firm - you're showing an interest in your interviewer and finding out about the culture of the firm. You could ask an associate what they're working on at the moment, which will give you an understanding of what's involved in deals day to day. You could ask someone from the graduate recruitment team how we go about assigning trainees to particular seats - you'll find firms do so very differently. You could also ask them about retention rates, because a history of good ones bodes well for future trainees. Asking insightful questions like these shows you're thinking carefully about your career and taking a long-term perspective.