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Helping graduates to start a career in law

October 2019

Law firms explain what they expect to see in applications from graduates, as well as the areas where students hoping for a legal career need most support from careers professionals

To provide help to those students and graduates who want to go into law, it's important to understand exactly what employers are looking for - and which skills are too often lacking.

Beyond the law degree

Employers look beyond a law degree and place a greater emphasis on the skills and qualities a graduate can bring to the role. Claire Richardson, HR manager at Ramsdens Solicitors, has over 12 years' experience recruiting for legal roles, and says it's 'far more important that they can demonstrate a passion and understanding for their degree - how the skills that they have acquired and developed during their time at university would relate to the role they are applying for.

She adds, 'While good academics are important and something that we want, we firmly believe that our graduates need to have more to offer than good grades. We are only as good as our people and the future of the firm is in their hands. We look for well-rounded graduates, those that go above and beyond and get involved, whether this be clubs, societies, work experience, part-time job, but not at the expense of your grades.'

Stuart Snape, partner at Graham Coffey Solicitors, explains how firms have changed their attitude towards recruiting graduates. 'In recent times we have shown a real preference for ability and experience over qualifications,' he says. 'There is no question that over time the law degree has proven less and less reliable as a means of preparing a graduate for employment. There are ever increasing routes into law that avoid the traditional requirement to undertake a law degree and this in itself demonstrates that the approach of employers has changed.'

Although non-law graduates can enter the field they will be expected to dedicate time and effort to developing their knowledge. Rachel Dobson, managing director of Hugh Jones Solicitors, maintains that 'a non-law graduate will have more to do during a training contract or work-based training in order to catch up on some of the areas of law that they would not have studied during their GDL conversion course - for example, intellectual property or my firm's specialism, Court of Protection law.'

Enthusiasm and interest

Aside from demonstrating a keen interest in law, graduates are also expected to express their enthusiasm and interest for the company. Applicants 'need to be able to demonstrate, in an application to us, that they have looked at our website and understood what we do and what the ethos of the firm is and tailored what is no doubt a standard letter and CV,' says Rachel.

It is also important that those looking for a career in law adopt a can-do attitude and display a willingness to learn. Claire expects graduates to 'shine and be able demonstrate a willingness to learn and get stuck in whatever is required'. She adds, 'Conversely a poor attitude and those that feel certain tasks are below them will put people off. Have an open mind and be open to opportunities.'

A resilient and adaptable mindset is valued by employers. Stuart notes that the legal industry is constantly changing, so a 'candidate needs to demonstrate they can adapt and be more creative in how they apply the law'.

As in any industry, employers emphasise that graduates should not overlook the basics such as spelling, punctuation and grammar in applications. With competition so stiff, any errors will most likely result in rejection.

We would encourage graduates to work on their soft skills such as communication, leadership, critical thinking and problem solving to give them the best chance of success in the workplace

Work experience

Most law firms require graduates to have some form of work experience when they apply for a role. Kate Hasluck, from DWF, says that they 'look for both legal and non-legal work experience, although it is not a prerequisite for someone to have legal work experience to be successful'.

'Having held down a job at a local supermarket, pub or restaurant is just as appealing,' says Claire. 'This not only provides you with a referee but shows that you understand the basics of having a job, timekeeping, improved communication skills, [and] experience of interacting with those outside of your social circle.

Kate Shorney-Morris, managing director of Zest recruitment consultancy, reminds graduates that 'the ability to think outside the box and demonstrate transferrable skills is what is truly important. We appreciate that not all graduates will have the opportunity to secure relevant experience.'

However, graduates should be made aware that not all firms will be willing to accept them without relevant experience. As Rachel says, 'Some legal work experience during school or university, whether at a law firm, a student advice service or advice centre is essential' - so it is worth reminding graduates to research the company and check the criteria before applying.

Soft skills and resilience

It's positive that the law firms we spoke to report that their graduate hires usually meet their expectations. However, as Kate Shorney-Morris attests, 'More can always be done. We would encourage graduates to work on their soft skills such as communication, leadership, critical thinking and problem solving to give them the best chance of success in the workplace.'

Kate Hasluck adds that 'we are always eager, however, to see more resilience and flexibility as our business continues to change and grow'.

The transition into employment can be challenging for some graduates. Stuart says, 'Overall there remains a difficulty in switching from a style of learning that is tutor led to one which is more creative and inquisitive. They are often used to being asked to go and find an answer but rarely are they taught to understand how to ask the question. The ability to meet a client and understand the issues involved or to view a legal problem from various angles and work out why the problem exists in the first place is often ignored during a degree course.'

Finding a good-quality job with training and development opportunities can be challenging. To get around this Rachel suggests that 'candidates do plenty of volunteering in areas that interest them to demonstrate their skills to future employers'.

Research and preparation

 Graduates 'need to be able to demonstrate that they want to work for us and that they have something to add to the firm,' concludes Claire. 'You can always tell the ones who have done their research, that understand enough about the firm and its culture to come across well at interview. If you don't spend the time researching a firm, how do you know if it's the right place for you? There is generally enough information online to get a feel for what it would be like to work there and to pitch yourself right at interview. It always surprises when candidates don’t bother to do this.'

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