Training Contracts: The Recruiter Interview
2012-07-26 02:32 PMInterviews
With application deadlines for training contracts looming, we decided to get some last minute advice on training contracts from Victoria Widdows, Legal Recruiting/Attorney Development Manager at Bingham McCutchen. We chatted to Victoria about training contract application forms and managed to get the inside scoop on American law firm salaries, commercial awareness, international secondments and much, much more…
"An application must be catchphrase free."
What do you look for in a training contract candidate?
We look for strong academic history and a desire to succeed.
When you say ‘strong academic history’, do you mean that you look for candidates with a specific level of academic achievement?
We are generally looking for As and Bs at A-level (or international equivalent) and a definite 2:1 at degree level. We don’t distinguish between law and non-law; we just look for people who are continually driving themselves forward.
We often get asked if law firms really care about candidates’ A-level results. Is this actually the case?
A candidate’s A-level results (or international equivalent) are important because their university selection is based on their grades. If the education system changes then it won’t become so important, but A-levels, at the moment, are your entry-point into a university that will teach you at a good level.
What is the key to writing a successful training contract application?
It’s all about having an understanding of the firm you’re applying to and tailoring your application to that specific firm. You need to know their practice areas, understand their culture, and know how you will fit into that culture and work type. For Bingham, an application must show independent thought, be well written with clear and original text and also be catchphrase free; we do not enjoy reviewing prepared lines lifted from the application advice sections of websites.
How would you recommend people go about developing an in-depth understanding of a law firm?
By reading websites like yours and going to the individual websites of law firms. Try to get a feel for the firm from the articles they write and the information they present on their website, or by meeting representatives in person at events.
For instance, would you recommend that aspiring trainees look at the recent transactions firms have been involved in and talk about examples they found particularly interesting?
I think so. It’s good to show that you understand the type of work the firm does. For example, we’re a niche firm that focuses primarily on the financial services industry, so you wouldn’t want to apply here if you’re looking for a training contract which concentrates on employment law. It’s a case of having a good general understanding of the firm and an interest in its recent noteworthy deals.
How much work experience do you expect trainee candidates to already have?
At Bingham, we’re not that worried about work experience. We like to see that you’ve balanced your education with something else, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be legal work experience. Other firms, I would say, put more emphasis on work experience.
When it comes to balancing your education with something else, what other examples would you recommend instead of work experience?
I personally quite like it when people volunteer. Volunteering works well because it means a candidate can balance their education with something else worthwhile, i.e. giving something back to their own community or perhaps an overseas project. It also demonstrates that you can work at the high level demanded by your degree, and simultaneously take on something which is people-focused.
As a firm, we also don’t rule out candidates who’ve had a prior career in a different industry, as long as the career leads into the type of work we do.
How can candidates demonstrate commercial awareness on their application forms and in interview situations?
On our application form, we specifically ask candidates to identify a commercial issue that has interested them, and then we talk about this and other situations during the interview process.
Once candidates have secured a training contract, what will their training actually involve?
All trainees have to do PSC, which is the essential training for trainee solicitors. We currently use BPP Law School for that and we also use BPP for our electives training as well. In-house, we run fortnightly trainee and paralegal programmes, where the trainees get to learn about and also present on a current topic, and we also have regular guest speakers from each practice area.
We pride ourselves on our on-the-job training. The exposure to quality work for trainees at Bingham is very high because they work in small teams. Our trainees learn from the examples they work on and get the opportunity to discuss everything during or at the end of each case.
Trainees have a mid-seat review and an end-of-seat review, where each major topic is discussed on a legal basis and a development basis. The training contract is very much tailor-made to the individual and that is the beauty of a small trainee intake. We also recently introduced an online training programme that trainees can dip in and out of as required.
What process must trainees go through when choosing their seats?
At Bingham it’s very organic; it’s not particularly prescribed or rigid. We sit with each person at their mid-seat appraisal and say, “Where would you see yourself going next?” and then we take that into account. We rotate everybody around into the four major practice areas and/or the two smaller sub-practice areas.
We like everybody to sit in Restructuring at least once, because that’s the main focus of the London office. Obviously, all trainees have to do a litigation/contentious seat too as an SRA requirement. For the other seats, however, it really depends on what’s best for the individual trainee, their skill-set and where we see them fitting. It’s a two-way process.
Are training contracts with American law firms different to other training contracts?
No, they are still based on the UK Law Society process. We very much run the London programme with relevance to the London office, i.e. a London training contract for the London market, and the Hong Kong training contract focuses on the Hong Kong market. They are not US-focused programmes, although there is plenty of exposure to international clients and work.
Why do American law firms typically pay trainees and their NQs higher salaries than other firms?
American law firms are generally more generous with their pay scales. We monitor other firms’ trainee salaries and Bingham’s trainee salaries are pretty much bang on the high average. Our NQ salary is perhaps higher and the reason behind that is that we pay all of our associates at the New York rate, so there’s no distinguishing between offices. It may appear high in the London market, but it’s the normal rate for the New York market.
How much opportunity do trainees have to get involved with pro bono projects?
There are some good opportunities. We work with LawWorks, which is an independent charity that supports local projects. We also have a reading programme where people can volunteer and go into local schools and read.
Bingham is very focused on community projects, so we often do individual charity-based events. One we do every year is the Backpack Project, where trainees get involved in filling a backpack with equipment which goes to underprivileged children.
Would you recommend that trainees take advantage of international secondment opportunities?
We do. However, we’ve found that being outside the London office for a whole seat isn’t necessarily beneficial for an office of our size. We tend to put the focus on international secondments after qualification.
Since the Hong Kong office started up its own trainee programme, we don’t necessarily send London trainees there for the sake of it. I find it very interesting that other firms can base their training contract marketing around what international secondments they can offer. Essentially your training contract should focus on strengthening your English law knowledge and so it is not ideal to dilute this by spending a significant part of it outside of the UK.
Are people in the UK eligible to apply for Bingham’s Hong Kong training programme?
They are, but they need to have strong local language skills, i.e. Mandarin and Cantonese.
Do you get many applications for the Hong Kong training programme from the UK?
We generally receive applications from overseas students that have studied in the UK, who were perhaps formerly based in China or Hong Kong.
What working hours do trainees tend to work?
Working hours are very much deal driven. All international firms are pulled in different directions by clients and/or different time zones, but working hours really depend on where the trainee is sitting, at what time and what work they have exposure to.
What’s the likelihood of a trainee at Bingham being offered a NQ position once they have qualified?
It’s all about fit and achievement at Bingham. There are very good prospects, but you do have to meet the criteria. It’s possibly a different process to other firms, who might have a limit on how many people they can bring through. We don’t have a limit. It’s all about matching strengths, career interests and where trainees want to qualify.
If you could give one piece of advice for candidates who are currently looking for a training contract at Bingham, what would it be?
Understand the market place you’re entering into and the challenges that surround it. Essentially though, if you’re solution-driven and you are intellectually curious, you could do very well here.
To find out more about training contracts at Bingham, please check out: www.bingham.com/Careers/London-Trainees