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Top British law firms are constantly reviewing and honing the way they recruit the next generation of talent. Recent innovations have included expanding the number of universities they recruit from, creating trainee schemes to attract students with foreign language skills and finding new interview techniques.

Allen & Overy has been reviewing how it recruits after the Solicitors Regulation Authority this year withdrew from a voluntary code setting out a timetable for when law firms could make offers to students. The SRA said the decision was made because deciding the dates and processes by which employers and employees make recruitment choices was not part of its regulatory role.

Claire Wright, graduate recruitment partner at Allen & Overy, says the move gave the firm an opportunity to reconsider its graduate programme as talent is often to be found beyond the “traditional hunting ground”.

This meant measures such as offering vacation schemes to give candidates and the firm a better way to test who should be awarded a training contract.

“It gives [students] a chance to sample several careers, or if they feel they want to pursue something completely different they can do that because they’ve a wide range of options,” Ms Wright says.

The company introduced A&O First, a work experience programme that lets first-year students spend time at the firm at an early stage of their career.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, another top British law firm, has created a training contract for Mandarin and Korean speakers to encourage them to join the firm, says Andrew Austin, partner in charge of graduate recruitment.

Under this scheme, trainees recruited from UK universities have a year’s legal training in London before moving to Southeast Asia for a second year.

The trainees will gain qualification in England and Wales after the two years, as well as in the other country they worked in.

One of the biggest challenges for recruiters is that they are looking for law students who will not become practising lawyers until four, or even five years later. Firms generally recruit undergraduates, which means candidates have at least a year of university and a year of law school still to complete. Non-law graduates take longer to qualify. If students are offered a training contract, they will spend two further years as trainees before practising.

“We’re interviewing now for students who will join us at the earliest in 2018, probably 2019, so we’re definitely recruiting for potential,” Mr Austin says. “We’re looking for people who will be great trainees three years from now.”

Clifford Chance, the law firm, is changing the way it interviews candidates to limit the preconceived notions recruiters may have. It is also creating an alternative route for candidates who want a way around the traditional process of submitting a CV and an application form.

“Our process is constantly evolving,” says Laura King, the firm’s global head of people and talent.

“We did make some process changes [including] not having students’ CVs with the interviewer. So essentially it’s having the candidate be ‘name only’.

“Not having the benefit of the CV or knowledge of the student’s school or background — not to say that doesn’t come up in the discussion — may make for a slightly more open or less prejudging meeting. That was a change for students, certainly in law firm recruitment.”

Laura Yeates, the firm’s graduate recruitment and development manager, adds: “The students seemed to really like it. It allowed candidates to position their strengths in a way they felt they could lead the interview.”

She says it also made candidates more comfortable and allowed them “to lead the narrative” better.

Since these changes were introduced, Clifford Chance says the number of institutions from which it receives applications has increased.

“Suddenly we were converting from a broader range of institutions,” Ms King says.

An alternative route into the profession offered by Clifford Chance is through its Intelligent Aid programme. Candidates taking this option are asked to submit a 600-word essay — this year’s topic is ethics in business — and to structure an argument around it. It invites 40 finalists to its offices to make a presentation and 20 of them are offered vacation schemes during which they have the opportunity to win a training contract.

Ms Wright at Allen & Overy says the recruitment reforms are part of the way it tries to find candidates who have individuality, toughness and a global outlook.

“More than ever before we’re going to need lawyers who are adaptable and agile, who are astute at securing and maintaining client relations,” she says.

“We can’t have lawyers who say, ‘Oh, I only do banking, I only do corporate’. Language skills are very interesting and will be noted.

“If you find a Chinese student who’s studied in Hong Kong, is doing a masters in England, has Hindi as a second language, clearly that sort of person is of interest. That shows an ability to adapt to different environments.”

Winning through: Qualities top UK practices are looking for

“We are interested in international or other cultural experiences, we’re interested in commercial interest in the law, and we’re interested in resilience,” says Laura King, global head of people and talent at UK law firm Clifford Chance.

“Technical excellence and intellectual calibre are a given,” adds Claire Wright, graduate recruitment partner at Allen & Overy.

“What we’ve moved on to is the demonstration of strong business and commercial sense, and being part of a team. The ability to act as part of a team — not just internally but being an extension of a client’s team — is essential.

“In recruiting trainees, we have got to find some evidence of entrepreneurial drive, that innovative thinking and, above all, resilience,” Ms Wright says. “The ability to almost go wrong, but then be able to find a way to learn from the experience and come out stronger, rather than deciding you’ve failed.”

“Now, more than ever before, we need people who can operate in a global economy,” she adds. “That global mindset, that sense that this is going to be an inevitable part of your work — and to find that exciting — is essential.”

“We want our lawyers to have an international outlook,” says Andrew Austin, graduate recruitment partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. “They have to be interested in different cultures, the world of business, the world of law. You’ve got to be the type of person who’s quite supportive of other people. You have to be bright, inquisitive and sharp.

“We look for the potential in people,” he says, adding not all applicants need to have perfect business acumen. “There are some brilliant technical lawyers.”

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