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The decision by Nottingham Trent University’s law school to offer free advice clinics to those lacking the resources to pay commercial law firms could be viewed as an act of charity in the finest traditions of the county’s most famous – albeit legendary – son, Robin Hood.
The reality is that there is a dual purpose to the legal advice centre, which opened this year, because it is also providing valuable experience for the law school’s undergraduates, hopefully giving them a head start in the jobs market.
“It is on-the-job experience for our students, where they can see how their decisions can improve a person’s situation,” explains Nick Johnson, the centre’s director. “It also gives them something to talk about in job interviews.”
Such initiatives are not new among law schools, but they have become increasingly important as the process of finding a job after graduation has become markedly more difficult following the financial crisis.
James Leipold, executive director at the National Association of Law Placement in Washington DC, agrees that hiring rates are unlikely to return soon to levels seen before the financial crisis. He refers to a “new normal” for hiring levels in the US.
He adds: “We have seen modest improvements over the past two years, and we would expect to see that continue.”
“Nevertheless it is still a more competitive and less robust market than it was in say 2006 and 2007, and we also expect that to continue.”
It is not just the financial crisis that has made finding a job more difficult, although this has had a big impact in the US and Europe.
Structural changes in the way legal services are delivered, such as outsourcing work to lower-cost countries, have meant that law firms are less likely to take on entry-level staff.
Many schools are trying to integrate more training on practical skills into the curriculum, as well as teaching students about relevant technology.
In some cases, this can mean an emphasis on the kinds of skillsets usually found in business school degrees, such as financial literacy and group problem solving, according to Mr Leipold.
There is also a move to try to shorten the time students are in school and out of the workforce, thereby reducing the lost opportunity costs.
For instance, qualifications that were once taught in three years are now completed in two.
Although there has been a lot of innovation, there is a problem for law schools in that the industry they are supplying is one in which old habits die hard, Mr Leipold admits.
“I am not able to single out a particular school that has found a magic formula that allows it to stand out above the rest,” he says.
“As legal employers, law firms continue to rely on old habits, hiring for high grades and class rank from elite schools, rather than making an earnest attempt to evaluate practical skills.”
Crucial to the process is helping students to think about finding work as soon as they start studying, according to Lois Casaleggi, the senior director of career services at the University of Chicago’s law school.
“One of the most common mistakes that we see are students who don’t do enough self-assessment about how they want to use their law degree and what they are looking for in a job,” she says.
“If they cannot answer those questions first, they are unlikely to find a position that is a good fit and that will be satisfying.”
It might be assumed to be enough to have gained a place in one of the world’s top law schools.
But even high-ranking law schools, such as that of Cambridge university, put considerable resources into advice on job seeking, coaching sessions and networking events, where commercial firms are invited in to meet the students, according to David Ainscough, the deputy director of Cambridge’s careers service.
The highest ranked schools tend not just to have the reputation to attract the attention of large commercial law firms but also the money to fund careers events.
“We are quite well resourced, so we can afford to give the time to students. And giving them time is often what is needed most,” Mr Ainscough says.
It is not the kind of talk that a meritocrat like Robin Hood would have appreciated, but, then again, reality is often more prosaic than medieval legends.
Margot King, head of recruitment at Eversheds, discusses hiring priorities
What are the main things you look for when hiring law graduates?
Academic achievement – ideally a candidate will have obtained a 2:1 degree (whether in law or any other subject). It is also increasingly important that candidates not only show they understand wider economic issues and how they affect us, but also that they have a passion for how business works.
For a lawyer, understanding our clients and how issues affect their business is fundamental in ensuring we offer the right advice, and so we need to ensure we are assessing candidates’ knowledge of this from an early stage.
What should candidates do to prepare for an interview?
As clichéd as it sounds, researching the firm and understanding who we are and what differentiates us from our competitors, is essential.
If candidates have not shown understanding of the type of firm we are and our culture, then we cannot feel comfortable that they know the challenges they are going to face in the role.
Has the process of hiring law school graduates changed in recent years, and if so, how?
Although the number of training contracts across the sector
has reduced since the financial crisis, the concept of recruiting the best graduates who can develop the business has remained the same.
There has been an additional focus on assessing a candidate’s understanding of business and commercial awareness. However, many firms have been using rigorous selection processes with assessment centres for many years now.
The biggest changes have not necessarily been in selection, but in how firms like ourselves are getting the message to students on campus. The ever-changing world of technology means that we have to adapt and embrace a variety of methods, particularly the use of social media and mobile-enabled websites, to ensure we are reaching our audience.
Recruitment techniques are also likely to change over the coming years – video-based interviews using technology such as Skype will be increasingly common.
Has the competition for jobs become harder in the years since the financial crisis?
Like many firms, we reduced the number of training contracts we offered when the financial crisis hit. However, the number of law graduates has not reduced, nor has interest from graduates in other disciplines in a career in the law, so competition for training contracts inevitably remains high.
How many training contracts do you tend to offer each year?
We offer 55 training contracts each year, either to those who have applied via our “vacation scheme”, or to candidates who have applied directly for a training contract. We offer approximately 80 vacation-scheme places a year.