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Husnara Begum, associate editor

When applying for training contracts or vacation schemes, how thoroughly do you research the hiring organisations? If you simply browse through the recruitment pages of employers’ websites don’t be surprised if you struggle to tell one apart from the other and are then left scratching your head when confronted with the dreaded ‘why do you want to work for us question?’

In the case of the legal sector, the number of law firms offering training contract or qualified lawyer positions can be vast and unless you look beneath the scab it can be really difficult to differentiate between them.

Short of talking directly to existing employees who are likely to be on message and other than the usual sources such as law fairs, graduate recruitment literature, mission statements and legal directories, where else should you be looking? And more to the point what should you be looking out for?

Employer’s corporate website

As well as the recruitment pages of a firm’s website I recommend having a look around the ‘news’ or ‘press relations’ and ‘client alerts’ sections for all the latest announcements. Press releases to look out for include partner / team hires, office launches or updates about financial results, new strategies etc and stories about cases or deals the firm is currently advising on.

Such announcements will reveal vital clues on priority practice areas, key clients / sectors, which in turn will give you a steer on whether a firm is right for. For example, if a firm’s financial results show that 70 per cent of its revenue comes from advising on insurance litigation work and your dream is to specialise in private equity then it’s unlikely to be a suitable match. However, if the firm has announced the hire of two heavyweight private equity partners it’s probably worth digging a bit deeper.

Social media  

The same rules apply to a firm’s social media feeds. By all means follow its recruitment account but again the corporate or departmental Twitter or LinkedIn feeds are likely to be more revealing. Similarly, rather than reading partner profiles on a firm’s website check out their LinkedIn profiles for further information on their career histories. Also, look out for content partners post themselves or are liking / commenting on as this can offer a very strong indication of stuff they’re interested, be that diversity, the environment or the impact of Brexit on a particular sector.

Industry news

The legal sector has several titles that publish regular content about the comings and goings in law firms covering a range of areas including hirings and firings, office launches and closures, strategic reviews, salary wars, NQ retention rates, client wins etc. Such stories are likely to offer a more balanced view of what’s ‘really going’ on inside a firm as opposed to PR spin.

Former employees

During a typical recruitment process, you’ll have the opportunity to meet existing team members of the hiring team so you can gain an alternative perspective to that of the partners. And if a firm doesn’t offer this it’s perfectly reasonable for lateral hires to request such a meeting before accepting an offer. However, as I’ve already mentioned, the individuals the firm are likely to line-up for you to meet are likely to be on message and in turn you’ll be expected to be on best behaviour meaning you’re unlikely to get a 100 % accurate insight into the team. This is where talking to former employees should help. However, it’s worth noting that if such individuals left on bad terms then whatever they tell you may be biased hence the importance of multi-sourcing your research.

What to look for 

When researching law firms there are lots of clues other than size or chargeable hours targets that you’ll soon be able to spot, which should help you to determine if they are ‘right’ for you.

Backgrounds of lawyers – This covers education, ethnicity, and gender. I’ll let you decide what the culture will be like at a firm that predominantly comprises a partnership made up of entirely of Oxbridge-educated, white men. Separately, if you’re thinking of applying to a lesser known firm or one in its infancy the firms the founding partners hail from will give you a strong indication of quality.

Focus sectors / clients – I appreciate some of you will see this is a sweeping generalisation but personally I do believe the make-up of a firm’s client base and the sectors it focusses on do have a major impact on culture. For example, sophisticated private equity clients will inevitably have different demands of their lawyers when compared to up and coming entrepreneurs with more limited budgets.

Office maturity – This is another important clue on a firm’s culture. If the office you’re considering applying to is in its early stages of development and the managing partner has recently announced that he/she plans to double its size in the next two to five years this will inevitably influence your working environment. Indeed, the hiring team’s likely to be after entrepreneurial trainees / associates with a keen interest in business development and who want to play an integral part in future growth. So you seriously need to ask yourself if that’s you?

Separately, if a firm’s office is made up of a series of lateral partner hires who have brought their own associates with them this risks cliques emerging and you as the new hire potentially being left out in the cold. But in contrast, a new office that’s going places might be the perfect platform for an ambitious junior hire. The choice is yours but knowing this stuff in advance will not only enable to you make a well-informed choice but you’ll come across as well-prepared during potential interviews.

Husnara Begum, Associate Editor and Career Coach