Research, research, research: the importance of understanding the firms you apply to

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The best way to avoid a pre-interview meltdown, assure a firm that you’re the one, and make an informed decision about your career? Put down your crystals and your moon chart, and power up your laptop. We’re going researching.

Put quite simply, “Candidates who have not done their research will not progress in the application process,” White & Case graduate resourcing manager Gemma Barns explains. Her colleague Jessica Clark adds, “It’s not simply about academic excellence. Recruiters want to get to know the candidates and they in turn need to show commitment and a desire to join the firm.” You may be thinking this sounds a bit like a rose ceremony in The Bachelorette, but you are entering a two-year commitment after all.

So now you’re thinking, where does this research start? Where does it end? How do I navigate the abyss of the Internet? Commercial awareness? What’s that? And most importantly, how do I prepare for an interview?

“Everyone is different, and they’ve all taken a different route to reach this point.”

Before you start flooding your search history with things like, 'highest trainee salary’ and 'best trainee work-life balance,’ remember that recruiters want to see candidates who are authentically themselves. More is being done than ever before to even out the playing field for candidates from all backgrounds, so use it to your advantage. “If in doubt, always remember that everyone is different, and they’ve all taken a different route to reach this point,” Barns maintains.

Start with research on yourself. What type of firm suits you best? Do you want to be in London? Or would you prefer to be in the regions? What hours are you comfortable with? It’ll be a fair slog wherever you wind up, but how much are you willing to compromise? What practice areas are you interested in, and which firms offer them? For White & Case trainee Fola Oginni, it was the trainee intake size. “With quality over quantity in mind, I didn’t want firms with massive trainee intakes or those that chose a very small number of trainees, and that quickly narrowed my search,” she tells us. “From there, I used the Chambers Student website and other legal research sites to get the inside scoop that firm websites did not have.”

What’s important to you?

Oginni doubled down on her two priorities: a diverse firm, with an international outlook. As a Nigerian, she was particularly interested in firms that worked on the African continent, and research into White & Case led her to Africa Focus, an annual publication that highlights some of the most pressing issues and developments on the African continent. With one eye on the work the firm was doing in Africa, it was also important to her that this diversity in thought was reflected in the firm’s workforce. “Walking in on my first day, I was pleasantly surprised to see the diversity of the trainee intake pool,” she recalls. “Now that I’ve been here for a few months, I continue to appreciate the little things that show how the firm caters to its people, whether it’s being served jollof rice at a firm event, or becoming a member of the women and black affinity groups! It was important for me to apply to a place where I could see people like myself.”

Fellow trainee Thomas Owen was on the hunt for a firm that offered international opportunities, like overseas seats, and a combination of support and hard work. “When I started a new seat and partners checked on me to see how I was doing, it became clear that I had made the right choice,” he says. “I was reassured that even with great responsibility, I would have a great support network.”

What resources should you be using?

Without research, “you can’t tailor the application to the firm,” Clark underscores. As well as scouring the Internet, attending career events and open days are great opportunities to learn firm-specific information and network. Both Barns and Clark note that stellar candidates have usually attended events, whether virtually or in-person, organised by peer firms and those in different sectors. “With a plethora of information about law firms online, these events bring what candidates are seeing online to life,” Barns explains.

A mantra to live by: take advantage of any and every chance to network! Not only are you enriching your application, it’s also an opportunity for you to test the waters before coupling up. You wouldn’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.

What’s more, be on the lookout for firm events that allow potential candidates the chance to take part in case study exercises. These are often a snapshot of the trainee experience at a certain firm, which you can use to enhance your cover letter and reference in your interview. For Owen, these events offered an unrivalled perspective. “Online research while sat in your university accommodation can feel detached,” he points out. Of course, “it’s crucial, but it can’t compare to conversations with trainees and graduate recruiters from the firm, and opportunities to visit the offices.”

On the flip side, travel to these events can be expensive (National Rail, we’re looking at you...) and sometimes impractical, although White & Case do reimburse reasonable travel expenses. On rainy days, LinkedIn is a handy resource for reaching out to trainees at firms to ask questions about work-life balance, supervision, or the most challenging seats. Firms are also heavily active on various social media platforms, so it’s worth keeping up with those.

Firm websites tend to have lots of general information, but a deeper dive can uncover some gems. For example, White & Case’s Inside White & Case page offers insights into peoples’ experiences at the firm and shines a spotlight on how they’ve shaped their careers. Take inspiration from these stories and use them to inspire your applications.

“The best candidates are not simply regurgitating facts.”

It’s no secret that you’ll be up against some exceptional candidates when applying for vacation schemes and training contracts, so make sure you’re one of them! Barns tells us that the most memorable candidates are those who can demonstrate passion and a genuine interest in the firm. “They’re able to speak about their skills and how they fit into the firm,” she says. “They can easily explain the steps they took to understand the firm and consider the firm's values and how they match up with theirs.” Perhaps what’s most impressive though, is “those who are open-minded and willing to learn,” she adds. “The best candidates are not simply regurgitating facts.”

Commercial a-what-ness?

It’s not just a buzzword. You need to be able to demonstrate that you understand how current issues affect the work a firm does. But that isn’t as scary as it sounds. “Commercial awareness is simply a more conscious effort to pay attention to the news and what’s going on,” Oginni unravels. “The more you get into the habit of informing yourself, you see stories develop. This allows you to be comfortable discussing the issues that arise.”

“No event exists in isolation.”

Whether your interests lie in the realm of taxation, artificial intelligence, fashion, or TikTok drama, it’s helpful to know the current issues surrounding them. Firms’ websites are a good starting point for keeping up with their most recent deals. You can then begin to link these to current events that you may be aware of in other industries. “Follow a topic, prepare as if you’re debating it, and relate it to the wider market because no event exists in isolation,” Owen advises. This is echoed by Clark, who adds, “Candidates should have a good amount of knowledge of an event or initiative if they are to raise it in the interview setting. If a follow up question is asked, they must be prepared to answer.”

There’s no shortcut to commercial awareness, but it doesn’t have to be as daunting a task as it sounds. You can add it into your daily commute by listening to a relevant podcast, or picking up a copy of the Financial Times or The Economist. There are also a number of legal commercial awareness blogs out there, so get searching! Take the time to reflect upon the content you’re absorbing, and consider the sources you’re getting your information from. To help you out, Chambers Student has a curation of practice area guides which outline different areas of law and notable current issues affecting each one.

Impostor syndrome who?

We all know that interviews are massively anxiety inducing, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. At the heart of it, you’ve got to remember that interviews are just an opportunity for you to put your best self forward, and most of the time the interviewer will be rooting for you! “The recruiters are also human, and they want to hear your story,” Oginni explains. “Don’t read into the fear stories!” Owen adds. “The interviews are not as scary as they make you believe. You and the other candidates are all in the same boat.” The best way to be confident is to be prepared. You’ve done your research, you know the answers, and you deserve to be there!

The research continues...

We’re all familiar with that wave of relief you feel as you shut down each and every tab you’ve accumulated over a research process once the final product is complete. But the work’s not done once you’ve received your training contract offer. Research is embedded in the practice of law; as a trainee, your colleagues will be counting on you to uncover information that will be the foundation for important documents. The same skills you’re picking up while researching firms, like navigating different sources, paying attention to detail, and prioritising information, will definitely come in handy.

Top tips from White & Case

  • Listen carefully to the interview questions and make sure you’re answering what is being asked.
  • During a virtual interview, it’s easy to tell if you’re reading from a script. Prepare the same way you would for an in-person interview.
  • Don’t let your nerves get in the way of showcasing yourself and your skills.
  • If you’re not successful in getting a vacation scheme or training contract this time round, you’re not the odd one out. Take it as a learning experience for what ever is next.
  • Consistency is key. You’ll be asked about the other firms you’ve applied to. If the most important aspect for you is global presence, make sure that reflects in the firms you’ve shortlisted.
  • A quick test to check if your cover letter is generic: remove the firm’s name and see if the words could apply to any other firm.
  • And finally, proofread! Pay attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Don’t make it easy for recruiters to not progress your application.

And if White & Case is the firm you have your sights set on, one last top tip from Chambers Student...

Read the firm's True Picture!