How to research a firm... properly

How to research a firm... properly

'Why do you want to work for this firm?' is an almost guaranteed interview question, and law firms deserve a decent response to it. Here's how to tackle it.

Recruitment is in many ways like dating  the business often uses woolly, unhelpful terms like 'clicking' and 'chemistry', and in the same way that you don't get very far on your first date if you're not attentive, a law firm also likes to feel wanted and special when they're interviewing you. 'You were the only ones who offered me an interview' may be your most honest response to the 'Why this law firm?' question, but is definitely the wrong answer. Recruiters need to see that you've researched them  this may be where the parallels with dating should end: don't tell your date how much you've researched them.

What you the applicant needs to do is wow the recruiters with your insights. Research will show you understand the business, the environment in operates in, where it's going, and how your skills fit into that vivid picture you have. But how do you go about it? What is the proper way to research law firms?

Here at Chambers Student we make it our job to distinguish between firms and explain why you might want to pick one over another. We also spend almost all our time researching law firms, so in this feature we'll lay out the steps your research should take to uncover the answer to the question 'why do you want to work for this firm?

Step one: Use Chambers Student

You saw that one coming, didn’t you? The fact is, Chambers Student is an ideal starting point for your research. In the True Picture features on law firms we aim to tell you about...

  • the work a firm does
  • how well it’s doing and its strategy for the future
  • its culture – what makes it tick
  • the structure of the training contract and what work trainees can expect
  • the social life

We know just how much importance firms place on commercial awareness, so wherever possible, the True Picture features aim to raise relevant commercial themes. Try and follow up with general web research on themes raised in your favoured firm’s feature (more on this later). For example you might want to look into the emerging importance of renewable energy or the effects of Brexit on the City. If you can show that you have some level of knowledge about these issues, it is quite likely to lead a recruiter to view you as a commercially aware candidate who understands the issues of most relevance to their firm.

The Chambers Student True Picture is also a great resource for comparing different aspects of a firm and the trainee experience: the hours, the culture, supervision, responsibility levels, the clients etc. What aspects of a firm matter most to you? Maybe it's one of these that attracts you to the employer. Don't just compare firms on obvious factors like the hours or training (though those are both good things to look into). Investigate more fundamental aspects of a firm: its strongest practice areas; new areas the firm's moving into; its strategy for the future; how the culture is changing.

If you're researching a US-headquartered firm consider using our US sister publication Chambers Associate. It basically does the same as Chambers Student but in the US. Each year we interview 100s of junior associates Stateside, just as we interview trainees here. We also talk to law firm managing partners about their future strategy – useful stuff if you want to impress interviewers. Do bear in mind that the UK offices of US firms are often quite different culturally from their headquarters. However, it’s good to get an idea of how a firm is perceived on the other side of the pond, and there may well be something in the culture that has crossed the Atlantic. For instance, Skadden has a pretty hard-nosed reputation while Covington & Burling is an academic, intellectual sort of place. These statements seem to apply on both sides of the pond. We’ve also produced a list of every single US firm with an office in the UK (there are over 100), and which ones offer training contracts.

Step two: Check out the main Chambers & Partners directories

Okay, this feature isn’t meant to be an extended plug for Chambers & Partners, but our main directories are an ideal second step for your research. They rank law firms and lawyers across the world. Want to know who the best business lawyer in Gibraltar is? Or the top firm in Angola? Or what’s going on in the world of Norfolk agricultural law? Respectively, Chambers EuropeChambers Global and Chambers UK will tell you the answers. Chambers USA can give you useful information about US-headquartered firms.

The Chambers main directories are powerful tools. Let's take a look at an individual firm by way of example: Pinsent Masons. Look at its Chambers UK rankings – there are a lot of them but don't get intimidated. The firm's website will tell you it has four English offices: London, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. Let's look at the key commercial areas of corporate, banking and litigation in those locations. In the Midlands (Birmingham), the North West (Manchester) and Yorkshire (Leeds) the firm is Band 1 for banking and (except in Birmingham) for corporate M&A; the firm is ranked in Band 2 for litigation in all three areas too and is ranked in around ten other areas too. That's pretty good going – the firm is clearly very highly regarded by businesses and other lawyers in these regions. What about London? Well, the firm wins a lot of rankings here too, but it's in Band 4 for banking, ranked in the mid-market for corporate M&A and not ranked at all for litigation. Its corporate practice ranks alongside well-regarded London firms like CMS, Dentons and Stephenson Harwood but doesn't square up to the biggest beasts in the City. What is the firm most highly regarded for? Well, it's ranked Band 1 for both construction and planning. These are clearly top areas for the firm: click on the construction ranking and you'll see the firm has nearly 100 construction lawyers – that's over twice as many lawyers as there are in the M&A team. It looks like construction is a particular strength of the firm, particularly in London.

So, from knowing nothing about Pinsent Masons ten minutes ago, you have already started to paint a picture of its main strengths in different parts of the country. It’s still broad brushstrokes, but nuances are starting to emerge. Think how useful all this information could be when filling in an application form or answering that tough question about why you're interested in the firm at interview. Be aware that a top chambers ranking for a practice area may not mean that's a big area of work for the firm – it may just be that there are one or two lawyers in a firm of 100s who are particularly good at, say, sports law. In that case you'll look a dunce if you go on and on about how much you want to work in sports law in your application. In most cases Chambers UK will show you how big a department is if you click on the relevant ranking, which is really helpful.

As a final point, it's going to help you to know that many firms are seeking to develop their business by way of sector expertise. Popular sectors firms are focusing on right now include technology, energy, private wealth and financial services. Use the Chambers website in conjunction with what the organisations say about themselves to ascertain which client sectors they are targeting. Picking a firm for its target sectors is a good strategy, particularly if you already have something useful to offer in relation to one of its chosen sectors.

Step three: Look at a law firm's recruitment website and literature

If you've ever been to a law fair you will have been bombarded by different firms' graduate recruitment marketing, campaigns, images, freebies and slogans. 'Press Play', 'Be Different', 'Broaden your horizons' and 'Law worth talking about' are among the hazier straplines we came across in 2017. Mosey over to law firms' websites and you'll find that bigger firms have dedicated graduates careers web pages – often with brighter colours and bolder lettering than their more sober main websites. But what does it all mean? Well, it's all so murky that we've written a separate 12-point guide to law firm marketing on the subject.

Here's a basic idea of what to look out for. You'll notice that almost all law firms say much the same thing about themselves (leading firm, client focused, etc) but they don’t all say it in the same way. This is important. Let’s compare the grad recruitment pages of a few firms.

Weil websiteFirst, take the offering of US-headquartered firm Weil, which has an established UK training scheme. 'Expect the Exceptional' says its website over a picture of some very serious-looking lawyers in blue, grey and black suits sitting in a smart waiting room decked out in muted austere colours. Out the window is the City of London skyline. Weil doesn't mean 'exceptional' in the sense of unusual; they mean 'the best' – theyr'e targeting the sharpest students. They want hard-working lawyers who don't mess around and want to work in the City.

Compare this to Stephens Scown, a regional firm based in Devon and Cornwall. 'Do you share our passion about the success of the South West?' says its friendly website. Above are some quirky pictures of (presumably) trainees in a hodgepodge of odd outfits: one has a rucksack and passport, one a broken umbrella and a map – two are in jackets and ties but are wearing tennis shorts and cricket whites below the waist. The message is clear: we're more than just lawyers; we're sporty, adventurous, and did we mention we're a bit countryside-y? The firm's commitment to the region is palpable and should be noted.

Another firm to contrast: Travers Smith. Its very sensible website doesn't do straplines. It has a picture of a chap in smart shoes and trouser dashing up some old steps; and another of graduates eagerly clutching flouncy degree certificates. The text is in a conservative serif font and the background is parchment-coloured. Like Weil, Travers is trying to come across in a serious way, but it doesn't feel as scary – or modern. It feels like it would be quite a sedate place to work, and maybe just a tad traditional.

HFW websiteFinally, a more practical example of how a law firm's recruitment site can help you out: HFW. This firm recently rebranded, and its graduate recruitment recruitment website is now a lot more lively and colourful than it used to be. And it contains some useful clues to the firm's identity: the strapline 'your/our global success' sits alongside images of ships, containers, electricity pylons, a yacht and a building sites. These hint at the firm's internationalism and its core sectors: shipping, energy, commodities and construction.

So, graduate recruitment websites can tell you two things. First, they give a first idea of the type of person the firm might be looking for: Weil wants serious, hard workers; Stephen Scown is more on the hunt for the bubbly sporty type. They may also hint at the firm's broader identity: Stephens Scown is firmly committed to the South West; HFW has a strong focus on particular sectors. Both of these types of information can help you answer that question we mentioned at the start: 'why did you choose to apply here?' So, every time you view a law firm’s web pages, ask yourself: what is it trying to tell me? You already do this subconsciously. Do it consciously from now on.

Graduate recruitment website have definitely got more generic in recent years. Some used to be downright alarming. Weil's graduate recruitment website used to include images of a tiny bug-like person in the glare of a spotlight with the slogan 'DO SOMETHING THAT SCARES YOU'. Yikes. This was targeting a specific type of person. Sometimes a firm's grad recruitment slogans can be a bit misleading. For example, White & Case used to sell itself as having a small trainee intake and offering a training contract focused on the individual. In fact it recruits quite a lot of trainees (50 a year!) and is a big corporate giant where the focus is unlikely to be about the individual. So the campaign was a bit of a disaster. The firm ended up with a bunch of very demanding trainees who expected the firm to move the earth for them (that's what they'd been promised after all), but in fact they had to fit into the corporate straightjacket. These days White & Case's campaign is more transparent, targeting ambitious types looking for a global career: if a firm pushes terms like 'global', take note. So make sure you use other resources to corroborate the impressions you glean from grad recruitment materials. Again, the Chambers Student True Picture is a good place to start.

Step four: Trawl through a firm’s main website

There is so much to be gained from crawling over a firm’s website, and if you take away all the superlatives and self-praise you’ll get a decent understanding of what a firm does. As these sites are designed primarily for clients, the usual approach is to say what the firm does and for what type of client. Firms will usually present themselves in a way that emphasises the breadth of their activities. But be aware that this won’t necessarily tell you which things a firm is best at and which they are just getting into. A firm may be repositioning itself in the market and pushing certain practice areas which don't actually make up a large proportion of its work.

Here are some good things to look for on a firm's website:

  • a message or annual report from the managing partner/chair/CEO
  • the way in which the firm divides itself, ie by department or by key client sectors
  • the relative size of departments or practice groups
  • the geographical spread of the firm
  • biographies of trainees or partners who might be on the interview panel
  • any information about community or charitable activities (CSR is the often used term – it means corporate social responsibility)
  • the gender/ethnic balance among partners/trainees
  • news about the firm – information about recent deals and cases is especially useful
  • press releases, opinion pieces or blogs about areas of law the firm is active in

All these things can help you expand your factual knowledge about a firm and get a feel for the place. You might notice, for example, that a lot of partners and staff come from certain universities. A lead partner might spell out what the firm’s game plan is for the next few years. You might notice that particular practice groups have expanded (though firms will rarely make it obvious where they have contracted). Or you might find a blogpost about a recent Supreme Court case affecting one of the firm's key practice areas. Absorb the information but retain a degree of healthy scepticism about the trumpet blowing.

Step five: Keep an eye on the legal press, blogs and social media

The Lawyer, Legal WeekThe Times' Law Supplement and The Law Society Gazette are all good sources for daily and weekly information about what’s going on at firms. The American Lawyer will have information for US firms. Now, we're aware that most of these websites are behind a paywall. Is it worth paying for a subscription? Probably not. If you can wangle a subscription somehow that's great, but the headlines will usually tell you most of the story and relevant news will often be reported on a firm's website too.

Look out for big deals, financial results and stories making a splash in the profession to judge how well a firm is performing. Not everything reported on in the legal press will be relevant to your research on firms: the appointments of a new managing partner or the story of a firm in demise may not be that relevant. That said, a lot of stories in the legal press can have an angle to them that's useful to you as a budding lawyer. For example, has a new managing partner got a different strategy they want to pursue? What lessons can be learnt from the example of a firm that goes into administration?

Legal blogs are a great way to stay up to date on the developments in specific areas of law. We've come across useful blogs on topics ranging from Brexit and M&A to art law and privacy. Elsewhere on this website we've curated a list of recommended legal blogs, plus some useful podcasts you might want to listen to.

There's also a handful of legal gossip websites that focus on stories and intrigue which you can take a look at. Beware, though, these sites should not be a key research tool. You'll probably also be aware that there are other law careers publications besides Chambers Student out there. Use those that you find most useful. Some are better than others: we find that certain of our rivals produce content which presents an overly glitzy and Pollyanna view of a career in law, while others bring out articles and listings which are genuinely helpful or insightful. Take your pick. The more independent and critical of law firm's content is the more useful it'll be.

Social media is a great tool for keeping up to date on what law firms are doing and the latest developments in the legal world. But who to follow? Well you can start with @chambersstudent (and like us on Facebook while you're at it). We post regular news about law firms, deadline reminders, commercial awareness stories and more. Law firm graduate recruitment accounts are well worth following, as are prominent lawyers, university careers services, and legal and news publications...

Step six: Read the news on areas you're interested in

The mainstream press can be a good source for finding out more about business, law firms and the legal profession. For example, the business sections of broadsheet newspapers and the BBC News website are a great place to find out more about everything from the details of corporate deals firms are working on to the affects of legal aid cuts. Publications varying from The Economist to Buzzfeed may have specific articles about trends affecting the legal profession. These are all really valuable for boosting your commercial awareness.

When researching smaller firms, especially regional ones, we often resort to very broad Google searches. You should try the same. You might be surprised what turns up: local press articles; links with community and charitable organisations; references to things the firm has sponsored; really bad news about dodgy dealings (on rare occasions!); articles the firm’s lawyers have written for industry journals; reported cases; and local business awards. Just one of these snippets of info could turn into a useful talking point at an interview.

If you're interested in certain sectors or areas of law consider reading trade publications relevant to those fields, whether that's Wired or Family Law Week. Even if you're not interested in a certain sector, but are interested in the commercial world in general it's worth picking a certain story to follow over the course of the year or more when you're making applications – for example, you might follow the fortunes of mid-market supermarkets like Tesco or Sainsbury's, or the effects of government cuts on social welfare cases. Make a habit of following news and developments in areas of law or business that you're interested in. Get into a ritual: maybe read the industry newsletters you've subscribed over breakfast, and the BBC Business headlines at lunch. And ideally this shouldn't feel forced: the areas you're reading up on should be ones you're genuinely interested in.

Step seven: Use your network

We’re always banging on about networking and we know it's something that law students and even qualified lawyers can feel intimidated by. There’s really no need to feel this way and if you don’t get over your initial inhibitions then you’re doing yourself a real disservice. Read our Nine networking tips here. Make networking and attending events a habit. Here are some tips on how to get started:

  • Write a list of all the people you know. Start to enquire if any of them have contacts in the profession or contacts that could give you some kind of assistance. You might end up with a contact at a firm you’re trying to target and you might also be surprised at how willing people are to give you helpful advice. Even the odd sliver of info could be useful. Remember to include friends, neighbours, university or law school contacts, people you have worked for, people you meet at social events, people on your sports team… and so on.
  • Use social networking sites to ask friends if they have potential contacts for you. LinkedIn and Twitter are both great way to engage with contacts – but make sure you're polite and not pushy at all times.
  • Attend as many careers events, presentations and open days as possible. Be the person who stays to chat.

The only thing left to say is don’t OVER-research and rattle on at interview about every deal the firm has ever done. Remember, recruiters just want to see that you have a broad understanding of what the firm is about. But the more detailed your prior research is, the more sophisticated and commercially aware your answers will sound.


This feature was first published on our website in June 2010.

It was fully revised and updated in December 2017.