Strategies to taking your first steps in your legal career...and succeeding!
On 22 April 2020, I co-presented a webinar hosted by The University of Hong Kong for its law students. My co-presenters were Peter Gregoire (General Counsel of the Insurance Authority) and John Lee (Compliance Professional with International Law Firm) and the topic focused on what skills employers are looking for.
Between the three of us, we possess diverse interview experience both as employee and employer/hiring manager and this article highlights the practical tips that we shared. The students were a broad mix of undergraduate, postgraduate, PCLL and research students and between them, they raised some really interesting questions.
Job seekers will appreciate that CV content is just as important as the interview given that whether job seekers are selected for interview depends on the CV (which is ideally only 1-2 pages long), hence, the webinar focused on both areas. This article is a brief summary of some of the practical tips arising from our discussion which will assist job seekers generally.
Since human resource professionals or hiring managers only have a limited time to look at each CV, they may skim read to find the things that stand out to them. In order to make a lasting first impression and to increase your chances of being selected for interview, job seekers should definitely make sure that the CV does not contain grammatical or typographical errors and pay extra attention to highlighting the following which can be topics of discussions during an interview:
- Problem solving skills and your ability to be agile and adapt to different areas. For eg, if you studied an elective in family law and wish to work in the corporate or banking practice areas of an international law firm, you should show how such knowledge could be transferable into the corporate law area. Demonstrate your appreciation between the connection between and symmetry with different practice areas and experience.
- Relevant internships rather than listing say 10 unrelated ones (ie tailor it for the role) or group the relevant ones together to show the relevancy since quality rather than quantity counts.
- Your communication, leadership, entrepreneurship and/or project management skills can be demonstrated in the following ways through: volunteering or University leadership positions.
- Charity or involvement with building a start-up (such involvement would stand out for say the public sector and other industries)
- Hobbies may also stand out since your agility/adaptability or other skills may shine through. For eg, not that this is encouraged or feasible, if you cycled along the Great Wall of China last Summer, this could highlight your persistence in the face of adversity, ability to navigate laws and regulations and ability to focus and other strengths.
If you have successfully been selected for interview, congratulations! This means that your CV stood out from the crowd which is no mean feat. Now the next step is to stand out during an interview because depending on how many rounds there are, you want to increase your changes of going forward to the next round or if it is only one round, of being offered the position you applied for!
In our combined experiences, we have definitely seen different industries having different interview processes. For eg, law firms usually have about 2-3 rounds of interviews which may incorporate a more informal element (such as a lunch or drinks) although the format/style varies from firm to firm.
Corporations on the other hand may have 5 or more interview rounds as they want you to meet as many people as possible so that they can get to know the REAL you to make sure that you are someone who can fit into their culture. How you come across and how you communicate your technical knowledge through multiple interview rounds will stand you in good stead. It is not uncommon for banks to have more than 10 rounds of interview when interviewing experienced hires!
Contrastingly, the Public Sector usually has a more formal panel interview process that is usually concluded in one round.
Just like when you are a law student who is identifying facts, laws and issues in case law, you need to show that you are a problem solver. Peter likes to ask candidates what is their favorite case and why. Interviewers want to see your problem-solving skills and your ability to think on your feet and come up with practical solution and not just provide theoretical and non-feasible solutions.
John stressed that thorough research on the interviewing company and interviewer is key. Researching in advance allows you the chance to show that you are genuinely interested in them. It is always advisable to research and know the latest news and updates (such as partner hires) about the firm as well as the cases they have handled. Knowing who are their competitors and what is this firm’s unique value proposition will also stand you in good stead. You can read online what challenges the interviewing firm is facing and how COVID-19 has impacted the business? In an interview, the interviewer likely wants to see your commercial awareness and analytical skills.
I encourage job seekers to not be afraid to ask questions since interviews are a mutual fact-finding/matching process. Your interpersonal and communication skills will also be observed from the moment you walk through the door of an interviewing company. Self-awareness will help you to keep your presentation/communication skills in good stead. You should always remember to show your respect and ability to interact with people of different levels (from the receptionist/tea lady through to partner level).
It is also important to show your authentic self since you do not want to be hired on the basis of some other persona because if the employer hires you, they will soon find out your true self! In our experience, even if you are not an extrovert, if you are fully prepared, you can still confidently demonstrate your enthusiasm and knowledge through your interaction/questions to know more about the firm.
During an interview, the interviewer is likely to be looking for your ability or agility to learn/adapt and initiative. As mentioned in the CV preparation section above, if you have highlighted these areas, you can expand upon these areas during the interview itself. Employers may also be looking for technology/digital literacy and language and other skills.
Other Areas to be Aware of in Interviews
Peter highlighted that job seekers should already know what the first few questions of the interview might be as they are quite standard. For eg, when an interviewer asks you to introduce yourself, this is your chance to shine through with your personality, being genuine and showing something interesting that may not necessarily have been included in your CV.
As we anticipated, the audience had other job search questions and we have highlighted some more tips below the questions:
Q: How does one succeed in getting into a city firm?
International law firms typically receive 5000+ applications but only offer approximately 10+ training contract so it is very competitive. Peter mentioned that these factors are important:
- Luck is involved (which is an element out of your control!)
- Your CV needs to be eye-catching (a personal statement at the top may stand out)
- If you get an interview, thoroughly prepare, prepare and prepare!
- If you get a placement scheme/ vacation scheme, treat the whole process as your interview for getting a training contract and show your potential throughout the scheme
- Turning any negatives into positives will also stand you in good stead
John highlighted that you need to make sure you stand out for the right reasons, and not because of your typos! There are also opportunities to pursue a career outside of law, for eg, John obtained a law degree, but moved from HR into compliance and joined a magic circle firm focusing on compliance. He also mentioned that your area of study does not have to be your practice area. This is how you can show your adaptability. This is also true from my personal experience as my first job in Hong Kong was in advertising before I obtained a training contract and now I run my own business!
Q: Is work-life balance a myth?
This depends on your area/ industry/ job. Peter has worked for over 10 years in-house and finds that the work/life balance is better than in law firms. However, he also mentioned that COVID-19 is reshaping the workplace as we are more flexible with working styles
e.g. having more ZOOM meetings. This does not however mean that we work less; it just means we work smarter.
Finally, my advice to job seekers is not to beat yourself up if you have studied other degrees or electives that may (on the face of them) not appear to be a conventional law candidate since for all the reasons mentioned above, skills/experience are transferable. On this related point, an audience member asked whether there are roads less travelled. As can be seen from our diverse experiences, all three presenters pursued roads less travelled and still have enjoyable and rewarding careers!