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Presentation Skills April 7, 2014

Posted by Stephen Gurman in : Assessment Centres, Interview , add a comment

Presentation Skills for Law Assessment Days

While you’re busy preparing for exams, I thought I’d write about preparing for presentations, with a light hearted look at what you can learn from some of the stars of country music.

Country music is not particularly popular in the UK, but in the US it’s a significant part of the music scene.

Listening to a few country songs, it seems that these artists seem to be good at understanding their audience and connecting with themes and ideas which they share. Some of the lyrics in their songs contain the everyday, the ordinary and the American dream: open roads, driving a truck, working hard and getting on, food and drink.

Here are a couple of my favourites:

“She likes it when I bring home fresh fajitas
And mix up a pitcher of margaritas” – Doin’ What She Likes, Blake  Shelton.

“I love sleeping in on Saturdays
And I love college football games
I love not acting my age
And good barbecue” – Love Your Love the Most, Eric Church

How’s this relevant to law careers?

Well, some employers are asking students to give a presentation as part of the assessment progress. That’s when you’ve got to start thinking like a country singer, you’ve got to start thinking about how you are going to connect with that employer and show them that you are the right sort of fit for their organisation.

You won’t be singing (hopefully) and the presentation is unlikely to be about fajitas and barbeque. However, you will need to be alive to the qualities the employer you’re presenting to is looking for. You need to make sure that both the content you are presenting and the way in which you’re talking about it is relevant to that organisation.

How can you do that? Research. If possible, attend an event the firm is running, but if you’ve not been able to do that then looking on their website, using the law directories and reading the legal press can be very useful. Even a firm’s own press releases will give you an idea as to how they like to talk about themselves. Which words do they frequently use to describe themselves? What qualities are they looking for in a candidate?

Other things to remember when delivering presentations include:

Conversations with a Commercial Barrister March 21, 2014

Posted by kdudnikova in : Bar Careers, Commercial Awareness, Legal Career, Pupillage, Reflection, Skills, The Careers Group Blogs, Training Contract, Vacation Scheme, Work Experience , add a comment

Many of the recent law careers blog posts have focused on careers as a solicitor in a commercial law firm. Arguably, this is entirely appropriate, given that there will be around ten times as many training contracts as pupillages available this year. In fact, there are likely to be less than 400 pupillages available in total. Of those pupillages, only a very small number will be in sets of chambers specialising in commercial law. That said, a career at the Commercial Bar could offer a rewarding alternative to students with top academics (and I really do mean top!) and a strong interest in commercial law.  I talked to Anton, a junior tenant at Essex Court Chambers, to find out more….

So Anton, please could you describe your path to the Commercial Bar?

I did several vac schemes in my 2nd year at university.  They were fun but, ultimately, not for me. I didn’t like the idea of being employed, unable to control my working hours, sitting behind barristers in Court etc.

At the same time, I did a few mini-pupillages, mostly at commercial sets, including Essex Court. They tend to be a lot shorter than vac schemes, but you get to sit with several members of Chambers, go to Court and cons (i.e. client meetings) with them, ask questions and work on the cases they are working on. You temporarily become part of Chambers. It’s an intense but satisfying experience.

I could see that being a barrister was a lot of hard work, but – and crucially – you are working for yourself, don’t have a boss, and get a lot more freedom to shape your working (and home/personal) life as you wish. Plus, you get the adrenalin of standing up on your feet in Court, having a lot of responsibility even when you’re junior, and being in charge.

I chose Essex Court because it’s one of the top commercial sets with a variety of work. When I say “commercial” I don’t mean “corporate”. We have people who do employment, banking, civil fraud, international arbitration, art law – you name it.

What was your pupillage like?

Pupillage is like a year-long interview combined with a tutorial. The first few months, at least at Essex Court, is about learning the ropes. You sit in your supervisor’s room, help them with their cases, do legal research, draft documents, discuss how best to argue this or that point in Court, how to achieve the client’s objectives, and so on. It’s amazing how much progress people make in such a short period of time.

Then you “rotate” between a number of other members of Chambers, spending 2-3 weeks with each. Here, the emphasis is more on testing your abilities. It’s a fair system: several people assess your work and it is they (not anyone else) who decide whether you should be offered tenancy.

One of the more amusing cases I did during pupillage was about cows in Bristol. The issue was whether one of the bulls named (without irony) “Tamhorn Rocket” produced semen that was below the quality stipulated under the contract. Vets with expertise in artificial insemination of cattle were called and cross-examined, and Rocket’s performance was measured against the clearly virile “Pedro”. It’s not a typical case for Chambers, but shows the diversity of our practice.

What has work been like since being a tenant?

Varied and interesting. I have done a case about the beer market in an East African country (which involved travelling there to interview witnesses at the brewery), a fraud case where the defendants spirited away $175 million which was then traced into luxury homes in London and Geneva, Ferraris, and huge diamonds, and a case about an oil painting which was alleged to be a fake. Those are just some examples.

The hours are long, but I choose how I distribute them. For example, I don’t like staying in Chambers in the evening, so I take my work home, go for a run, and carry on working at home later if I need to.

In Chambers I have my own room and I love it. The idea of sharing or (worse still) an open-plan office fills me with dread. I like having the freedom of being able to listen to any music I want whenever I want, not being distracted when I have a tight deadline, or monitored when I want to make a private call.

Despite having a room to myself, I never feel lonely: the other juniors are friendly, we frequently go out for dinner/drinks, pop in to see each other, ask for and share advice.

Do you spend much time doing advocacy in Court?

Some. The more senior you get, the more advocacy you do. That’s more or less the norm at the Commercial Bar. But you are always working with other people – usually a team of solicitors, other barristers and, frequently, experts. So you should expect to be talking quite a lot, though not so much in Court, at least to begin with.

What are the main ways in which you think your job differs from that of a junior associate in a top city law firm?

Greater independence and flexibility, more challenging, less admin, and a lot more fun.

Do you have any advice for students considering a career at the Commercial Bar?

It’s very competitive. It’s essential to have good grades, and it helps to have experience (mini-pupillages are very important), determination and patience. If you’re lukewarm about the idea, or if you don’t enjoy a challenge, then it’s probably not for you. But, if you do, it’s a hugely fulfilling career.

Thank you Anton – that was really interesting.

Anton was interviewed by Katherine Dudnikova, Careers Consultant for Laws at Queen Mary University of London.

Law careers beyond the Law March 17, 2014

Posted by Phil Howe in : Outside of Law, Skills , add a comment

If you’re studying Law and have decided a career as a solicitor or barrister isn’t for you, what do you do? First things first, don’t worry! In my experience over the last 2 decades, helping employers recruit the best graduates, law students are in pretty high demand from firms as varied as government departments, professional services companies and strategy consultants. The content of your degree, combined with the many skills you have gained, makes you a pretty attractive proposition as a potential hire.

You could start with a quick skills audit. What have you been doing as part of your degree, other than learning about the law? Chances are you’ll have picked up a fair amount of commercial awareness, refined your communication and influencing skills, and had to think logically to come up with the answers to a range of problems. There’ll be plenty of other skills you’ve learned too- which did you enjoy the most? Which feel like real strengths? Understanding these and being able to talk about them confidently will be important when you meet potential employers.

Next, you could begin researching other careers to consider, beyond solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers. Try looking at the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey results from the last few years. This will tell you what previous graduates from your course have gone on to do- giving you some company names, job roles and salary information to think about. It might open up some ideas about viable alternatives. Your university department may have a copy but if not go to your university careers service. If you’re in or around London, the website What do London Graduates Do? helpfully amalgamates data from several years and institutions.

Also, find out how to get in touch with alumni from your course and institution. Your department may arrange events where you can meet them in person, as may your Alumni Relations department. Alternatively, you may have access to a database of alumni you can contact by email, or even an alumni mentoring scheme. Talking to alumni will enable you to ask questions that are important to you, but you might not want to ask a recruiter. What is the working culture like? How much chance will you have to use the skills and knowledge you have gained during your course? What are the opportunities for training and development? Will you get to travel abroad?

If you’re still stuck for inspiration, Targetjobs has a handy list of suggestions. They also provide an entertaining list of graduates, from John Cleese to Fidel Castro, who didn’t follow their degree path! They’re all good suggestions but my personal advice would be to start with yourself. What do you enjoy? How do you want to spend anywhere from 35 to 80 hours of your average week? Once you know these things, talk to as many people as you can to find out where you could best fit in, and will be able to do the things you enjoy.

The fact of the matter, which should reassure you, is that roughly 70% of graduate employers are more interested in who you are, and what you thrive doing, than what you studied. With that in mind it’s more important to do your research and try to get the inside track on as many careers as possible, than jump at the most obvious options.

Commercial Awareness – what you need to know before your interviews February 17, 2014

Posted by Stephen Gurman in : Commercial Awareness, Interview , add a comment

by Karen Gui

Commercial awareness in the context of Vacation Scheme or Training Contract selection processes has two components: (a) the business of law; and (b) the businesses of clients and the environment they operate in. However, the most important thing to bear in mind is this – ‘commercial awareness’ describes a way of thinking. It is not just about facts and figures, textbook knowledge, or reading every issue of The Economist cover to cover.

The Business of Law: Whether you want to work in high-end corporate transactions, Public Law, European Competition Law, Commercial Real Estate or private client work dealing with the legal problems of ‘normal’ or ‘real’ people, one crucial issue remains the same – every law firm is run as a business, every law firm is looking for future partner potential in its trainee solicitors, and every law firm uses its Vacation Scheme as a pre-selection process for Training Contract candidates (think of it from the firm’s point of view as a ‘try before you buy’ approach to trainee selection).

Therefore, what they want to know is: Do you know how a law firm is run as a business, the hourly-billing fee structure, time-sheets, what roles are played by non-fee earners, the challenges faced by law firms in an environment where clients are demanding more services of better quality for lower fees? When you see the initials ‘ABS’, do you think ‘Anti-Lock Braking System’ or do you understand that this refers to the ‘Alternative Business Structure’ introduced by the Legal Services Act 2007? More importantly, are you aware of how the liberalization of the legal market via ABSs has the potential to radically change the way legal services are provided? Then there’s the commoditization of legal services – certain activities that were previously billed at hourly rates are now being ‘sold’ to clients for a fixed fee, such as document due diligence, for example. The following are some articles that can help you better understand the business of practicing law, whatever area you’re interested in, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:

Legal services pricing: http://www.legalfutures.co.uk/blog/legal-pricing-stop-using-c-word

How lawyers can avoid extinction: http://entrepreneurlawyer.co.uk/tag/commoditized-legal-services/

An example of a global firm (Allen & Overy) reining in its costs by moving all support roles into Belfast: http://bit.ly/1h4A7un

Be big, be niche, or die: http://bit.ly/MRmC3N (an article by Sir Nigel Knowles of DLA Piper)

Law firms are using this to be flexible and cost-effective – Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_outsourcing

Commercial awareness tips from trainees and recruiters: http://bit.ly/M5VVHZ

The Business of Clients / the Business Environment: It is one thing to understand what the law has to say about a particular situation the client is facing, but it’s another thing to be able to understand that, given the client’s business needs or economic environment it finds itself in, the legal response can be adjusted to provide the best outcome for the client. For example, your client may have every legal right to sue for non-payment of products sold, but does a major record label want to be known for suing ten-year-old girls who don’t understand the difference between ‘streaming’ and ‘downloading’ the latest Justin Bieber single? What does the client wish to achieve and are there other, more business-friendly ways to enable the client to meet their objectives?

Everyone knows the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies are performing poorly, but can you spot that there are opportunities for business, for example in debt-restructuring, bankruptcy administration, and litigation or dispute resolution? Are you aware that Greece is attracting a huge amount of investment from Chinese shipping companies because its ports and other maritime assets are needed by the modern ‘Silk Route’ into Europe, and that these have been recently acquired by Chinese companies at bargain-basement prices?

The key to understanding this facet of ‘commercial awareness’ is to find out what sectors of business the firm’s clients generally operate in. If most of its clients are in financial services and banking, can you tell the difference between investing in Equity versus investing in Debt? Look at the firm’s recent headline deals (or cases or projects) and gain an understanding of the role the firm played in the transactions and the significance of the firm’s role, as well as the significance of those transactions, in the business world.

What you need to show is that not only are you capable of providing accurate legal advice (eventually as a qualified lawyer), but you are also capable of finding the most practical solution to the client given all their legal and commercial considerations.

Here’s a useful article from the Ultimate Law Guide about how you can evidence your commercial awareness at the interview: http://bit.ly/1cpI1H0

If you’re not sure what sources to get stuck into, click on the following link, but be warned – keeping up to date with current affairs and business news should be a habit in order for it to be useful at interviews. Binge-consuming the news just before an interview is unlikely to be very helpful! http://bit.ly/MFPSK3

Just like transferable skills, commercial know-how is transferable too. If you’ve been reading up about high profile City deals but at the interview you’re asked to discuss football clubs being forced by law to cap their spending on players to ensure fair play instead – DON’T PANIC. Business is business – Richard Branson sold music and magazines long before he got involved in aviation, financial services, and space tourism! Breathe, relax by thinking of the interview as a conversation rather than an exam, and apply the knowledge and skills you already have to the task at hand.

Finally, remember that ‘commercial awareness’ is a way of thinking. It involves understanding the whole environment that you, the firm, and your future clients operate in, and being able to generate ideas or solutions that take into consideration all the relevant factors. Now bravely go forth and be commercially aware!

The Importance of Being Earnest February 11, 2014

Posted by Stephen Gurman in : Interview , add a comment

By Karen Gui

It’s normal to feel a bit nervous going into an interview – your future depends on it to an extent, and you know you are being evaluated by your responses. That’s enough to make even the most confident candidate feel at least a little bit nervous. While having a total meltdown obviously isn’t going to do you any good at an interview, the surge of adrenalin in your body when you are nervous is beneficial because it makes you mentally sharper – you process information more quickly and your reflexes are faster. This is the evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response that has ensured our survival as a species. More pertinently, being and appearing alert at an interview is a good thing. It’s far more attractive than appearing lethargic or spaced-out.

Assuming you are (a) going to refrain from hitting the interviewers; and (b) not actually going to flee the interview no matter how tempting this may seem, then a top tip for managing the ‘fight or flight’ response and successful interviewing is to be authentic. This means being earnest / sincere / honest / true to yourself. It does not mean being naive (i.e. lacking in wisdom or judgement). Being authentic is helpful in at least two ways. Firstly, you’re not trying to be someone else, you’re not acting, so you don’t have a script to memorise and stick to – this takes a huge burden off your mental and existential load for the interview, saving you energy to focus on the things that really matter. Secondly, by being authentic you are more likely to come across as genuine and therefore trustworthy – a priceless attribute all employers look for because nobody wants to work with a dishonest person.

However, don’t confuse authenticity with naivety. Exercise good judgment, focus on the positive, and demonstrate the skills the interviewer is looking for. For example, imagine you’re interviewing for a Training Contract in a City firm. One of the questions you are likely to be asked is, “Why do you want to be a corporate lawyer?” The following are examples of honest but naive answers:

Naive answer #1: “Because I want to earn lots and lots of money! I want to live in luxury, have a glamorous life and become highly influential in society. Basically, I want to achieve great wealth and social status.”

Naive answer #2: “Because I don’t like to deal with the messiness of human relationships the way one has to in Family or Criminal practice; I would detest having clients cry to me about their marital or child custody issues, and I am determined to stay as far away as possible from the unwashed masses of the criminal justice system.”

It should be obvious why these two honest but naive answers aren’t going to help any candidate secure a job, but if you don’t know why, please make an appointment with your careers service. They will be happy to enlighten you as this is an important part of your employability skills development. The following are two examples of authentic and helpful answers to the same question. Note that they focus on the candidate’s positive motivations for choosing corporate law. Do compare them with their naive counterparts above.

Authentic answer #1: “I am attracted to corporate law because what happens in the City has a significant impact on the rest of society and not just the parties directly involved in a transaction. For example, your firm recently acted for energy supplier BrightLight plc in its takeover of BigBill plc. Shareholders of BrightLight benefited as the transaction increased the value of the company. In addition, the takeover enabled BrightLight to lower the price of electricity for vulnerable customers such as pensioners and the disabled, thereby conferring much needed financial relief to these hard-pressed groups. Knowing that the work I do can have far-reaching social impact is a great source of motivation and pride for me. This is why I want to practice corporate law.”

Authentic answer #2: “I have always enjoyed immersing myself in games and puzzles such as Sudoku, Rubik’s Cube, Chess, and Go, because I enjoy the challenge of solving complex problems. I am attracted to corporate practice because every matter or transaction is a collection of puzzles to be solved. For example, your firm is currently acting for Far Flung Co in the reorganisation of its global operations. This project involves a wide range of issues to be resolved, including tax liabilities, employment law, real estate and insurance obligations. Working as a corporate lawyer is my dream job because my problem-solving skills will be stretched on a daily basis.”

Hopefully, these examples demonstrate how you can be authentic in an interview without being naive. Do note they are just examples and you owe it to yourself to think about how you can present your motivations and evidence in the most positive light possible. Never lie and never pretend to be someone other than yourself because, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it many years ago, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”