Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Using social media in the training contract hunt

As published on Legal Cheek

actual footage
Earlier this year I got a training contract at a small, reputable firm in Buckinghamshire. To break this down simply; I met my recruiter on Twitter. The firm, like many others, is looking to expand and give substance to its online profile. And that’s why my experience as a blogger became relevant. My use of social media made me an attractive candidate so I made an application to the firm – three competitive recruitment stages later, I was offered the job. 

Getting into Twitter was a pretty odd experience. Following people and having others follow you is one thing. But trying to become a familiar name within the circles you care to be known is akin to joining a new school. Except no sniggering children. More decorum. More thinking about coming across as smart and someone in the know. My babbling blogging escapades, I had hoped, would help give me at least a little weight in this faceless arena. There were a few kind folk (@legalaware, @traineesurgery and, yes, @AlexAldridgeUK to name some examples) who helped make my entrance into the legal twittosphere less mucky and embarrassing than it might’ve been.    


Twitter in turn helped make my blog a more meaningful one; I became increasingly bothered by what people thought of it. And so from its jokey, na├»ve, often cringe-worthy origins it evolved into something better researched and more thoughtful – at times anyway. I gave more care to my content; hardly ground-breaking or even quality writing, but that was never the goal. First glimpse and it’s all about sharing my experiences, offering ‘tips’ and ‘tales’ to my struggling compadres. To a significant extent this was its purpose. But what it really did was enable me to join the dialogue and colour with humour the dull, boring, repetitive and dispiriting grind of training contract hunting. And its role as a means for getting me noticed by law firms developed as my readership grew.      

It would be wrong to say I got the training contract through using Twitter and by blogging alone. So too would it be wrong to say I would’ve seen success without using them. Twitter and blogging are not substitutes for aptitude, enthusiasm and genuine passion for law. But what I think I’ve shown is that they can be viable platforms for reaching what many are dead-set can only be reached through the obvious, well-trodden routes. I know this approach isn’t appropriate for every person, nor every law firm; but in 2012 - this most testing of years for getting a training contract - sticklers for the norm might find their luck fast dwindling.
twitter's maverick COO

Right now I’m a trainee at the kind of firm I want to be part of. But a training contract isn’t the first job my blog and Twitter helped me net. I also worked as a full-time blogger for a firm in central London. Hadn’t I brought a blogging background to the table I can’t imagine the firm would’ve taken me at all seriously.

More and more firms are modernising; sculpting, shaping themselves to fit into a market which doesn’t seem to know itself yet. The only way you can survive the training contract hunt in such unholy an environment is if you too modernise with the firms and look for the new opportunities in the new industry.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Too many LPC students - where does responsibility lie?

My article as published in Lawyer2B  on behalf of the Mulberry Finch blog 

Doing the LPC
“I love law! But was I right to start the LPC without having secured a training contract?” We often falter when we take stock of reality. And this is especially true of law students who’ve forked over several thousands of pounds to private LPC providers.
Here are a couple of facts that are worth highlighting: in 2009-10 there were 11,370 full-time and 3,140 part-time LPC places compared to just 4,874 newly registered training contracts. That’s a surplus of 9,636 students, ie the majority of LPC students. This is a problem, made continually worse by ever-changing (typically declining) trainee requirements in the market. It needs to be fixed. But where does the buck stop – Legal Practice Course provider, student, or the Solicitors Regulation Authority?
LPC Provider
When I say ‘private legal education provider’, I’m talking about a specific kind of institution; the kind with an endless line of eager students willing to pay top dollar knocking at their door - with BPP Law School and The College of Law together expecting to take on around 65 percent of them. The simple fact is if you want to become a solicitor in England and Wales, you must do the LPC. And LPC providers are the money-making gatekeepers to the industry.
So, should LPC providers be doing something to stem this competition and limit the numbers of students paying for the LPC (which can now cost upwards of £13k)? Of course, from a purely business perspective, LPC providers are doing little wrong; they’re supplying a service to huge demand. And indeed, why would they spend time, money and effort on conceptualising and implementing procedures for selecting between candidates when the immutable laws of profit and loss don’t require them to? But is there more to it than profit - indeed, should there be? Is the only responsibility of an LPC provider to provide a vocational education service?
In a time when the economic outlook is uncertain and youth unemployment is at a record high, responsibility is high on the agenda. So, what about social and economic responsibility and the idea that every individual and organisation has a duty to act so as to benefit society and the wider economy? An increase in numbers of debt-burdened folk is good neither for society nor the economy – so it is incumbent upon businesses churning out debt-addled individuals (which is invariably what jobless LPC grads are) to do something to limit these numbers. But let’s face facts. This argument is only persuasive if realistic. Self-interested businesses aren’t going to do things they don’t want, or indeed aren’t required, to do.
Student
But equally, I hear you say, a 21-odd-year-old student is no infant. They should, nay must, take responsibility for their decisions. If they choose to take on the risk of paying for the LPC from their own pocket and being subsequently lumbered with heavy debts, so be it.
People often say that university grads see law as a safer option in the rocky job market. But the truth is that most appreciate that no option is especially ‘safe’ today; not accountancy, consultancy, banking nor any of the other ‘recognised professions’.
There is however a widely held misconception, which probably evokes little sympathy, that getting into law school is half the battle. The truth is it’s barely part of the battle at all. Today, a 2.2 degree is all that’s required to breach the doors of an LPC provider. That and cash. Worse still is the perception that by passing the LPC you’re ‘almost there’.  
A general neglect on the part of students to keep updated and informed about the legal job market has, aside from lining the pockets of LPC providers, created fertile ground for the problem of too many LPCers, too few training contracts. Pragmatically speaking however, to expect students to sort this problem out any time soon is inconceivable. I am quite sympathetic with the suggestion that, where LPC providers have developed near immunity, students are - whether informed or not - vulnerable to the changing economic tides.
Regulator
The SRA is responsible for regulating the LPC and its providers. If you want to be an LPC provider, the SRA requires that you “demonstrate both that [you] are committed to, and can support, the delivery and assessment of an LPC and that the specific course(s) [you] intend to offer will meet the essential requirements set down by the SRA”. Further, if you apply to become an LPC provider, the SRA requires details on “how students’ potential to succeed on the course will be identified during the admissions process”.
In limiting the responsibility of LPC providers only to the provision of a course, the SRA effectively absolves them of any direct responsibility for the future employment of students. Quite convenient for LPC providers.
The SRA have made it clear that they “[do] not wish to restrict the range of organisations that are authorised to provide LPCs” - the right view if we are to encourage an open LPC provider market. But are we witnessing an FSA-style 'regulatory capture' which has seen the SRA, created to act in the public interest, instead supporting the interests of LPC providers? Perhaps it’s not quite so dramatic. But the fallacy here is that acting in the interests of LPC providers is the same as acting in the interests of the profession at large, and indeed the public.
What should happen?
There are too many people paying for the LPC and providers must be better regulated because of it. As long as this problem persists, and given their overarching position to actually make a difference, the buck stops with the SRA. It’s tagline is “Smarter regulation, better outcomes”. Clearly they’ve missed a trick here then. Surely smarter regulation would see fewer students, who are enrolled with the SRA, as jobless and owing substantial debts; nor is this an entirely great outcome.
Securing a place with an LPC provider should be a challenging hurdle which reflects the state of the market – no easy feat, I can appreciate. Should future LPC students be selected on the basis of competitive interviews, for example? Should there be an American style Law School Admission Test (LSAT)? Suggestions like this often invite cries of indignation. But whether welcomed or not by keen law students, one crucial point remains - making it to law school nowadays in no way suggests you’re any closer to making it as a lawyer.
Competition for places at firms of all sizes – from the high-street through to the magic circle – is incredibly high; and this intensity is showing no sign of lessening. But scarcely will you come across a 21-year-old with long-harboured dreams of becoming a lawyer who is put off by this reality. The job of the SRA is to help change what that reality is so that when you make it onto the LPC, it really is a strong sign that you are going to succeed as a lawyer, and that it truly is a worthy investment.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Legal writing

I'd once flirted with legal writing, but now i'm writing about substantive law on a daily basis for the Mulberry Finch blog. Take a look - I'm writing mainly about immigration, employment, commercial and probate law.

Writing about the law is an excellent way to not only build on your knowledge about the legal world, but also to hone your skills in writing, in constructing an argument, and perhaps most importantly, in simplifying intricate and perplexing judgements, laws and regulations. I strongly reccommend starting a legal blog or finding legal writing work to anyone interested in law and/or studying for the LPC or BPTC, looking for a TC or pupillage or looking to get into legal journalism. 

For those looking to become practitioners, hands-on experience is priceless work (and penniless too looking at recent articles!). But there is a satisfaction in writing that is scarcely found elsewhere. Perhaps it's not for everyone. But even by attempting to produce written work you'll probably learn something; be it a new fact that you unearth through your research, or an idea or opinion that comes naturally from the process of putting pen to paper.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

No excuses..

My absence from blogging is inexcusable really. But I’m back. And now is as good a time as any to let you know how things have been going - in a purely professional sense, of course. Early predictions were that 2012 would be the most difficult year for law grads – pan-European economic uncertainty adding to an already imbalanced global financial wreck – and the latest pale of dubiousness being doused over us by the Alternative Business Structure (ABS) stuff. In the first quarter, it's difficult to say whether the predictions are accurate. But will changes to the legal market be a good or a bad thing for us?

Good:

ABSs mean more legal services which in turn should mean more jobs, more graduate opportunities, more opportunity for experience, alternatives to training contracts, alternatives to the LPC, training which is more attuned to modern society.

Bad:

Will all the effort/expenditure/time shovelled into the LPC mean nothing in this new world? If ABSs introduce non-traditional training could it threaten the reputation of the profession and thus make it a less attractive prospect for wannabe lawyers? To compete with ABSs and limit costs might traditional firms cut down on trainee recruitment?

And what else must be discussed? A topic that has featured high on my agenda for some time but has remained largely unexplored is whether legal education providers should be doing more to get more folks into jobs and/or limit the numbers doing the LPC/BPTC. I will probably write about this topic for either The Lawyer/Lawyer2B or LegalCheek - stay tuned.  

Speaking of which, what else is going on in the legal blogosphere? Lots of things. But I’ve closely monitored the rapid growth of LegalCheek.com - brainchild of Alex Aldridge; a website for which I was an early contributor and remain as a long-term absentee. I will be writing for LegalCheek again.  

So much change we anticipate; too much worry we suffer.  A difficult year lies ahead, but 2012 is looking oddly promising, I think.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The hunt for the training contract

As published in Guardian Careers and Guardian Law last week

Days are getting shorter, colder and wetter; the training contract application process reopens its doors during this time of year. For some it spells a season of opportunity, excitement and progress; for others, another year of doubt and hard graft. What is relevant to most if not all jobless law graduates is that now is a time of uncertainty; one in which confidence is strained and sacrifice is crucial.

In the increasingly limited pool of graduate destinations the law enjoys elite status as one of the most fiercely sought after professions in the country. As much "for the people" as "for big business" (and despite the former being under threat) the magnetism of the industry remains unquestioned, promising those tenacious and lucky enough to gain access all the kudos and job-satisfaction they could hope for.

Golden Eagle Lands on Rock
The immediate struggle for us wannabe solicitors is in obtaining a training contract – a two-year traineeship with a law firm. The more time you spend searching for one, the more unattainable it can seem – a feeling only compounded when you look at the facts: in 2009-10 there were 11,370 full-time and 3,140 part-time LPC places compared to just 4,874 newly registered training contracts – and these numbers do not account for the hordes of previous years' applicants still vying for their big break. The statistics serve to disarm and motivate in equal measure; they highlight a perturbing level of competition, yet somehow still croon a tantalising "you can make it" verse.

The challenge now is as much about finding the right opportunity as bolstering the CV and improving application strategy. Weighing up firms I didn't before think to consider is common-sense to me now; besides, keeping my options open at the early stages seems like a good idea regardless of the economic climate.

As competition for training contracts intensifies, so too does the rush for almost-as-elusive vacation placements and dwindling work experience opportunities. Still, the right experiences – both formal and informal – remain the most fulfilling aspect of the pre-interview effort. Today, the training contract application appears more commonly in glorious online form, making it perhaps the most irksome stage of the whole process. Each application entails hours of researching, brainstorming, drafting, redrafting and proofreading. And without the right grades, the right university name, a scrupulous eye for detail and an appreciation for what the firm is looking for, all this can amount to little or nothing.

I started the Legal Practice Course without having bagged a training contract; a decision often labelled misguided and/or uninformed. But for me, and possibly the countless others who do the same, it was instead an unwavering belief that I can do it which carried me into a self-funded LPC, and further still into a relentlessly rocky job market. If rather than looking at this decision with regretful eyes I keep this belief alive, I can only continue to feel that I will indeed in the end be successful.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The BureauZone Crisis

Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) could use a few more like us. The adviser training course is a fulfilling and worthwhile way to familiarise yourself with the law and advice work. [This article has been approved by all relevant parties. Aspects of the account have been fictionalised to further protect parties. But this shouldn't compromise the purpose of the article.]

A Monday. New carpet smell laced with that lingering adhesive tang- the promise of the recently refurbished office space; not something I like to have greet me in the morning. But the place at least looks bright and alive. It was that afternoon’s events that made me realise what being here really meant.

I held the door open for the couple; him - tall and burly, menacing; her - short, unassuming and insipid, forcing a smile- inexpertly veiling the unmistakable anguish on her face. The man rushes past me- no eye contact, no anything. She shuffles in his trail. He presses the button for the lift and the doors open instantly. As he gets into the lift he tears in half the yellow sheet of A4 he was carrying. She approaches the same lift but the doors close on her. They don’t reopen. She keeps her gaze on the closed doors. I ask her if she’s okay and she looks at me; completely silent, vacant stare. She turns to open the door to the staircase and disappears. I’d interviewed the couple moments before. The yellow sheet of A4 was the debt form I asked them to complete before their next appointment.

I’d spent an hour with the couple. They wanted advice on how best to maximise their income. The man was impatient, arrogant and expected to leave us with a cheque for child benefits. At the time, I would have said it was the cavalier manner with which he probably approached every facet of his life that saw him unable to cooperate; after the event, I’d say it was his painfully unrealistic expectations that did it. I was left disheartened- my time and effort amounting to nothing more than mere character analysis.  

I think about how I could have done things differently; about what my natural approach would have been had I known the woman was pregnant by another man- something I discovered just days later. My immediate feeling was to treat this truth as a justification for the man’s behaviour. Then I thought more about the situation; how did she get pregnant? Was she abused? Why think about these things at all? Any combination of scenes a possibility. From that day I learnt to set aside my preconceptions along with the “what’s really going on here?” mentality; an effective lesson only available on the job.

It’s the difficult days that make an even greater reward of those times you do get to see justice along its way; helping the client identify their issue and take ownership of it; researching policy and law and delivering advice which can open up to the client new avenues they hadn’t before considered or even heard of. Many millions visit CAB and every now and then you’ll see a client whose life will be unquestionably better for it. It’s emotionally draining, it’s tough, but so rarely do you get to glimpse reality and human understanding revealing themselves to such a degree.   

In a time when Citizens Advice cuts threaten the most vulnerable, volunteers are needed now perhaps more than ever. I’ve been with my local CAB, in some capacity, for over two years, in which time i've learnt to better manage the client’s expectations - no matter how impracticable they first appear, to better manage my own expectations of the client, and ultimately to deliver an improved service. What I learn from my work as an adviser I will take forward with me into my legal career and beyond.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Beating Procrastination

By Matt Oliver [guest writer]

I’m sure many of you will have experienced procrastination in its many forms - its a fact of life for many of us. However there are things you can do to overcome it and to help you with your applications.

Procrastination is that feeling of being a bit stuck and unable to move forward with whatever you are doing. Procrastination can come about for a few reasons but the main one is because of fear. You may fear failure or you may fear what people think. Much of this can be happening on a more subconscious level too so its not always easy to identify it obviously as fear. Now without wanting to get too psychological and self-helpy on you, there are some ways to break through that fear and therefore the procrastination.

The first step is to sit for a moment and examine what you are thinking and analyse why you may think that you are fearful of failure or what others think. Weirdly you may even be afraid of success and this can lead to procrastination too. Once you identify these thoughts then just decide to let them go - recognise that they are limiting thoughts and let go of them.

The next thing to do is to make sure you are not feeling sorry for yourself. This may sound a bit harsh but often we can stop ourselves moving forwards because we are feeling sorry for ourselves. Just choose to stop this now and move on more positively. Another major reason for procrastination is because we feel the task at hand is too big. Researching those firms, making all those applications and still trying to study and work at the same time all seems like too big a mountain to climb - but that's simply not true.

At the start of your degree if you looked at all the work that needed to be done over the 3 or 4 years then you would have felt overwhelmed for sure. But when your university breaks it down into smaller chunks spaced evenly across the weeks it suddenly becomes much more achievable.

A famous quote which is good to remember is “You can eat a whole elephant if you take it one bite at a time”. The same goes for your applications and dealing with your procrastination.

This article is an extract from the eBook "21 Secrets to Successful Applications" written by Matt Oliver of Trainee Solicitor Surgery. Get a free copy of the full eBook here: FREE EBOOK

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Revolution beckons…

['Acculaw' is now called 'Accutrainee']

The Legal Services Act was the last great game-changer of the legal world. Press went into overdrive; law firms - stirred, panicked - clambered on to this new track to greatness, ran for the hills; students boned-up any which way they could – what? how? when? where? A biblical shift in the way law is done in the UK wasn’t going to trip us up at interview. And yet the Legal Services Act, still barely in effect, is soon to find itself consigned to the side story of an ever-suspect plotline.

In a recent podcast I did with The Guardian’s Alex Aldridge and Bircham Dyson Bell’s Kevin Poulter we endeavoured, perhaps in vain, to find the best route to a training contract. During the conversation we discussed, fleetingly, the latest innovation in the industry- Acculaw. But what is Acculaw and why is that name on the tip of every tongue?  

Founded by ex-Hogan Lovells lawyer Susan Cooper Acculaw was created to address the cost, inflexibility and inefficiency of traditional trainee recruitment. Acculaw’s trainees, recruited straight from the LPC, are seconded out to up to three firms for a minimum 3 months, maximum 6 months per firm. The private recruitment company pays its trainees around £20,000 p/a [this would, looking at the bigger picture, equate to a pay cut]. The training model overcomes both the £175,000 odd [says Acculaw] it costs firms to take each trainee on - GDL and LPC fees, maintenance grants, salary, training courses - and the two year time lag between the job offer and the start-date. Since the SRA gave the new training model the greenlight it’s become the buzz about town and it does have its fans - “[Acculaw is] an innovative approach to solving the challenges law firms face in recruiting appropriate numbers of trainees and managing their cost“ gushes former Linklaters head honcho Tony Angel. With such acclaim radiating from the lofty echelons of the legal world it’s easy to anticipate a rapid ascent for Acculaw. But what does this mean in real terms for us inbetweeners?  

For any inbetweener a gift is the idea that a training contract is once again attainable. But a common criticism levelled against Acculaw’s training model is the disrupted, intermittent style training it offers its employees, with the bulk of the criticism squaring on the expected quality of the lawyers it will produce. Indeed, there is little incentive for a firm to invest as much time and resources in a ‘drive-by’ trainee as in those it seeks to retain on a permanent basis [i.e. the traditional route trainees]. So might the Acculaw route make finding a qualified job harder for us? Is it a one rung ladder with nowhere to go beyond that?  

Of course, questions of this kind are only relevant while the two routes to qualification [traditional, and Acculaw] exist side by side. A good question here might be whether or not firms will plump solely for Acculaw or use it in conjunction with their own recruitment process. Top media/tech firm Olswang, champing at the bit, became the first firm to sign up and will in 2013 use Acculaw as its only mode for recruitment. How many will follow suit? At the very least, the Acculaw model could have firm bosses questioning the way their training is done. Great expense is made to guarantee the top candidates get [and keep] the top jobs; partners see the value in cultivating lawyers of their own. But as reality hits hard, the traditional, 'romantic' route to qualification could be subject to an industry-wide rethinking. Surely Acculaw wouldn't exist if there wasn't already this niggling feeling. 

To guarantee its position in the market and to ensure it lives out its dream to create “win-win scenarios for all industry stakeholders”, Acculaw will have to address a number of issues. Acculaw doesn’t pay LPC or GDL fees, nor does it guarantee newly qualified positions; it need only take a couple of years for the company to develop a reputation as a closed shop or as a meat grinder, churning up and spitting out cash-strapped, hungry wannabe lawyers. The company is eager to announce its ability to “evaluate potential candidates based on their skills, attitude and determination.” However, if in ten, maybe as little as five years’ time Acculaw finds itself at the forefront of legal recruitment it will be impelled to respond to the oft-debated 'access to industry' matter; as firms turn to Acculaw, they concurrently hand over this duty. How is Acculaw going to widen participation and promote under-represented groups? Perhaps, other than being a forward-looking company keen to find its feet, as a tangible, accountable entity solely responsible for legal recruitment, as opposed to an intangible, centuries-old culture, Acculaw will hasten the drive for diversity; lord knows the traditional ‘model’ has been decidedly slow to quell such criticism.  

The company is clearly proud of its “ground-breaking new model” and, as it stands, there are certainly positives to being an Acculaw trainee - exposure to different types of law in varying environments, plus the opportunity to show off your talents in more than one firm [thus broadening your chances of impressing]. But Acculaw may have to continue breaking ground if it is to curry favour with both sides of the recruitment game; student and firm. Maybe Acculaw is a temporary solution to a temporary problem; a snap response to an economic lull. Will it last? And there are those who say there is a predatory smell about it all, the prey those desparate to extricate themselves from the inbetweener life. But for me this just isn't true. It was my choice to do law. No one forced me to choose this path. 

Alas! I am once again faced with a choice; to apply for Acculaw or not. So, acculaw.com, was it?