No matter where you go in the legal industry, law firm culture is something you will have to be mindful of, even after you are a qualified and practising solicitor. This is something I have been thinking about in the past few months, building up to securing that training contract. But with it being such a vague word, we ask what does it mean and how does one measure it? I have teamed up with Shoosmiths’ own graduate recruitment manager, Samantha Hope, to explore this concept.
What is meant by ‘Culture’?
Culture is an umbrella term, referring to ‘the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society’. Swap the last few words with law firm and you are nearly there. You need to think beyond the salary, work, target hours, clients and health benefits which is the day-to-day information that you can find in the job description. The culture is how you feel about your firm, it is what makes working with your colleagues enjoyable, and it is what will make you get out of bed each morning, so it is very important to your future career.
Law firms are inviting aspiring solicitors past their reception desks and into their fancy seminar rooms, filled with all the canapés and posh refreshments that you could consume until you are blue in the face. The whole reason why they do this is so that you can get a feel for their culture, and hopefully, you will find the firm you can ‘settle down’ with. For them, it’s all about securing the top talent and retaining it!
You will have the opportunity to ask the recruiters, partners and trainees some questions, they get to ask you some back, and hopefully that sparks a meeting of minds. Firms set aside thousands of pounds a year and lots of time for all those prestigious events like Pure Potential and National Law Live, simply so that they can get young talent through the door. I do not mean to romanticise the situation, but it is a little bit like dating. It is definitely not a one way street and it requires an equal amount of effort from both sides.
Next you need to have a think about what questions you might want to ask firms. Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as one might have hoped it would be. It all depends on what you want to know. Being able to think about some of the situations which would really make you want to walk away from a firm after completing your training contract is a skill which you can develop from meeting other trainees who have ‘been there – done that’.
In March, I was fortunate to be invited to an insight evening at Shoosmiths. As usual before the event I was conducting my research into the firm, and as I was halfway into reading the ‘Our values & culture’ page, I paused for a moment, threw my head into my hands and thought to myself ‘sh*t’. The words were a muddle, the phraseology was all so familiar; it was all beginning to sound the same as every other firm I had researched in the past.
Taking a step back from that approach, I realised that this is exactly the problem which only open days and insight evenings could provide the solutions. So, not normally being a person who likes to ask questions to the panels at open evenings, I had a long think about the kind of firm I would see myself working for in the long term, and I manipulated those features into three simple questions which I wanted to know the answers to, and which I would be able to ask during the event.
- Do trainees have personal relationships with their colleagues, and what does the firm do to facilitate this?
I am not just looking for firms that send a nice joke in an email every now and then. I like to see that firms are celebrating individuality and holding events such as competitive sports and social outings to bring employees together.
- Do trainees receive appraisal for the work they do, and are they being motivated to hit targets and develop professionally?
Who really cares about sitting down once a month to fill in a PDP? What I really want to know is that supervisors are always within arm’s length, providing truthful and constructive criticism and giving thanks when thanks is due.
- Do trainees have access to the support they need, are there effective channels for communicating with the management?
Some firms will have an appointment based system, whilst others are usually happy to have a quick chat in their office as and when. What is important is that those lines of communication are clear, efficient and effective for getting the job done.
I was able to weave these questions into my conversations with partners and trainees at the networking session that evening, and I got exactly the answers I needed. I now had an insight into the culture at Shoosmiths and this allowed me to move onto the next stage with my application.
Whilst speaking to Samantha Hope, graduate recruitment manager at Shoosmiths, at the event, she agreed that all law firms say the same buzz words; quality work, high client contact, supportive training, and a great culture – but that it really is meeting people that enables students to work out which firm is for them.
“It’s certainly a two-way street! In the same way that it can be hard to understand our culture from our website, nothing is quite like meeting you to bring your application to life.”
Shoosmiths tries to show its culture at insight events by providing an informal environment to network which makes students feel comfortable to ask any question, and they emphasised the importance of their values in their recruitment process from application stage to assessment centre.
The trainees talked highly of the supportive open-plan teams they work in every day, and how they felt they could ask anyone in their team, or office, any question knowing that they would receive an answer and would not be overlooked as “just the trainee”.
Shoosmiths only served soft drinks at the event using this as an opportunity to further emphasise the importance they place on attracting a wide variety of candidates to the firm, and in support of the recent health & well-being challenge the trainees have been set. “At some point you will need to decide the appropriate amount of alcohol to drink at a professional event, hopefully there’ll be lots of awards events to attend, but for tonight, we want to take away that decision for the attendees and be able to enjoy the networking without anyone worrying about whether they’re overdoing it, so instead we‘re serving a variety of smoothies, juices and retro pop!” Samantha explained.
So, whilst learning about the culture of a firm might not seem important to you now, it will be during your career, it really will be the difference between enjoying your job or not. Getting to know people so that you can understand the culture will be something which comes naturally to you as you attend more events in the industry.
Putting Yourself Out There
Samantha gave some of her top tips for students looking to embark on a career in law and she said
“Attend events, build your networks and put yourself out there. It can all seem a little overwhelming when you don’t know what the event will be like, and you might not know anyone, but the more events you attend, the more friends you’ll make and the more you’ll learn about what type of firm is right for you – and that won’t be all of them!
You’ll become great at professional networking, and that’s a skill you’ll need right through your career, so it’s good to start now.
Ross’ blog is a great example of a student going above and beyond to develop their own networks and to share tips and advice to his peers along the way.
You can start by setting up a LinkedIn profile and a Twitter account, and start following some of your favourite companies and recruiters – then engage with them by asking questions, sharing posts and inviting your friends to get involved too. Perhaps you could start your own blog too. You’ll soon be able to work out which firms you want to learn more about simply by following them on social media, then you can attend their events and meet them in person.”
My final tip for you to improve your understanding of ‘culture’ is be active in attending open days and insight evenings, I really cannot stress enough how valuable these will be when it comes to the next stages in the recruitment process. Now when I look back at the Shoosmiths’ website, I really can see that the culture and values are ingrained in the people and the firm. If I had not attended the event, I may not have realised that and would have just thought they were the usual culture-driven buzz words.
It was a pleasure to work with Samantha Hope, who has taken time out of her busy schedule to contribute her thoughts in this piece. We are hoping to collaborate in the near future on my next article all about the use of social media to enhance career prospects!
Check out Samantha’s blog here