What should we look for when recruiting “aspiring lawyers”?

This is a guest blog post from Professor Richard Moorhead, who tweets as @RichardMoorhead and blogs at lawyerwatch. I will be insisting our pupillage committee in chambers read it.


What should we look for when recruiting “aspiring lawyers”?

In promised course of discussing the McKenzie Friend Marketplace on this blog, I suggested to Lucy that a major influence behind the mushrooming of legal experience within and around the law school curriculum was as follows:

“It’s firms and chambers who look for ‘commitment’ and experience that drive this problem as much, if not more than law schools. So, as I know you can do very well, please have a word with your bretheren on that front.”

Lucy seemed to concede that it might indeed be part of the problem but said this:

“I confess I’m unsure what they could do in practice to stop this, they have to select somehow – I’m open to suggestions and would be happy to host a guest post from you on that topic?”

And because Lucy is an engaged, considerate and – in the least po-faced way- serious commentator on the legal ecosystem; and because I love the sound of my own voice, I said yes. So here I am.

I did a little research in preparation too. A twitter poll, no less. 200 odd responses which told us, in a not at all unbiased, self-selecting,  but nevertheless interesting way that when asked whether recruiting trainees or pupils, lawyers like them to have legal experience because…

  • 35% helps show commitment (you can go and sit on the naughty step)
  • 26% helps show skills (you can go and argue with me on the cost benefit or discrimination steps)
  • 9% other (see me, below) and
  • 30% said it is not important (on the whole, you can go out and enjoy the spring sunshine).

The commitment idea is a resilient idea which I will try and kill dead, but you won’t let it die. Commitment, in particular longstanding commitment of the, “I have always wanted to be David Pannick Lucy Reed”, kind as I have argued, in It’s the Thick Ones that say they want to be Barristers from Day One can be a bad thing. Phil Shiner was committed, for instance (see here for Roger Smith’s eloquent invocation of what the psychs call moral licensing) but more importantly for current purposes, the Sutton Trust have found that:

“those students who had been uncertain or had no career in mind at the start of their course had actually performed significantly better than those who had been absolutely or fairly certain about a job or career.”

Doubt may be wiser than faith, especially when it comes to premature career choices. So in so far as you are looking for commitment, or its cousin, passion, I urge a good deal of circumspection in even thinking it important. Several of those saying ‘other’ in the survey spoke of passion. Wanting all your recruits to be passionate may be a bit delusional; it may be an attempt at mirroring, looking for candidates to flatter your own view of yourself; and there is significant risk that it will be highly misleading. If you have ever talked off the record to students about training contract or pupillage interviews you will know that passion is one of the concepts that they know they must practice synthesising. They make it up. It is a game. They are quite a few who are gambling in the Casino of bullshit. Sorry folks, but that’s the long and short of it. I can see some legal jobs where passion may be an important differentiator, but not that many.  And having work experience is very rarely going to indicate passion. Certainly, I would say, it is insufficient for it to become a requirement.

The second claim is that experience is important because it helps shows skills. As the McKenzie Friend debate that led to me writing this blog shows, it is not just experience, but the quality of that experience, the supervision and feedback on that experience, and what has been learnt as a result that is what is important about experience in this sense. Most of us are sentient and intelligent enough to learn something from unmediated experience; so even unmediated experience probably adds a bit to most people’s skill sets, but I doubt that a few weeks, even a few months, here and there, are likely to be what differentiates the simply good recruit from the excellent one. If we are looking to differentiate on a CV trawl or at interview – getting someone to tell you what they have learnt from legal experience is not going to get you very far, I surmise. Longer periods of proper work may be different. If you want or need candidates to come with more solid, practice or context ready knowledge and skills then there is a case for a much more sustained level of experience. And several of the tweets I got mentioned the importance of experience in other contexts. Law students, being young, and so often having just come straight through the educational system can be a bit lacking in knowledge of the rest of real world but again a few weeks experience here and there is not going to magically transform the young into the commercially savvy, common-sense laden streetwise brilliance of our average barrister or solicitor.

So in general as a marker of better skills or aptitudes, I am pretty sceptical that looking backwards at work experience is going to tell you much. So far then, I am unpersuaded that the costs (to the students and increasingly to law schools in organising, and chambers and firms in hosting etc etc) is worth it. Very little differentiation for a lot of effort. It may help students choose a broad practice direction (though again how well experience apes the reality of practice is moot).  In fact, well-structured clinical experiences might be much better at that, along with the educational benefits they can bring. And firms that use vacation placements as a form of extended assessment are different again, I think, but even they often require work experience as a condition of getting on.

My broader concern relates to experience often being elided with definitions of ‘talent’ . Talent is often marked out by, “drive, resilience, strong communication skills and above all confidence and ‘polish’”. These words come from research done for the Social Mobility and Child Pveroty Commission on work experience in elite firms by Ashley et al. Such concepts, they say, “can be mapped on to middle-class status and socialisation.” Perhaps work-experience if a form of social elocution lesson; the majority of would-be employers use it and it does not require too much hard thought about whether it really works or not. The herd mentality in recruitment is strong. Alternative approaches to selection may feel, “expensive, difficult and high risk”.  The big problem with this approach is that it is much easier for some people to get work experience than others:

applicants from less privileged backgrounds may find themselves in a catch-22 where a lack of social networks make it more difficult for them to acquire the relevant work experience that makes their application to vacation schemes stand-out, and helps to provide evidence for skills such as teamwork and leadership. They may also be less aware than their peers that it is important to secure work experience and/or internships even during their first year, because they lack the relevant advice from family and students from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds may continue to enjoy advantages here as nepotism continues to operate and firms do still offer work experience unpaid. Individuals who gain work experience in this manner still have to go through the formal selection process and assessors at some firms say that they are careful to question applicants about precisely how they obtained work experience. Nevertheless, some students are undoubtedly assisted in this manner. 

Experience as a CV filter is particularly problematic in this regard but even in interviews, where there is the opportunity to contextualise the experience, it is very hard not to read too much signal into the noise of someone’s past.

So, although I doubt I can persuade many, it may very well be better not to focus on experience at all. Lucy wondered what could be done in the alternative. I suppose I would say recruiters should concentrate more directly on what really counts. Don’t focus on proxies that are easier for people with connections. I saw this advice recently on the Farnam Street blog which hails from Daniel Kahneman’s recommendations for fixing your hiring process:

If you are serious about hiring the best possible person for the job, this is what you should do. First, select a few traits that are prerequisites for success in this position (technical proficiency, engaging personality, reliability, and so on). Don’t overdo it — six dimensions is a good number. The traits you choose should be as independent as possible from each other, and you should feel that you can assess them reliably by asking a few factual questions. Next, make a list of questions for each trait and think about how you will score it, say on a 1-5 scale. You should have an idea of what you will call “very weak” or “very strong.”

Now ask yourself if ‘having experience’ is really in your six questions, and follow the rest of the advice in that blog if you dare. Or think about strengths based interviewing rather than the explicitly or implicitly competence based approach of looking for legal experience:

Competency based questions like these assess people in the past, not the now or the future.  They tell you nothing about someone’s potential to do a good job other than their ability to find a good example in the moment.

7 thoughts on “What should we look for when recruiting “aspiring lawyers”?

  1. This is very interesting. I will confess to being one of the ’26 to 35%’ who said ‘commitment and/or skills’ in response on twitter – but that started me thinking about what ‘legal experience’ meant and what I meant by it. And, dare I say it, that led me in a direction that perhaps exposes a certain lacuna in Richard’s post as well.

    It wouldn’t have occurred to me to consider a few weeks work experience, or internship or call it what you will, as ‘legal experience’. In terms of considering a CV I would not have given it any importance (probably because it is often on a who you know basis and certainly because it wouldn’t add anything to a candidate’s skills, beyond coffee making and photocopying). I agree with the suggestion in Richard’s post that this is a potential limit on social mobility and runs the real risk of PLU (People Like Us).

    But the experience I was thinking of was more along the lines of a longer term engagement – say with a law centre for months, or years, or a period as a paralegal – and then it struck me that what is being discussed in this post is very much the Route A ‘law degree, training contract application then LPC’ approach, whereas what I was thinking about was the less conventional route – eg non law degree, maybe part time GDL and LPC – and that is often the route taken by those from less privileged backgrounds. In those circumstances, where it is something they have chosen to do alongside a full or part time GDL or LPC, I think the experience highlights exactly the qualities mentioned in the Farnham Street quote, for example.

    So, thank you Richard for refining my thinking and I largely agree – but I’m not changing my view dramatically – it just depends where you were starting from…

  2. Jamie Anderson

    Assume the following candidates are applying for a common law pupillage in Chambers.

    Candidate A has had a privileged life. Their application form is persuasive, they appear to be knowledgeable about the subject area. They have a lot of contacts within the legal profession. and have undertaken a wide range of legal work experience.

    Candidate B has had a privileged life. Their application form is persuasive, they appear to be knowledgeable about the subject area and have done a range of non legal extra curricular activities such as music and helping out abroad. They are able to give very few examples of legal work experience.

    Candidate C did not have a privileged childhood but did not grow up in relative poverty either. They attended state school. They have a good law degree. They do not have any contacts within the legal profession but have undertaken a substantial amount of legal work experience. For the last few years they have volunteered at the local CAB gaining advocacy experience by representing people in housing matters and the Employment Tribunal.
    Candidate D did not have a privileged childhood but did not grow up in relative poverty either. They attended state school. They have a good law degree. They do not have any contacts within the legal profession and haven’t undertaken much by the way of legal work experience.
    Candidate E grew up in relative poverty, attended state school has had a number of paying jobs whilst in Education. They have no contacts within the legal profession. They are able to give examples of legal work experience including mini-pupillages and more recently paralegal work.

    Candidate F grew up in relative poverty, attended state school and has had a number of paying jobs whilst in Education. They aren’t able to give many examples of legal work experience.

    Candidate G is an older candidate. They completed the CPE. Their first degree was in medicine and they practised medicine for 15 years. They say that they have good experience of working with others and have had to prepare reports that would be used in court.

    Candidate H is an older candidate. Their recent law degree was their first degree. The first 15 years of their life were spent working in sales. They say that their experience in sales gives them experience of working with people and persuading people.

    In framing the above, I have used a number of similar factors, but I haven’t made them identical because no interview process is so symmetrical. There are of course plenty of additional permutations that you could add, for example degree results, Bar School results, more specific experiences, but I had to stop somewhere!

    In what order of desirability would you rank the above candidates?

    Assuming that all of the above candidates perform relatively well at interview, my concern is that if you take the position that all legal work experience is irrelevant, the likes of candidate C is at a greater disadvantage to the likes of candidates B and D. Why should candidate E be at disadvantage to candidate F?

    You can legitimately do strength based interviewing whilst also taking into account an individual’s drive and commitment to the specific profession that they are entering. Some legal work experience derives from privilege and it is important that interview panels account for that at the same time, for someone such as myself, who went to state school and did not have any contacts within the law my legal work experience was an opportunity to stand out from some of my peers, without it and my ability to rely on the cases that I had conducted I doubt that I would have got pupillage – I would have been one face in a very big crowd. Essentially, I was candidate C.

    • I was candidate C too I think.

      • I’m not persuaded that the experience they have had is distinguishing any of them to be honest. I am duty bound to say that of course having mounted the argument I have, but also tend to think it is true. And the problem is more subtle. Now that ‘everyone’ knows it is a ‘requirement’ its value as a signal of drive (do you mean passion but in a boysy carlike way, ;-)) or commitment is badly weakened. And ask yourself is drive the real test, and if so, is this the best test of drive?

        Sure, work experience out of the ordinary for the context of that person, and of the type that Gerald P and you signals, has some meaning but enough to put so much emphasis on it? I’m not sure. And the ‘out of the ordinary’ approach puts a premium on you successfully placing it in context and students (and law schools and so on) not ratcheting up what work experience they do just to pass the test.

        • Jamie Anderson

          I have a few, quite disparate concerns.

          One of them is that I am concerned that Candidate B is at too much of an advantage in the process. I don’t want to positively disadvantage this candidate and they should be given a fair shot, but if you take out one of the ‘levelling’ factors that a non privileged candidate would have of being able to show their graft, ability and their commitment, you end up with a selection process in which the most privileged candidates have a greater chance of being able to perform well. They have a greater chance of having had public speaking training and skills, they may have had access to friends of the family in order to coach them, their written style might be more formal. If you think about the strength based approach and whilst accepting that every situation has its exceptions, its differing factors the most privileged candidates will be in a better position at interview.

  3. Hello,

    I hope you don’t mind me posting anonymously. I’ve been following this discussion to an extent and it got me thinking about a couple of things that have, I suppose, turned into what is now a bit of a rambly essay about things that probably don’t have an awful lot to do with work experience, but which I’m going to post about anyway.

    I’m about a month into my final seat of my training contract at a firm that provides ‘high street’ type services, I have a pretty clear idea about what area of law I want to qualify into, but am a little unsure/anxious about job prospects come September.

    I didn’t do a law degree but started the GDL in my mid-20s, a few years after I graduated. I did the GDL full time and the LPC part time, while working at a law firm. I come from a fairly middle class background (nice detached house up north, state school etc), and got lots of support from my parents but no guidance, as neither of them are lawyers and nor was anybody else I knew.

    I studied the GDL and LPC at one of the larger institutions which shall not be named. I knew I wanted to do high street type work but while this institution certainly helped me pass my exams, there was little to speak of so far as helpful careers guidance was concerned. When I was doing my LPC they introduced a ‘high street’ mini-course, but this mainly involved early evening sessions which took place when I was at work, so I couldn’t attend.

    The remaining careers guidance was aimed pretty squarely at working in larger commercial firms. Guidance on passing aptitude tests, information about vacation schemes etc. Lots of talk about ‘commercial awareness’ without ever really explaining what it was, apart from that it had something to do with ‘understanding your client’s business’ (my clients are not businesses, of course, although understanding what they actually want from me is certainly important). There was next to nothing about legal aid and I can’t remember conditional fee agreements even being mentioned, never mind anything about how firms may choose to structure their departments and the different ways of sourcing work (other than networking). I appreciate that these are all things that I could figure out myself, but the bias towards large commercial firms was erm, pretty strong, with not much room for anything else.

    So, the comments about doubt in the original blog post struck a chord with me. I may have misunderstood the point and if so please let me know. But when I started studying law I was pretty clear that it was something I was interested in (or I wouldn’t have quit my job to study full time on an expensive course). I enjoyed the intellectual aspect of it and the prospect of using that to try and help clients in difficult situations really appealed to me. However, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do or say to get ahead. It felt like the magic words we were supposed to use didn’t fit my own aspirations, and it would have felt dishonest to just parrot them out in an attempt to impress people anyway.

    I realise that my ramblings aren’t enormously relevant to the post and probably are more suggestive of someone with a chip on their shoulder than a point to make, but I suppose where it ties in is that it may take a while to ‘find your place’ in the sector/profession. Some people are better at it than others, for various reasons, and it isn’t for recruiters to act as charities to wannabe solicitors/barristers who are hopeless in interviews. But getting your foot in the door in the first place can be tricky when there isn’t much practical help around, and perhaps could be borne in mind when considering potential candidates. I’m sure you all do this anyway of course, but I have spent a long time sitting on a train today with little company other than a fairly dull book so couldn’t help but stick my oar in.

  4. Just to focus on one aspect, Richard’s quote from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission elicited a wry smile. From my experience (most recently in law but elsewhere as well) I suggest that it is the appearance of “drive, resilience, strong communication skills and above all confidence and ‘polish’” rather than these characteristics per se that often enables people to overcome competition for positions. Of course, many are genuinely talented, some are not and get found out, but some actually get through (although I dare say the Bar is going to be the legal environment in which this happens the least).

    A lot of recruiters lack courage in their own professional convictions, so to speak, and tend to rely on external cues to validate their decisions. Hence the use of various tests, psychographic profiling, graphology (still widespread in France) and all the biases – unconscious or not – about appearance, race, gender, etc.

    I think that, while evidence of commitment may be a fair (or reasonable) method for narrowing the choice of candidates, there is no proof that, say for the ex-doctor or ex-sales person, or state school educated no network person, CAB work while studying (which itself selects people who have the time to do it, e.g. no children to look after) will be a long-term predictor of success as a capable, empathetic lawyer. I would prefer more willingness to really engage with candidates and their personalities, with ad hoc, unstructured conversation as an adjunct to formal interviewing.

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