You’ll need to be able to research a law firm in detail for any application you submit along your path to becoming a solicitor. This might include crucial stepping stones such as securing a vacation scheme or training contract, or even smaller (though still very useful) opportunities such as campus ambassador roles or open days.
It is also worth noting that your research in the context of these applications will be useful at both the initial application stage and for your more detailed discussions that will likely arrive at interview, where you can showcase your research in more depth.
The key point which every law firm graduate recruiter will always tell you in regard to the best applications is how specific they are to the particular firm they are addressed to. Broad, sweeping statements which could apply to any law firm out there (e.g. ‘I like your culture’) are essentially useless (and incredibly boring to read within a pile of a thousand other similar cover letters), whereas producing tangible, specific examples of your interest in the firm in question goes a long way to demonstrating your genuine interest and commitment to that employer.
Besides that main point, the actual process of completing this research in itself demonstrates a variety of skills. Of course, it demonstrates your ability to conduct detailed research. It also highlights your ability to think critically about issues of commercial awareness by applying your research around broader topics to the specific law firm in question (as will be discussed in more detail shortly).
This might sound like a strange place to start, but it’s absolutely crucial. If your target firm is particularly strong in banking, for example, dedicating your research solely to the deals which that firm’s banking practice have recently closed is simply insufficient.
As well as that, you should be taking a broader, commercial-awareness based approach to that industry as a whole. You might find an article in The Economist, for example, explaining how the banking industry is currently struggling for X and Y reasons recently. Now that you’ve got the bigger picture, you can feel confident in your applications when going into more detail. Be prepared to both zoom into your firm’s work and zoom out to situate their work in the larger context of the industry. How will these developments affect your firm? The link between these two areas of research is crucial.
It’s important to preface this point by saying that you can’t simply go down a very narrow rabbit hole when researching a firm. If the firm in question is known for being a hugely M&A-focused firm, but you have a specific interest in their smaller but respected competition practice, for example, you do still need to have a decent foundational knowledge of what the firm does as a whole.
With that being said, in the example above, 99% of applicants are going to focus on the firm’s M&A output, and so a lot of their answers are going to begin to sound or read very similar. You can differentiate yourself by finding a niche within the firm (for example a specific practice area) and really honing your research there. As with many things, it’s better to be able to discuss a few areas in some detail than to know just a really basic, surface-level piece of information about everything – interviews, for instance, rarely take the form of the latter approach and often do take the former.
When thinking of a niche, find something that you can authentically tie to yourself. If your target firm is a transactional titan but has a decently sized Public Law practice, perhaps you might consider linking that to your History degree and the intersection between law and politics, for instance. The possibilities here really are endless.
There are a number of places you can go to learn more about a firm or their wider industry. A great place to start is, of course, the firm’s website. This is usually the go-to place to get an initial feel for what a firm does, and can be useful for reading about some of their recent deals. However, it also often lacks any substantial details which differentiates one firm from the next.
To plug that gap, try speaking to representatives of the firm at law fairs (for example a careers fair at your university) or via a LinkedIn conversation with a current trainee or associate. Off the record, they’re much more likely to speak honestly about the firm and highlight particular strengths/weaknesses which the website might not have done already.
As previously mentioned, understanding the overall context of a firm’s work is crucial. For this area, try to use reputable newspaper sources like the Financial Times or Economist (they require paid subscriptions, but your university may already provide access – if not, try free sources like The Guardian, or even our blog articles right here on The Lawyer Portal). If you come across any particular terms you don’t understand, Investopedia is a great place to turn.
Finally, you might want to consider online third-party firm profiles. These tend to present a much more balanced picture than the inherently biased images firms create for themselves, and so you’ll be seeing both the pros and cons here. The Lawyer Portal’s Law Firm Directory is a good starting point. Sites such as Chambers and Partners or Legal 500 produce regularly updated rankings for top law firms by themes such as practice area – here, you can begin to gain a more genuine understanding of where a firm’s strengths and weaknesses lie in relation to their competitors.
This point is often overlooked – graduate recruiters want to see the firm’s most recent developments reflected in the content of applications, so pulling out a 2011 article about a particular industry’s ‘current’ state, or talking about the firm’s strengths in a way which was relevant ten years ago, is not a great look.
Try to keep on top of breaking updates about the firm which you can use during your applications and interviews to demonstrate your ongoing interest in the organisation.
Sometimes the research process will lead you to realise that the firm you were considering putting in an application for simply isn’t what you’re looking for. This has not been wasted time – rather, it has saved you from pursuing what was always going to be a dead end anyway, so the process was still very much worth it.
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