With entry-level positions at law firms getting tougher and tougher to win, graduates need to make sure they don't commit any fundamental errors when it comes to application and interview.
With that in mind, personal injury specialists National Accident Helpline got together with five key decision makers to identify the worst mistakes made by job applicants.
Top blunders include poorly organised applications, bad-mouthing employers on social media and turning up late (or several hours early!)
Ignore the seven sins at your peril…
Sin #1: A muddled CV
Even the best qualifications and experience won't overcome a poorly put together application, say our experts. Laura Morton, Head of HR at SGI Legal, says: "Having a really un-organised application, which does not respond to the brief or clearly demonstrate an understanding of the job role, is a massive gaffe."
Meanwhile, Janet Tilley, co-founder and National Managing Partner of Colemans-ctts, points out the danger of re-using the same application template. "The worst possible approach is to draft a standard letter and then just change the name of the firm with each application," claims Tilley. "That, to me, doesn't show any commitment to an individual firm in any way."
Seemingly small errors, meanwhile, can easily scupper an applicant's chances. FBC Manby Bowdler Partner Craig Ridge points out that "getting the firm's name wrong" is one of these, while Emsleys Solicitors' Corinne Pujara agrees that "attention to detail is really important." Any CV which "was poorly presented and it had spelling mistakes on it" would immediately be rejected, she adds.
Forcing recipients to search for answers is another sure way to get your application binned, says Morton. "There needs to be an appreciation that there may be a large number of candidates applying, and those responsible for shortlisting will be looking for key criteria that has been outlined within the job role or advert," she says.
Sin #2: Social media indiscretions
With new technology comes fresh hazards for job searchers, and social media can wreak havoc for indiscreet applicants. "With the high use of social media now, this can be a risk to a candidate," admits Morton. "The main alarm bell to ring would be if a candidate was bad mouthing their current employer or posting inappropriate content which could damage their employer's reputation.
Tim Blackwell, Partner at Lester Aldridge, agrees that inappropriate posts could put a candidate out of the running. "We usually take a look at the candidate's online presence where possible," he says, "and we have been put off people where there are inappropriate comments or photos. Behaviour that was acceptable as a student," he adds, "may not be acceptable in the workplace."
Morton emphasizes that, in the legal arena in particular, there's a high risk of causing offence, as law firms may be more connected to one another than applicants realise. "Some people posting frequently may not think automatically of how damaging negative comments may be," she says.
"They may not consider they may have connections with clients of the business, for example, or that they are openly linked as working for a company. But this is an important point and all candidates and, in fact, employees, should consider through their use of social media."
Sin #3: Inappropriate attire
While the world's leading tech entrepreneurs might get away with a hoody and jeans, most law firms still prefer a more conservative approach.
But do interviewees ever really make mistakes with their physical presentation at interview? "Yes, they do," says Blackwell. "Dressing in an appropriate manner for the particular job is important. Turning up for interview in jeans for a client facing job in a law firm doesn't go down too well."
"A major error," says Morton, "would be to attend interview and make no effort to have a smart business appearance. Ultimately, if they are seeking employment in an office where smart business wear is the dress code, to turn up casual as an example will immediately put off the interviewing panel.
To avoid this kind of sartorial error, Morton recommends contacting the recruiter or interview team in advance. "I would suggest if a candidate was unsure of the dress code to not be afraid to ask the recruiting agent or individual arranging the interview what it is the norm.
"As an example: ‘in preparation for my interview, I just wanted to understand a little more around the dress code at your offices'. The candidate can then focus around performing at interview, rather than worry about what they should wear."
Sin #4: Ignorance and disinterest
"There's nothing more discourteous," says Ridge, "than interviewing a candidate who knows little or nothing about the firm they are applying for a job at." Tilley agrees, adding: "Candidates should do their research on the firm itself, using the firm's website. It's important to understand what the firm is about and to be able to demonstrate this."
That research needs to be communicated intelligently, though. According to Blackwell, applicants should not think that "reciting what is on the website puts them head and shoulders above other candidates. It should be expected that people would have carried out some research," he adds. "Also, referring to my own profile on the website doesn't impress me hugely."
Morton emphasises the importance of candidates having checked whether or not they would be a good fit. "Some basic research into our business is definitely a must," she says. "If there is no research at all it would demonstrate there has been no desire to want to find out more about us and whether we are the company for them."
Candidates should be wary of displaying a lack of interest through their behaviour, adds Morton. "If a candidate attends an interview and displays mannerisms which show they are just going through the process; that they have no interest and they really do not want to be there, that would be a massive put off," she says.
Sin #5: ‘Loving the law' and other clichés
While interview preparation is a must, overdoing it can lead to answering questions in a stilted way, says Ridge. "Be wary of preparing to the point that answers or content become standard or clichéd," he says. "The candidate who answers the questions honestly and naturally rather than in a contrived, textbook way is the more visible and, in my view, the more appealing."
Applicants can also reduce their chances by claiming the oft-used interview phrase: ‘I love the law', says Tilley. "We have applicants who say they ‘love the law', and when you ask them why, they say it's because they love case law," she says.
"The impression you get is that they're going to sit there all day and study one case. That isn't going to make a future lawyer," explains Tilley, adding: "We're looking for people who have that potential to be a future lawyer, and that does mean the potential to take a commercial approach."
Another way a candidate can irritate the interviewer is to imply that they haven't thought about pay. "Candidates should avoid saying that they haven't considered what salary they would expect," declares Blackwell.
Sin #6: Inexperience
For Pujara, a lack of experience would lead to a rejected application. "It's essential that you've actually gone into a law practice and shadowed the solicitor," she says. "I think, without that, your CV is not going to even be looked at."
But a lack of understanding regarding the legal market is just as bad, says Tilley. "It is surprising how many people at the stage of applying for a training contract do not have a clue about the nature of the changes that are taking place in the legal market," she says.
According to Morton, candidates are always asked technical questions around the law relevant to their job role. "If they were unprepared or did not have an understanding in that scenario it would mean they would score lower on the selection process and it would reduce their chances of success," she points out.
Sin #7: Lateness
Finally, what's the very worst thing you can do if you're attending an interview at a legal firm? "Arrive late," exclaims Morton. "That may seem a trivial point, but if you cannot arrive in plenty of time for an interview, what hope do you have on convincing the interview panel you are the committed candidate they should hire?"
But is turning up late really a deal-breaker? According to Blackwell, it might not be: "not if they have a good reason," he notes. And, he implores, please don't turn up too early. "I mean by several hours," he explains. "As an interviewer, I think it shows poor planning. I also don't want someone sitting in reception for hours." But has that really happened? "It has happened," reveals Blackwell, "but not too often."