What are legal recruiters looking for?

Which one?

So you've got a degree? Bravo. So does everyone else. Now the serious business of making yourself employable begins.

Before starting to apply you will need to make sure your CV and experiences square with what recruiters demand. A structured approach to gaining the right experiences and a healthy dose of self-confidence can improve anyone's prospects.

Did we mention that competition for training contracts and pupillages is fierce?

Did we mention that competition for training contracts and pupillages is fierce? Well it is. To get one you will need not just an excellent academic record, but the experiences to prove you can plunge into the professional world more deftly than your rivals. Applying directly out of university with one or two extracurricular experiences under your belt works for some, but our research has shown that a lot of successful candidates have done a fair bit more than that. And it's no bad thing if you've already taken several steps up the career ladder by the time you start a traineeship or pupillage.

How impressive is your degree?

Having a law degree is no reason to assume entitlement. From the top sets at the Bar to the little-known solicitors’ firms on the high street, non-law graduates are just as able to secure training positions as their LLB peers. In the few cases where employers prefer law grads they will specify this, so unless you hear differently, conversion route applicants may proceed with confidence. Many recruiters tell us just how highly they regard staff with language skills and scientific or technical degrees, particularly where their clients’ businesses will benefit, and humanities degrees require many of the research, analytical or communication skills needed by lawyers. 

Non-law graduates are just as able to secure training positions as their LLB peers.

Many solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers subscribe to the idea of an unofficial pecking order of universities; at some the bias is undeniably evident. If you worry that your university isn’t one of the best regarded, then you should make sure you get the best degree result possible and work on enriching your CV in other ways.

Law firms' preferred universities

We interviewed 2,300 trainees and they told us what university they went to. We crunched the figures and published a ranking in partnership with The Times. Here are the headlines:

- The Russell Group dominates the market at 81%. 
- Oxbridge grads make up a quarter of London trainees and a fifth of all trainees. 
- The range of universities feeding the market grew by 14% in three years, signalling improved opportunities and a push for diversity. 
- Manchester University dominates the national firms market. 
- Oxford and Cambridge feature considerably lower outside London.

Click here for full university rankings including breakdown by region and types of firm.

Most firms and sets in this guide require recruits to have at least a 2:1. You may already be applying for training contracts and vacation schemes in your second year, so if most of your first-year marks are thirds or 2:2s, you'll struggle. If you get a First that will definitely impress (at least on paper); having a 2:2 will make your application round a pretty joyless occasion. Many recruiters will tell you that they take exceptional circumstances into account, but these circumstances do truly need to be exceptional – e.g. the star student who suffered a serious accident as finals loomed. Confirmation of this by means of a letter from your tutor (or, better still, a doctor’s note) might assist. In addition, you will need something  awesome to overcome that 2:2 – a year or more in a great job, a further degree, or impressive voluntary work might cut it. Of course, none of these is a guaranteed fix. “If you have average or less than average grades, you're really going to struggle,” one recruiter told us. “I sometimes feel that no one warns students about that early enough.”

For an overview of firms' academic entry criteria (including minimum A-level grades) check out our table of Application and selection criteria.

Extracurricular activities

Addicted to Reddit or obsessed with cat memes? Get over it. To succeed in your aim of becoming a lawyer, you will need to devote a large chunk of your free time at university and thereafter to undertaking worthwhile, constructive pursuits. Take advantage of the practically unlimited opportunities on offer. Every university has societies. Better still: set up your own event, society, club, business or social venture. Being able to show you are entrepreneurial and can achieve concrete results working on projects is increasingly important to recruiters. But you cannot undertake these pursuits just as CV fodder.

Do something you are genuinely interested in; recruiters are always telling us they want to see that individuals have a passion for the things they have done.
Some kind of legal experience, whether it’s organising events for your university law society or shadowing your aunt’s neighbour’s lawyer friend, is crucial, since you need to convince prospective employers that you’re serious about the profession. “If you haven't been in a firm before, you'll have a hard time convincing us,” says a managing partner. “It's far better to see that candidates have experienced what lawyers do and still want to do it.” You can get experience later on through open days and vacation schemes, but it’s never too early to start, not least because vac schemes and open days are now devilishly hard to get onto.

Firms want to see that you will devour the work they do and have ideas on where the business is headed – recruiters are looking for future partners, after all.

Non-legal extracurriculars can be just as useful to show that you play well with others. It also gives you something to write about when an application form says: 'Discuss a time when you worked with a group to achieve a common goal'. Relevant work experience is vital to almost every successful job application, so search hard for suitable positions. Many universities run law-specific career seminars in association with solicitors’ firms or barristers’ chambers. Be savvy, go along and find out as much as you can by talking to trainee solicitors and recruiters. Networking is a key tactic you should be employing. Go online for our Nine networking tips. 

Researching firms

When you apply, research should be your watchword. Firms want to know that you're invested in their business and its aims. You need to show a firm that you are purposefully applying based on your understanding of it and passion for its work. Firms want to see that you will devour the work they do and have ideas on where the business is headed – recruiters are looking for future partners, after all. A scattergun approach is not recommended: sending the same covering letter to 50 firms will get you nowhere. Recruiters are skilled at judging how much you care and how much effort you've put in. Go online to read our feature Researching law firms for applications.

Commercial awareness

'Commercial awareness' will quickly become an annoying buzz-phrase of the recruitment process, but ignore it at your peril. Firms want to know that you understand their business and its clients, and the threats and opportunities they face. Consider how the big political and economic stories affect how businesses and other organisations operate? Here are some obvious places to start: the implications of Brexit; efforts to boost the UK economy; climate change; the housing market and its foreign investors; tax avoidance and offshore finance; emerging markets; the effects of the Trump presidency; globalisation; regulation in the financial services sector; the ever-expanding reach of AI in business. Drill down on the sectors that interest you: energy, technology and the media are particularly busy sectors at the moment.

Read our practice area guides; read the Financial Times and The Economist (both have great podcasts too), or any newspaper's business section. This will get you primed on business jargon. BBC Radio 4 also has some podcasts that will broaden your knowledge, including Evan Davis' The Bottom Line. If it gets too intense, Private Eye provides a lighter take on current affairs. Chambers Student's Facebook and Twitter pages are definitely worth following for daily updates on how the wider world affects the law. And on our website you'll find a handy page listing legal blogs to follow by sector.

Students looking to go into criminal and family law should be aware of recent legislation and current issues, and be able to discuss the major cases that have hit the headlines. Anyone interested in administrative and public law issues will have a full-time job keeping up to date with all the various developments in that field; Radio 4’s  Law in Action podcasts should be a real help. Hopeful crime, family and human rights lawyers should also be aware of the ways in which legal aid cuts are hitting these practices.

And make sure you sign up for our email newsletter to get regular commercial awareness updates.

Travel

International travel in a gap year can broaden your horizons and teach you new organisational, problem-solving and coping skills. Overseas experience is usually only valued by employers if you've spent time working, perhaps undertaking a project for a charity or in business. If you don't want to travel, don't worry: you can stand out in other ways. Above all, be original (as much as it's possible) in the experiences you pursue. 

Mature candidates

When graduate recruiters take on someone fresh from university, they're taking a punt on that candidate's likely abilities. So mature applicants are often attractive to recruiters, and some – often smaller niche or regional outfits – actively seek out those with previous career experience. With age comes wisdom and probably an impressive set of transferable skills and industry knowledge. We’ve chatted with successful barristers and solicitors who’ve done banking, secretarial work, professional football, soldiering, radio DJing, forensic science, physiotherapy, music production, accountancy, consultancy, piloting, policing and recruiting.

But when is old too old? If you’re still in your 20s, proceed as normal. If you’re in your 30s, ask what it is you can offer a law firm that will make your application stand out. And if you’re older still? Never say never. Over the years we have run into a number of 40-something trainees, all of whom were glad to have made the career change. These older trainees tended to have one thing in common: they brought advantageous industry experience to their firm. 

Diversity

Women and ethnic minorities are increasingly present at the young end of the profession. In the year ending 31 July 2017, the number of practising female lawyers was 50.1%, the highest it has ever been, although this figure doesn't reflect all solicitors admitted to the roll. Of the approximate 140,000 practising lawyers in England and Wales, 16.5% are from ethnic minority backgrounds. In the course of our research this year over 120 firms provided us with lists identifying their trainees. In most, the women outnumber the men – something we would expect to see given that more women have gone into the profession than men for well over a decade. The names on most of these lists also reflect a healthy spread of ethnic backgrounds. It is worth mentioning, however, that female and ethnic minority trainees still have too few senior role models, and there is always a small number of legal sector sex or race discrimination claims going through the employment tribunals.

Elsewhere on this website you can see how City firm Travers Smith is tackling diversity and inclusion; you can also find analysis on Gender in the Law and Ethnicity in the Law, as well as gender and ethnic diversity statistics for every firm in the True Picture. We've also written about Sexism in the CityLGBT and the lawDisability and the lawSocial mobility at the Bar and Women at the Bar

Coming from overseas

If you're a non-Brit and you want to become a lawyer in the UK, your best bet is to study here and then follow the standard route to qualification. Some people do join the profession after completing studies overseas, but the recognition of foreign degrees and qualifications is a complex business. A specific programme called the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme (QLTS) exists for those who are already practising lawyers overseas and are moving to the UK. In some cases firms will pay for you to do the QLTS and then undertake a traineeship with them. When the Solicitors Qualifying Examination is introduced in 2020 it will replace the QLTS. Elsewhere on this website you can read more about Qualifying from overseas.

In all cases, excellent written and spoken English is essential, and you will need a convincing reason why you want to work in the UK. Applicants may find doors are easier to push open if they apply to firms with business interests in the country or region from which they come. Checking where firms have overseas seats is a sensible step, and this piece by White and Case lets you know how to put your languages to best use. The True Picture for each firm will also help measure each firm's international footprint. 

Regional connections

Regional firms and sets are sometimes more comfortable recruiting candidates with a local connection, be this through family or education. They want to know that whoever they take on will be committed to a long-term career with them. Firms do not like investing in a trainee, only for them to swan off to London when they qualify. The picture across the UK is a variable one though: some firms clearly state their preferences for local lads and lasses; others tell us that most of their applicants do have links with the region but that they are happy to consider anyone. 

This may look like an all-consuming, box-ticking exercise leaving no time to fit in a pint while you're at uni. But please remember university is also meant to be fun: a sociable candidate getting the most out of university life is eminently employable. 

Your next step

>>> How to make successful applications
>>> Application and selection criteria
>>> Pro bono and volunteering
>>> Law School