Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
March/April 2007, by Delia Venables

The influence of the internet on law firm graduate recruitment
by Matthew Broadbent

A candidate aiming to win a training contract in the modern era will have a great deal of information. Alerted by the careers service to the need to begin research early, he or she will investigate timetables, events and employer options on specialist firm graduate sites, dedicated careers resources and online versions of the legal press and client directories. Information available online might include interactive directories, brochures, videos and even podcast careers events. Applications to summer vacation schemes are then made via an online application system where candidates are screened, booked for interview, discussed, scored and notified of their fate all via computer screens. Once on a summer scheme, candidates may even be subjected to online psychometrics and other testing before eventually receiving news that they have been accepted for a training contract…by letter!

All this would have been fanciful only five years ago and unthinkable back in the mid-1990s but an avalanche of technology has fundamentally changed the way all parties behave. Firms are able to identify the best candidates efficiently and cost-effectively, while candidates are better informed and better prepared than ever before.

Ripe for automation

The way law firms and barrister sets recruit has long been ripe for some level of automation. People joining these professions have to jump through a series of hoops: a law degree or a graduate law conversion course, the legal practice course or bar vocational course, and finally a training contract or pupillage. Professional bodies (eg the Law Society and Bar Council) regulate who can train new entrants. There are a large number of players that need to be matched up; over 1,000 firms and 200 sets recruit annually, while more than 10,000 students complete law degrees and over 7,000 take the LPC each year. Both parties have a lot of research to conduct and choices to make before the approximately 7,000 annual graduate additions to the ranks of the profession are berthed.

Law firms, a traditionally conservative profession, were permitted to advertise only in the mid1980s and were very slow to embrace the Internet. A glance through the 1998 edition of The Training Contract & Pupillage Handbook reveals that only a handful of firms listed an email address, let alone a website. Most websites of this era were first generation ‘tombstone style’ presences offering very little to clients and with barely a crumb designed for candidates’ consumption. Firms generally felt that an online presence was a chore rather than an opportunity.

Around the same time, universities would offer a few computer terminals in the careers centre and maybe some sort of departmental resource. One careers advisor remembers students beginning to use private email addresses, but the institution did not issue university addresses until 1999 – for fear of crashing their system! Provision by universities soon took off – one major watershed saw Warwick University in the early 2000s insist that all students possessed a laptop while, nationwide, newly built halls of residence were routinely networked. Students embraced the new technology far more quickly than many firms and found themselves conversing online while still completing handwritten forms for applications.

New resources and rising standards

The original idea of LawCareers.Net, the website I publish, was a simple one – to harness all the myriad information on who is recruiting into one place and allow candidates to search on multiple criteria (size, practice area, location, name and year recruiting). With so much information in one place, other resources would become superfluous and employers could focus their marketing efforts on this dedicated tool. It has actually taken nearly 10 years for online resources to fully challenge the printed guides.

Most importantly, using online resources, candidates have access to core information on how to shine in the eyes of recruiters. Not to possess a basic knowledge about what is expected of candidates, what firms and lawyers do and how they differ, has simply become unacceptable.

The same universal and compulsory lifting of standards is true of the way firms present themselves to candidates as time has gone by. Initially, to have a site, especially one containing some trainee specific information, put a firm ahead of the crowd. Printed firm brochures were made available online. By 2002, a race among large employers had developed with ever more elaborate public faces emerging online (see Allen & Overy's latest recruitment site at Specialist mini-sites abound and in some cases graduate recruitment has led the look of the rest of a firm’s online presence.

With candidates having better access to information and a perception that more and more fulfilled basic academic criteria, many firms had already switched from CVs to an application form in order to more convincingly differentiate between applicants. Some firms even outsourced some or all of the screening and selection process. Application forms became available to download via firms’ websites and collecting this information as data was the next logical step. Online application and candidate management systems allowed firms to bring together the various assessment, communication and record keeping functions. With very few exceptions, firm designed solutions proved unsatisfactory and a number of suppliers of applications systems emerged. Some were retooled from other business sectors or even countries, while others, such as, were designed explicitly for the job of law graduate recruitment. Among the first to grasp the nettle were Ashurst (2001 to 2002) and Lovells (2002 to 2003), while at the Bar the central clearing system, OLPAS, was established in 2001. Around 150 firms now operate a system to receive and process applications. In turn, this means recruitment is more consistent, transparent and fair across the industry.

We are by no means in the endgame of these developments. Recruiters continue to embrace the latest technologies in their marketing. Some rather half-hearted blogging, stymied by a desire to maintain control over content, has already taken pace. The upcoming LawCareers.Net events for first-year candidates will be podcast. Whether and how firms get involved in community networking sites like MySpace remains to be seen. On the applications front, psychometric testing is more common and can be integrated into candidate management systems. Many firms are looking at how the benefits derived from automating their graduate system can be exported into how they recruit other staff.

Matthew Broadbent is the publisher of LawCareers.Net and The Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook and he led the team that developed Apply4Law.

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