The old boys network. The phrase itself sounds stuffy and evokes images of wooden-paneled boarding schools, house ties, and gentlemen’s clubs steeped in elitist and snobbish heritage.
In January of this year, the BBC broadcast a programme entitled ‘Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain.’ The central message behind the show was to illustrate the dominance, in this case in politics, of ‘personal networks.’
Stemming from as early as public school and through institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, these networks have resulted in over 10 per cent of the current Coalition Cabinet hailing from Eton, over 66 per cent being privately educated and – most shockingly – that 16 are millionaires.
But as a student of a London university, which has branded itself ‘London’s Global University,’ attending classes with no specific dominant demographic represented, surely these white, elitist networks, and the influence that they hold, are dying out in the world of business and specifically the legal sector?
According to the graduate recruitment manager at a leading London Law firm, the use of personal contacts and networks has never been more prevalent. “The legal sector is probably the worst I’ve experienced,” claims the recruiter.
With so few jobs available and the criteria so substantial it seems that a candidate, or in most cases their parents, will do anything to attain any advantage they can.
So is this simply a throwback to the days of the old boys network, or has it developed with a more business-driven agenda? “We get partners asking for their children to have a place on a vacation scheme, as well as employees asking on behalf of their clients,” reveals the recruiter.
The opportunity, it seems, of putting a client’s son/daughter on a vacation scheme, for the guaranteed business that is likely to result is a common strategy throughout the legal sector.
This appears to manifest a significant problem. As a law student and potential candidate, it would seem unfair to apply for a job alongside other individuals who one knows for a fact have done extensive work experience at a magic circle firm simply because their ‘Daddy’ is a client or a partner. Does this not almost negate what firms are looking for – business-savvy individuals who can network, show initiative and dedicate themselves to the profession?
“To apply for a vacation scheme there is no requirement of prior legal work experience, if you can show the transferrable skills you have learnt with other work experience,” states the recruiter. An individual who has, through their connections, spent time in a City law firm will theoretically receive “no more credit” than someone who has worked in a retail environment.
Whether this is the case or not at one specific London law firm, it is an unfortunate fact, or at least perception amongst aspiring students, that to have work experience – whether on a formal vacation scheme or on a more ‘ad hoc’ programme – at a City firm is an enviable addition to the CV.
Although the attitude of the graduate recruitment manager I spoke to was one of clear moral integrity, it is undeniable that “some firms are more accommodating” when it comes to the abuse of personal contacts. When partners or clients approach these graduate recruitment professionals, some feel they have little choice but to agree and somehow accommodate little Timmy onto their vacation schemes.
But almost in a way this is a vicious circle. It is logical that the best firms are the best firms because they get the best candidates – ‘personal networks’ don’t play as important a role. However, with firms that are developing and attempting to forge a name for themselves, each client is so important that to please them, or in this case their children, seems to be a no-brainer. Whether it is an interview, a place on a vacation scheme, or even as training contract, there are no limits to which these ‘helicopter parents’ will go to, to ensure the success of their loved ones, and perhaps this is jeopardising the true nature of the recruitment process – to find able and independent candidates.
So what can be done to counteract these ‘personal contacts’ to create an even playing field for all? In 2004, the left of centre think-tank Demos reported a significant growth in professional women’s networks enabling women to help further their careers. Helen McCarthy, the author of the report, claimed that these developments were establishing a “new era of work-based” feminism. Furthermore, with city organisations beginning to run ‘women’s weeks’ and ‘LGBT programmes,’ firms are clearly wishing to put an end to the stigma that business is only open to a certain stereotype; but are they going far enough to combat the forces of personal contacts?
The overriding stance is that the best graduate recruiters should simply want “the best candidates,” but it is undeniable that partners and clients often have alternative agendas. So it a case that those who don’t have contacts must suffer ‘the consequences’ and be forced to make do with the traditional application procedure? I think not.
What is required is a small dose of two of the most important skills that one can show on an application form – initiative and perseverance. If you don’t have any personal contacts within your family, look a little bit wider. Old school, university, whatever steps you take, if you can learn to network, it’s a skill that will always give you an advantage.
Alternatively, as was previously noted, legal work experience isn’t a requirement for applying for vacation schemes. In fact, do something distinctive – use your ingenuity to make your application stand out. Understand the skills you need for a strong application and act to make sure you’re a unique candidate with proven drive and dedication. Dare to be different – good luck.
The author of this article does not want to be identified.