Searching for an NQ job: getting the best from recruitment agencies

Some legal recruitment consultants won’t be thanking me for what I’m about to say but I’ve never been one to shy away from controversy.

So let’s get one thing straight. Contrary to what I thought during the days when I was a fresh-faced junior corporate associate looking to make my first move, recruiters are not careers advisers.

They are salespeople often having to juggle conflicting interests.

On the one hand they have their clients’ requirements to consider, while on the other they have to look after the needs of their candidates. Then add to that their billing targets and it is small wonder that many lawyers have a dislike of recruiters.

Thankfully, not all recruitment consultants are as bad as the picture I’ve just painted. Some are brilliant at what they do and are definitely worth getting to know even if it is simply to use their knowledge to keep up to speed with developments in the legal market. As such, if you are ever cold-called by a recruiter then, time permitting, it may be worth listening to what some of them have to say. 

So if you’re a final-seat trainee and are serious about making a move upon completing your training contract, or indeed already qualified, and want to explore the jobs market it’s vitally important to pick a good recruiter to help navigate the process. The easiest way to do this is to ask a trusted friend or colleague who has already gone through the process for a recommendation. Otherwise, it really is just a case of searching the net or browsing through job adverts. 

Recruitment agencies come in all shapes and sizes. The bigger ones are likely to have more clients but may not always have such close relationships with them. What’s more, you may well find that you get passed between consultants depending on which client has the vacancy.

By contrast, the smaller/boutique agencies represent fewer clients but they tend to work more collaboratively with them. It’s also worth noting that most consultants typically specialise in either private practice or in-house recruitment and not both. Some recruiters, including myself, also specialise in particular practice areas. 

I’d therefore recommend doing your due diligence before firing off your CV to all and sundry. You can do this simply by picking up the phone to an agency you’re thinking of registering with and then asking some very basic questions including the following: What type of firms do you mostly work with? Do your consultants specialise in any particular practice areas? How many years’ experience do you have in recruitment and what is your background? What is the market for newly qualified (NQ) solicitors looking like?

If, after speaking to the recruiter, you feel they’ve demonstrated good market knowledge, trust and integrity then I’d suggest meeting them for coffee (assuming they don’t invite you first!). The coffee meeting should focus on CV advice, your experience, types of firms you want to apply to and, of course, potential vacancies.

Another note of caution here is that when discussing vacancies with a recruiter always remember to ask them to confirm if it they are ‘live’ roles that a firm is actively trying to fill or are they suggesting a ‘speculative’ approaches. Unfortunately, some recruiters blur the line between these and although the latter method does work for some candidates the former will naturally have a stronger chance of generating an interview.

Also, if you do decide to pursue the speculative approach route then you might want to restrict these to a no-names basis to test a firm’s initial interest. Either way, set strict parameters for the recruiter in terms of which firms they are permitted to contact and on what basis (ie will a full CV or an anonymised profile be submitted?).

And for the avoidance of doubt as well as for future reference I’d recommend confirming the full list of firms in an email. Also, ask the recruiter to show you the final version of your CV that they will be circulating and again sign it off in an email and keep a copy for your records. Incidentally, a good recruiter should help you to prepare you CV or at the very least finesse it.

In the event you decide to work with more than one recruiter then ensure there is no duplication in the list of firms each one is working with. Take it from me, the quickest way to make a future employer lose confidence in you is to receive your CV from two competing agencies. And trust me, this happens more often than you think.

An excellent way to keep track of your applications is to record everything in a spreadsheet. This is as simple as compiling list of firms, the name of agency representing you in connection with an approach to each one and the state of play. That said, unless there are compelling reasons for you to move firms either at the end of your training contract or some time after qualification then the scatter-gun approach is best avoided.

I would recommend being as transparent as possible with the recruiters you choose tor work with. Again, this will prevent duplication and help the recruiter to gain a clearer understanding of what you are after. Although beware of some recruiters who are simply fishing for leads. This is especially acute in the NQ jobs market where vacancies are much more scarce and recruiters often find out about roles from their candidates rather than as a result of proper instruction from the employer.

I appreciate that I am perhaps being a bit unfair to my fellow recruiters but hopefully by revealing a few trade secrets and highlighting potential dangers candidates will get the most out of a profession that has some hidden gems.

Husnara Begum is a legal recruitment consultant and soft skills trainer

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