Navigating a law firm open day

With application numbers for vacation schemes and training contracts steadily edging higher, the law firm open day has become a valuable opportunity to show off your skills and get a foot in the door.

As application season gets into full swing, it’s important to be prepared for whatever the open day might throw in your direction – whether it be a negotiation workshop, in-tray exercise, interview, presentation or networking session.

But first, back to basics. What’s the point of the law firm open day?

Open days fall broadly into two camps: open days that are held before applications for vacation schemes or training contracts are made, and open days that are held after these applications.

Eloise Skinner, Cleary Gottlieb
Eloise Skinner, Cleary Gottlieb

The pre-application open day

This may appear at first glance to be fairly casual (often promoted by the firm as a way of getting an idea of the culture of the workplace, or gaining an insight into life as a lawyer), but the pre-application open day serves several vital purposes.

For the firm, it provides a relaxed environment in which assessment of candidates can be made. It’s likely that some kind of record of performance will be retained in the event the candidate makes a subsequent application.

For the applicant, this is a crucial time at which to find out as much as possible about the firm, as well as make a lasting impression and connect with as many people as you can. The day can then be mentioned in a future application for vacation scheme or training contract. It’s also helpful to go prepared with questions about the selection process – you can use the answers to tailor subsequent covering letters and application forms to the individual firm.

The post-application open day

This is often the gateway to getting a chance on a vacation scheme or a training contract place. The post-application open day serves the obvious purpose of assessment and selection, but the applicant should also bear in mind the following points:

  • The day is as much about you getting something out of the firm as it is about the firm getting something out of you. This is your chance to ask all the questions you want, to really focus on the culture of the firm and the nature of the work, and to honestly ask yourself: could I see myself working here? (If the answer to this last question is ‘no’, don’t be surprised if you don’t end up with a place. Graduate recruitment teams can usually spot false passion a mile off.)
  • The whole day should be regarded as an assessment environment, even at those relaxed drinks which often finish off the sessions. Be yourself, but the best possible version of yourself – and don’t assume that trainees or juniors won’t be asked for feedback.
  • Always leave with something, whether this is the contact details of a lawyer you clicked with, hand-outs from presentations given by various practice groups, or even notes on the impressive styles of other applicants that you might want to incorporate into your own technique. The day is full of opportunities to learn – make the most of it.

Preparing for the open day

Every day will be slightly different, but the following general preparatory steps are a good place to start.

1. Current commercial awareness

A week or so before the open day, sit down with the Financial Times or get hold of some decent, reliable business news online. Take the time to pick out a couple of topics and familiarise yourself with them. Know enough to present on them or answer an interview question on current commercial events. Then make sure you keep fully up to date with developments until the morning of the open day.

2. The markets

In a more general way, have an overall idea of where the financial markets are and what kinds of things are happening. For example, check the FTSE index, or recent Bank of England activity on interest rates. Having an overall sense of what’s going on will enable you to put the firm’s current practice into context.

3. The firm

It’s an obvious point, but one that can unfortunately be missed in the endless cycle of applications and assessments. Make sure you know all about the firm: areas of practice, structure and strategy, reputation and culture, clients and recent deals, and anything that sets it apart from its competitors. Turning up at an open day without this understanding is setting yourself up for failure – you may think others won’t notice, but it’s often painfully obvious when an applicant doesn’t really know the firm whose open day they have so diligently attended.

These tips may seem obvious, especially if you’ve done a couple of open days before: it’s easy to get complacent and shrug off advice, because “all commercial firms are the same, right?”. In fact, each firm is different, as you’ll discover a few minutes into your research.

It’s no wonder that open days can appear exhausting and daunting – it’s not just about the day itself: it’s also about the work that goes into preparing for the day. But by building the preparation time into your open day routine, you’ll not only understand exactly why it is you’re making a particular application to a particular firm, you’ll also be much better placed to show off that understanding to everyone else.

Eloise Skinner is a trainee at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. Next time: Navigating the negotiation exercise on open days.