How to research law firms

For aspiring solicitors, getting a training contract is the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, however, it’s not as easy as just waking up one day, deciding you want one and then suddenly getting it. It can often be a long and rigorous process. The Clash’s “I fought the law, and the law won” became the soundtrack to my despair as I attempted to navigate the world of law and lamented about what exactly “commercial awareness” was.

I have had my fair share of rejections when it comes to training contracts; however I eventually turned them into lots of successes, so I have a pretty good idea of what most students are doing right or wrong – because I have done the same thing myself. One of the main mistakes most people make is not researching firms well enough before making their applications. Here are a few key pointers… 

Know the firm!

This may sound really obvious, but when friends tell me that they have been rejected from a firm at the application stage. I always ask them what they know about the firm – and they usually cannot tell me anything more than what you would find in the first few sentences of the firm’s Wikipedia page.

You really do need to know the firm inside-out. They invest a lot of time and money in recruiting students – it’s understandable they’d expect us to really know about them. A law firm is a bit like that girl or boy you want to date – if you want to get into a relationship with Sarah then you cannot treat her like she’s the same as every other girl. Sarah wants to feel special and so do law firms.

Before making an application make sure that – at the very least – you know these things about the firm…

What do they do?

It is important to know what type of work the firm does. There is nothing more embarrassing than going to a law firm talking about how much you love employment law and how it’s what you want to do in the future only to realise the firm does not actually work in that area. Likewise, all firms will have areas they focus on, and many will have sectors where they are a recognised market leader. Knowing these details is the least you should know.

Where can you find this information? Easy. Firms will provide you with all the information you need on their websites. All the basics can usually be found on an “About Us” page – but make sure to venture outside of the career section to learn more about what the firm does, why it is good at it, what its values and goals are, as well as its vision for the future.

Another way to demonstrate knowledge of the firm and commercial awareness is to be aware of the recent deals they have worked on. Before I go to any interview, as a rule of thumb I always make sure I know at least four deals the firm has made inside out. Most firms have a page on their website dedicated to press releases and news, so this is a good starting point.

However, you need to go into more detail. Look at what exactly happened in the deal. Which side did the firm represent? Which practice areas would have been involved? Why was the deal important? What interested you about the deal?

As an example, if you were to apply to Clifford Chance then its work advising the Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev shareholders on the financing of its bid for SAB Miller, the biggest brewing takeover in history, would be a good recent deal to know about. But you would need to know more about it than just the facts.

Why was the case important? Clifford Chance helped AB InBev secure a landmark $75bn loan – ensuring the firm’s place in the history books as a legal adviser on the biggest corporate loan in financial markets history.

Why was it interesting? The loans were structured so that interest will increase over time to encourage the company to refinance arguably giving creditors more confidence in the company’s payback abilities. The deal also posed competition issues meaning SABMiller had to sell off assets for the deal to go through.

What differentiates the firm?

Although it sometimes feels like all firms do the same thing, they don’t always do it the same way. Knowing what makes the firm different is really important and it will help you when you are inevitably asked why you have applied to the firm.

For example: Jones Day is a large American commercial law firm. Yes, you could talk about its reputation and the fact that it has amazing clients. But ultimately, that does not really make it special, as you could essentially say the same thing for plenty of other law firms.

However, if you talked about the unconventional nature of its training contract – which does not have the traditional rotational seat system, but rather expects trainees to pitch for their own work – and then went on to explain how this would facilitate your own ambitions, then you would be on the way to a better answer.

Of course, not every firm will have a unique seat system. With other firms you will have to look a bit harder to seek out points of difference – but every firm will have some.

Researching the firm’s competitors can also be beneficial as it allows you talk about how the firm you are interested in fits into the bigger picture. For example: in recent years there has been a rise in ‘northshoring’ – where London law firms are opening satellite offices in regional cities to realise a cost benefit. Herbert Smith Freehills and Allen & Overy both opened a firm in a Belfast in 2011 while other firms are opening up in cities such as Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham.

If you are applying to a firm that has not done this, it could be interesting to talk about the opportunity cost of this decision. Or if they have, you could consider the importance of competitive pricing in the future in the legal sector.

Current events

You need to keep up to date with what the firm is doing. Has the firm you are interested in recently opened a branch in Dubai? Yep, you should know about that. Most firms make very strategic decisions about where to open firms so try and tap into that mentality.

For example, Clifford Chance recently announced the closure of its Qatar base. By itself, this does not tell you much. However, it is when you consider the growing trend of firms moving out of certain areas in the Middle East. In 2015 Latham & Watkins closed its Doha and Abu Dhabi, and Herbert Smith Freehills and Simmons & Simmons are among other firms that have made similar decisions. This begins to tell you a lot more. Why are firms moving away? Perhaps lack of demand or oversaturation of lawyers within a tight geographic area? These are all interesting things to consider.

Meet people from the firm

Researching the firm also extends to attending campus or networking events. It’s all well and good researching a firm and falling in love with it on paper; however, actually meeting people and being able to refer to them in applications or interviews can really add depth to your responses. You cannot really talk about anything to do with the firm’s culture without actually meeting the people. Additionally, it will put your name on their radar and further down the line your paths may cross at interview stage.

For example, a firm’s website might rave about their “collegiate atmosphere”. It’s certainly important to know the words a firm uses to describe itself, as this provides an insight in how it perceive itself and the type of person it is looking for – that can allow you to frame yourself accordingly. Ultimately, though, these are just buzzwords and putting them on an application form can look meaningless. However, if you have actually met someone from the firm then your experience can reinforce what you have said on your application – “While talking to Jane Bloggs at the careers fair at my university, she really highlighted the collaborative nature of the firm. She talked about a case she was working on with a group of trainees, associates and partners made up of people from the litigation, corporate and tax teams. On the case, advice was sought from associates in the Paris and Frankfurt office. This demonstrates to me the collegiate nature of the firm, where people work as a collective rather than merely collection of people.”

Don’t be afraid to take notes as people speak if you’re meeting them at law fairs. Alternatively, if it’s at a social event, jot down as much as you can remember of the conversation on your phone when you go to the loo or on the way home. You can also connect with the people you met on LinkedIn afterwards (check out our article for the etiquette on this).

Top tips

  • Set up news alerts! Go to news.google.com, type in the name of the desired firm and then set up the alert. That way, when anything happens relating to that firm you’ll get an email.
  • Create a word document for each firm you want to make an application to and keep adding to it as you find information.

You only need to do a little bit at a time but in no time, you should be an expert on your chosen firm.

Remember also that recruitment is a two-way process. Doing this research will improve your application, but it will also help you decide whether you actually want to join the firm.

Dammy Sokale is a third-year law and business student at the University of Warwick. She has received training contract offers from a number of City law firms.