Best Trainer - National/Large Regional Firm & Commendation for Diversity

Shoosmiths cleaned up at this year's LawCareers.Net Training & Recruitment Awards, receiving two coveted gongs: Best Trainer - National/Large Regional Firm and the Commendation for Diversity. It has won both of these awards before (in fact, it has been named Best Trainer in three of the last four years) and many others for its graduate recruitment scheme; so what is the secret to its enduring success?

The answer, resoundingly, seems to be "people and culture" - both of which are invariably cited as the firm's USPs. "The two are intrinsically linked," says Danielle Owens, head of recruitment. "Our culture is different from anywhere I've ever worked before and very different from our competitors; most firms profess to do the same things and most offer good training, but the people doing that training and the culture within which it happens are key to our differential and are what make this such a great place to work."

Shoosmiths has always been a champion of diversity in the legal profession; its diversity policy was launched in 1999 (well ahead of most firms) and reviewed in 2010 and again this year. Danielle explains that the details are continually being fine tuned: "We are actively trying to change the demographic and increase access, and one of the main ways we do that is to build on things that we do well already, such as ensuring that our solid HR practices are applicable to all and that we take a diverse approach to how we both recruit and manage people."

One practice that Shoosmiths has embraced for well over a decade is a CV-blind interview process. Sam Hope, the firm's graduate recruitment manager, explains what this means: "When a candidate submits an application, it is screened using a point scoring system - we don't filter out on grades alone. If he or she gets through to the assessment centre, the application is then set aside and not used - when that person steps into the partner interview, the interviewer has not seen the application. We feel it is a better measure of the candidates to base our assessment on their behaviours and performance on the day. It's about removing unconscious bias - such a buzzword at the moment, but it's always been about that for us."

Lynn Knight, training principal and corporate partner in the firm's Southampton office, adds: "Various big firms have made a real fuss about CV-blind interviewing in the last year, while we've quietly been doing it for the past 12 years! When those candidates sit down at interview, the only thing we know about them is their name."

The firm's emphasis on diversity informs the whole process and is far more than just a box-checking exercise, explains Lynn: "We will look at any candidate from any university. We care about recruiting the right person, not a clone of those who are already here. If you look at this year's intake, they're all very different." As part of the firm's focus on disability access, it has also solidified its commitment to being a government-backed ‘Two Ticks' employer, which means interviewing all candidates with a disability who meet the minimum requirements. "We were doing it already, but hadn't been effectively communicating that to students, so made an effort to proactively talk about it," explains Sam. "As a result, we saw a massive increase this year in vac scheme and training contract applications from people disclosing their disabilities." It also had additional benefits, reveals Danielle: "More people filled out the general diversity questions and declared other factors, such as their sexuality. Our message is clear; fostering an open culture is extremely important to us." "It's all about providing a level playing field for all candidates, regardless of background, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or disability;" adds Sam. "We ran several insight evenings this year and a lot of people said that they'd heard Shoosmiths was friendly and accepting of all different types of people, but coming in and seeing it made it very clear that it was true."

There is also a strong business imperative for what is an ethically sound way to behave, Sam continues: "We're a people business; we have clients from a variety of backgrounds, who are a diverse bunch, and we should reflect that in our workforce. The other benefit is that diversity within the business brings variety to the way that things are viewed and problems solved."

Danielle agrees: "Innovation is one of our key competencies; if you want to create dynamic and innovative teams, you need a mix of people. You don't get that if everyone comes from the same background and has had the same experiences. Clients also want to work with a firm that has an open culture, and if you can embody that, you will build relationships with a greater variety of clients."

Being able to sit in an open-plan office and learn from more senior people is a very effective learning environment.

On this point, Lynn emphasises that "clients buy people, not law firms, and we like to pair the right client with the right lawyer - what works for one may not work for another, so if you've got a broad base from which to choose, it makes a phenomenal difference".

The opportunity to work with great clients was just one of the things that attracted first-year trainee Keisha Phippen to the firm: "I got the impression that the culture was the type that I wanted to be a part of. It seemed very welcoming, supportive and friendly - as well as having a strong reputation as a leading national firm." As she progressed through the process, this impression only intensified: "At interview, it was clear what a friendly firm it was. We were made to feel very comfortable - it's a stressful day, obviously, but it didn't feel like we were being ruthlessly scrutinised; rather, it was a chance for us to get to know the firm as much as the other way round. Sam oversaw the entire process and was always giving us the chance to ask questions, which helped to ease the pressure. If we needed any clarification, we were encouraged to speak up. You could tell they wanted us to perform well."

A training contract offer followed for Keisha, as did the offer of a paralegal position in the firm's real estate department: "It was a great way to feel part of the firm before I joined as a trainee and is something that the firm actively encourages." Sam elaborates: "There are often paralegal opportunities at the firm or with clients which we circulate to future trainees before advertising them externally. Many have finished their studies or are working, so it's a great opportunity for them. It gives them a confidence boost when they eventually start as trainees and takes away some of those first-day nerves."

Any early jitters are further minimised by regular contact with all future joiners, including through newsletter updates, invitations to parties and social events, and an informal dinner in August, which Keisha describes as "a great chance to network and meet people from all levels of the firm".

Once trainees step through the door in September, the week-long induction - split between the Birmingham and Milton Keynes offices - features workshops, presentations and technical instruction. However, trainees may also find themselves climbing over logs, building fires and sweating it out in a yoga class! "This year we're starting the week with an outdoor woodland activity and rounding it off with some hot yoga and a talk from a nutritionist about good health in the workplace," explains Sam. "Wellbeing is important to us and we think that we should offer support not just on work matters, but also in relation to life beyond the firm. That includes teaching trainees how to deal with stressful situations and how to switch off when they get home. It's a good message that hopefully they'll retain throughout their careers." Yet another example of a firm that cares about the whole person, not just the lawyer, as Danielle confirms: "We look at mental as well as physical health, and want to demonstrate that there are many different aspects to being employed, including looking after yourself."

While such self-reliance is encouraged, there are also strong networks at the firm to look after trainees, as Lynn explains: "In each seat the trainee has their supervisor; we pick people who have been at the firm for a while and who are good at training. We're also very non-hierarchical, so everybody sits in open-plan office, which is great as the senior lawyers can reach out and the trainees can learn by osmosis. We keep an eye whenever they're asked to do something new - recording their time, for example, which takes practice and discipline."

Keisha describes her experience of supervision: "Strictly speaking, your supervisor gives you your work, but I've had work from all the members of the team, which is great because it means that you get used to different people's working styles. Over and above the formal mid and end-of-seat reviews, you are always encouraged to chat about anything at any time. Inevitably, there are things I need help with and my supervisor is always willing to sit down with me. All the supervisors are very accommodating and supportive and want you to get the most out of the experience."

Both Sam and Danielle mention the buy-in they get from the entire firm, which helps grad rec to function as smoothly as it does. "Everyone is so happy to be involved; in fact, I sometimes have to turn partners away at assessment centres!" laughs Sam. "But it's in their interest too; we are a full equity partnership, so every partner is financially invested in the firm and the direction it takes, and that means the grad rec process is important to them." "I feel very well supported - it's very much a team effort," adds Danielle. "The level of firm-wide engagement is amazing, but that's because recruiting the right people is essential to maintaining our unique culture."

It all comes back to that recurring ‘people and culture' theme. "The key to Shoosmiths' success is the people - in terms of the colleagues that you sit with every day, the support network throughout the offices and the clients that you deal with," reflects Sam. "And although as a lawyer you might be dealing with a big-name international client, when it comes down to it, it's your relationship with that one person. Also, as young lawyers, being able to sit in an open-plan office and learn from more senior people is a very effective learning environment. I hope that our trainees feel that they can ask anybody, anything."

"In a nutshell, what makes us different is our people focus," Lynn sums up. "I know a lot of firms say it, but we really do put people at the centre of everything we do. We recently rebranded with a simple formula - people, relationships, results. These are the values that underpin everything, as well as pulling together, being responsive, taking initiative and talking business sense. We really do live it; it's not just lip service. "

The last word must go to the trainees at the heart of all of this. "My actual experience has definitely exceeded my expectations, in terms of the work offered, people I've met and support given," enthuses Keisha. "It's a firm I feel really proud to work for, which constantly exceeds its targets, brings in new clients and expands its teams. It feels great to be a part of it."

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