Best Recruiter – Large City Firm
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For a veritable colossus of the legal scene – founded in Chicago in 1949 with the clear intention of going global, and now with more than 11,000 employees in 47 different countries worldwide – there is a surprisingly small-firm feel to Baker & McKenzie’s London outpost. This unique combination made a real impression on third-seat trainee Rachael Gibbons: “Throughout my training contact, I have never worked on anything that has just been UK based. I had the same experience on the vac scheme – I was struck by how genuinely global Bakers is. But even though that is the case in terms of work, the London office has a real sense of community.”
Ed Poulton, graduate recruitment partner and dispute resolution partner, supports this view: “The size of the intake compared to the international nature of the work and firm is attractive – prospective trainees like that they can join a major firm, but be part of a relatively small and intimate cohort. You can also much more quickly become part of the team and take on as much responsibility as you feel capable of. That’s exciting at this stage of your career.”
Ed’s involvement with the trainee programme is very personal – as it is for many of the firm’s partners: “Our new global chairman, Paul Rawlinson, is definitely very supportive. He was a trainee here and was in fact the graduate recruitment partner when I came to interview as a trainee. There is a continuum which fits in with the view that we are recruiting our partners of tomorrow – it’s not just lip service. We take that aspect very seriously and it feeds into the number of partners who were trainees here, including the previous two managing partners; it has become self-perpetuating.”
And what was true for Ed remains true for today’s trainees: “What continues to define a training contract at Bakers is the blend of excellent-quality work and very early responsibility. As a trainee, you will have the chance to do things you might not have the chance to do at some of our competitors, and that attracts a particular type. It’s not for everyone, but for those who are keen on getting involved with exciting work beyond what you would expect of a trainee, it is one of our key differentiators.”
For today’s trainees, some of that exciting work is the fallout from the Brexit vote, as Rachael reveals: “I am currently in the EU department and part of the Brexit team. I did a lot of preparatory work leading up to the vote, including two versions of the same memo – it was a bit terrifying making sure that I posted the right one on the morning of 24 June!”
It was a Bakers event during her (non-law) undergraduate degree that made Rachael rethink the profession: “I liked how fun the case-law sessions were and was surprised to discover how being a lawyer was about working in a team and finding creative solutions to problems – it was the opposite of the image I had in my head! I then spent a year abroad, working in an ad agency. I was first in the marketing department, but swapped to the legal team as the work was much more interesting. It confirmed the impression I had got at the Bakers event.”
Rachael duly won a place on a training contract following a vacation scheme in 2012, but found that her relationship with Bakers was firmly cemented well before the official start date: “We had a celebration drinks party after we received our offers and the firm stayed in touch in my final year at uni. During the GDL and LPC, we were invited to the trainee summer party, firm-wide Christmas party and several other events. Towards the end of the LPC, we were invited into departmental talks to help us figure out which of them we might want to choose as seats. It’s nice to have a bridge between the academic theory and what it means day to day.”
Rebecca Ryalls, senior graduate recruitment and development officer, explains that forging these early bonds is a key priority: “Right from the point of signing their offer, prospective trainees are encouraged to get involved with the firm as much as they would like. It definitely helps that they do the LPC with their cohort, so that when they start, they are doing so with friends. It also means they have a pool of people to call on if they’re nervous or worried.”
“Doing the LPC together and coming into the office in advance all helps them to feel at home and creates a sense of esprit de corps when they eventually arrive,” agrees Ed. “They have a three-week induction, which is a chance to get their feet under the table and work their way round the building before they join their departments.”
Even more welcoming for trainees is the determinedly inclusive culture that pervades the firm; a previous winner of the LCN Commendation for Diversity, Bakers is at the forefront of championing diversity within the profession. “I have always valued that you can really be yourself here,” enthuses Ed. “We take diversity very seriously and there is a genuinely open culture – whatever your background or experience, sexual orientation or even taste in music! The nature of Bakers is that it was created from its inception as an international firm, so it has always been outward-looking. That transmits throughout the organisation, but particularly in the London office. There is space for everyone and by welcoming a breadth of people, we make ourselves attractive to students. There is no doubt that the organisation benefits from having a diverse workforce and set of experiences, so it makes business sense as well as being the right thing to do.”
“The size of the intake compared to the international nature of the work and firm is attractive – prospective trainees like that they can join a major firm, but be part of a relatively small and intimate cohort”
Rebecca highlights certain aspects of the recruitment process that are designed to realise this imperative, as well as taking into consideration the candidate experience. Not least is the fact that every application is vetted by a human being: “We get thousands of applications and we’re a small team, but we look at every single one, regardless of whether it meets the academic criteria – there is no filtering. We have also incorporated contextual data into the system, so people who may not traditionally have got through now do because we know more about their background and where they’ve come from.” The introduction of video interviewing instead of phone interviews allows candidates to “slot it in around their lives and workload, so it is much more flexible, and we can make a decision more quickly”.
Tweaks to assessment centre timings were another recent change: “We wanted to make the experience as comfortable and reflective of the firm as possible, so we moved the start time from 9:00am to 11:00am, to stop people having to commute in at a busy time and being flustered by the time they got here. We also break the day up into manageable chunks, so there is a group exercise at the beginning, focusing on teamwork – we’re not pitching people against each other – followed by lunch with the trainees. Grad rec doesn’t go to the lunch and it’s all off the record, so candidates feel that they can ask questions of the trainees and get a feel for the people they might work alongside.”
Training is not exclusive to trainees at Bakers; one of the most important things for Rebecca’s team is ensuring that interviewers are also fully up to speed with what is required of them. “We get a lot of feedback about how nice the interviewers are,” she observes. “All of them are trained so that if a candidate is struggling, the interviewer can bring them gently back to an answer. Every interviewer wants to be there – all the partners and associates have volunteered to take part.”
As for most firms, the three-week vacation scheme is a crucial part of the process, allowing the firm to assess candidates, but also giving them time to work out whether Bakers is the right fit for them. “On the one hand, the scheme gives us the chance to see individuals in a work environment, but it is also our opportunity to win them over,” Ed elaborates. “It’s not just presentations and social events; candidates spend a significant time in two different departments, giving them a real chance to see what trainees do and experience some work themselves. They also get to establish whether they are comfortable in a firm like this – we all spend a lot of time at work, so one of the most important things is to be somewhere you can be yourself.”
There is no time for anyone to rest on their laurels; the entire process remains under constant scrutiny to identify anything that needs fine tuning. “We have weekly team meetings and we address anything that is flagged up,” says Rebecca. “For example, we give out a questionnaire at the end of the vacation scheme and then look at the feedback – we welcome it all, even if it means we have things to work on. There is also a trainee forum, which gives them a specific voice.”
“We are always reviewing what we’re doing, what might change and what else is out there in the market,” adds Ed. “Trying to constantly improve is key – the best way to do that isn’t to stare into our navels, but to speak to students, trainees and prospective trainees about their ideas and views.”
Rachael goes on to reflect on some of her experiences since joining the firm: “In the first week you have a welcome tea with the existing trainees, who are a very important support network and it’s great to be able ask them questions. You also have an associate buddy, who is an important source of information when you’ve been to your supervisor with the same question six times and don’t want to go a seventh!” Partner contact is a given: “Sometimes you are working with senior associates more directly, but I don’t think I’ve ever been involved with anything where I haven’t worked with a partner. It’s not hierarchical at all – everyone is just a member of the team.”
Rebecca picks up on this theme, explaining how trainees are encouraged to develop: “The numbers are relatively small for the size of the work and the global nature of the business; there are lots of opportunities for trainees to get involved in meaty work. We encourage trainees to set up meetings with colleagues from other offices as a way of building up their own networks. At no stage are our lawyers left wondering what they should be doing now. There is a solid support network for everyone in terms of training and supervision.” Trainees can also sign up to any training that they feel would be beneficial to their own development and one-to-one coaching is available to help them interpret the feedback that they receive during their seats.
“Although it depends a bit on which department you’re in, I’ve always felt that I’ve had a lot of responsibility – there is real emphasis on people running their own projects and increased responsibility as you progress,” concludes Rachael. “I knew it would be an immersive learning experience, with a real emphasis on growing and learning, and I don’t see that stopping when I qualify.”