Forsters LLP:
Best Recruiter – Medium City Firm

While lots of employers might claim that they encourage people to be themselves, the hierarchical, conservative approach that prevails at many law firms means that the temptation for many prospective hires and new recruits is to present an image of what they think the firm wants to see instead. But just the opposite is the case at Forsters, as Emily Exton – partner and outgoing head of graduate recruitment – explains: “We want our lawyers to be comfortable in their own skins and to feel free to be themselves at work, as we believe that this is how to get the best out of people. Everyone is different and should be allowed to develop in a way that suits them.”

This ethos drove the firm’s founding in 1998, when a group of partners broke away from another City outfit to realise their vision of what a modern, high-end commercial practice should be. Now based in the heart of the West End, Forsters is uniquely placed to provide the stellar service demanded by its real estate and private wealth clients. “Our Mayfair location is very important to the firm – it’s where our clients want us to be and it’s where we like working, so it’s a key part of our identity,” explains HR officer James Gilbert. “We are a modern, forward-looking firm, and we have a reputation for being a friendly firm as well. I think our success is also a pull factor for candidates – we have a clear business strategy and have just come off the back of six years of double-digit growth, so this is a firm with a lot to offer.”

And the stats back him up: Forsters receives hundreds of applications every year for just seven to nine vacancies, which are gradually whittled down by the firm’s recruitment panel. “The panel is made up of 20 partners,” explains Emily. “Four to five of those are responsible for the application form reviewing and shortlisting process; we find that it is useful to have a more concentrated number of people looking at application forms, to ensure that there is a consistency of approach. We look for people who are enthusiastic and committed to a legal career, and interested in Forsters and its practice areas. We want people who are going to work hard and get involved, but who also have interests and a life outside work. Well-rounded people appear much more credible to our clients and are good to work with, so we are looking for evidence of this in candidates’ applications.”  

Successful applicants are then invited to an assessment day, where the whole panel gets involved in observing group exercises and conducting interviews; candidates also have to undertake a written case study exercise. Vacation scheme assessment days take place in February and March, and training contract assessment days in August, but in each case the format is the same. “The main components of my assessment were a case study and an interview,” recalls current trainee Alice Hutcheson. “Mine was conducted by Emily and another partner. I was able to meet people from across the firm over the course of the assessment process, and I really felt that the firm was genuinely interested in me as a person and had made an effort; at some other firms, you only meet your two interviewers. In my interview, I felt that there was a real interest in me as an individual and what I could bring to the firm over and above my academic record, which gave me a real boost.” 

The structure of the firm's assessment of candidates has since been revised, as the firm fine tunes its processes to ensure that they reflect recruitment best practice. “This hasn’t meant a big change – we have just built on what we were doing before,” explains James. “Previously, our recruitment was conducted through a two-interview process with a case study, but we felt that we also needed to see candidates in a group setting. We have now added this element to the assessment day and have also made the case study a written exercise, which gives candidates more opportunities to give us their best performance.”

“Well-rounded people appear much more credible to our clients and are good to work with, so we are looking for evidence of this in candidates’ applications.”

Vacation schemes are another vital opportunity for candidates to shine. “They are an important part of the recruitment process,” Emily explains. “Making an offer to someone whom you have observed over two weeks is a safer bet than hiring someone you have only met for a few hours, while spending an extended period of time with us also helps candidates to decide whether we are right for them.”

Alice agrees that the vac scheme gave her real insight into the inner workings of the firm: “I sat in two different departments and met lots of people from right across the firm, while also having the opportunity to get involved in the social activities that were going on. The office is laid out in pods of three, which tend to consist of a partner, a senior lawyer and a junior lawyer. This enables you to learn so much just by absorbing what is going on around you at all different levels. The experience was really valuable.”

At the end of the vacation scheme, candidates have a second round interview for a training contract in the same way as those who go through the summer application process. And those who make the final cut are embraced into the fold right from the word go, as Alice explains: “Before we joined we were invited to seasonal firm events, such as the Christmas carol concert, and other social events, including the qualifiers' party, which were great in enabling us to get to know each other as well as people at the firm. Forsters was also really helpful in giving advice on where to study the Legal Practice Course and keeping us up to date.”  

The firm's trainees also play a vital role in the recruitment process. “Our trainees do tours of the firm on assessment and open days” – informal introductions to the firm run twice a year for prospective applicants  – “and act as ‘buddies’ for vacation scheme candidates,” says Emily. “Trainees make an important contribution to the process, as they provide different feedback to the partners. Recruitment is something that the whole firm takes seriously – we feel that it is important to get the right people in, who fit with our ethos and can help Forsters continue to be the successful firm that it is.”

This year will see Emily step down as graduate recruitment head to devote more time to her role as head of the firm's dispute resolution team, with Victoria Towers, a partner in the firm's commercial real estate department, taking over from her. “After six years, I feel that it is sensible to keep things fresh and hand the role over to a younger partner,” says Emily. “I look back with a lot of pride at what we have achieved in terms of recruiting and training our trainees. We are a young firm, so it has taken a while to get our name out there, but now we receive applications from hundreds of the top candidates every year. That’s because of our success and because people believe in the training contract and like the way we recruit. It was such a proud moment to win the award this year, as we really do care about our recruitment and want our candidates to feel as if we are treating them as real people who we want to get to know and get the best out of, not trip up or catch out.”

Alice, for one, is certainly convinced: “I love the firm and have chosen to qualify here – the quality of work is excellent and I have the opportunity to work for a mix of clients and alongside highly talented lawyers in a supportive environment. The longer I’m here, the more I feel part of the fabric of the firm which is exactly what I wanted when I started out on the process of securing a training contract. Although the firm is expanding, it is also doing a lot to hold onto this ethos. For example, I’m just about to head to a firm quiz being held on our terrace!”