Osborne Clarke LLP:
Best Recruiter – National/Large Regional Firm

Unstuffy not something that can be said of every firm, but certainly a description that applies to Osborne Clarke LLP (OC), which this year scooped the award for Best Recruiter (National/Large Regional Firm). Ben Martin, who has just qualified, says this was one of the many qualities that won him over: “All law firms make similar claims about quality of work and clients, so you take those as a given, but one of the things that attracted me to OC – aside from its excellent reputation – was its unstuffy culture. I met some trainees at the assessment centre and other events, and liked how relaxed and friendly everyone was – it definitely set the firm apart.”

With 19 offices worldwide, the Bristol origins of the firm are still a defining part of its nature and another part of its appeal: “I was also attracted by the fact that it had a Bristol office that was a key part of the operation.”

By getting out onto campus and meeting people like Ben, OC strives to debunk some of the myths around where to train and what a career in an international commercial legal practice looks like. Catherine Wolfenden, training principal, partner and head of the firm’s regulatory group, says: “One of the things we try hard to do is engage students in conversation about the legal market, the experience a trainee has at OC and the fact that a training contract is just the first step in hopefully a long career with OC. You see the lightbulbs switching on – especially for those who had been thinking only about US or magic circle firms. We talk about what that means in practice and as a trainee, and why the different way that we work with our trainees encourages individuality and a long career in the law.”

Catherine also emphasises the importance of having open discussions at this early stage: “We are very frank about what a graduate is signing up for. A career in the law is demanding and challenging; but with the right ongoing support and training, it is hugely rewarding. Lawyers, especially during an intense two-year training contract, will be outside their comfort zone every day. At OC our trainees are supported by lawyers and staff who want them to succeed. I believe that genuinely makes the training contract a different experience from at other firms.”

Sending relatable representatives to campus is a crucial part of getting the OC message across. Zoe Reid, senior recruitment and development officer (graduate), explains: “This coming year we are empowering our trainees to go to their old universities and generate opportunities to talk to students about the firm. Sending alumni back is a great way to connect with students who might otherwise be a bit daunted about coming up to us at a busy law fair. Having someone who was very recently a student is the perfect conversation opener and chance to and strike up a rapport.”

Their interest piqued, the hope is that students will apply and progress to the all-important assessment centre, where the firm aims to wow participants and offer true insight into its inner workings. “We give candidates lots of opportunities to speak to trainees and partners in different ways, offering access to the entire firm,” says Zoe. “It’s important to get across the culture of the firm – that we are as open and non-hierarchical as our marketing material says we are. Our vacation scheme students this year all said that they had an amazing time and that what we claimed about OC was true. Most firms tend to say similar things, so it’s not until you meet people from a firm that you can really get a sense of what your experience as a trainee might be like.”

Ben reflects on his time at the assessment centre and the pleasing lack of administration: “I liked that there was no messing about – we weren’t subjected to hours of presentations and talks. Rather, it seemed to be about making sure that we were switched on enough to do the job and whether they could imagine getting along with us as colleagues. In the interview, it was clear that the partners wanted people who were bright, with some commerciality, and we were asked probing questions – mine was during the London Olympics, so we talked about whether women should be involved in boxing. It was an interesting debate and I managed to have a laugh with my interviewers, which really helped both them and me to imagine myself working here.”

As well as an essential recruitment tool for the firm, the vacation scheme is another golden opportunity for candidates to work out whether OC is right for them. “Last year we recruited 100% of our trainees from our vacation scheme and it is likely to be the same again this year,” says Zoe. “You can’t tell what a firm is like until you’ve worked there, so the scheme is a great way for us to observe the candidates in action in the OC environment; but it also gives them the chance to experience life as a trainee. At the end of two weeks, they are comfortable with their decision whether to train with us.”

“Turning legal knowledge into commercial legal advice is a skill that trainees develop during the training contract”

For those who make the grade, the firm goes to considerable lengths to keep them in the loop – including with birthday, Christmas and good luck cards. “The cards were a very nice touch!” recalls Ben. “I had a two-year gap between recruitment and starting, but I always felt pretty clued up about what needed to be done and by when. Zoe was always on hand to answer my questions, even about the more mundane admin stuff that can end up being quite stressful. And all the future trainees were invited to events, end-of-year drinks, the summer party – meeting people on social occasions really helped me to feel more relaxed when I started.”

Zoe elaborates on some of the other things they do to bridge the gap: “We run a session when they start the LPC to update them on where the firm is at and what’s been happening, as well as a training session at the firm just before Christmas, which is coupled with a trainee social. We want to help them to build relationships early, so that day one as a trainee isn’t daunting.”

Once at the firm, trainees are quickly absorbed into their teams. “The first six months as a trainee will be daunting, but we do encourage our new trainees in the summer before they join to ask any questions and read up on the firm, so that they’re mentally engaged by the time they get here,” says Catherine. “In the induction programme over the first four days, kicked off by our managing partner Ray Berg, the trainees have talks from lawyers, business managers, and have informal lunches and drinks throughout the week where they’re networking and meeting as many people as possible. They also spend a lot of one-on-one time with the supervisor who will be working with them for the first six months, talking about the team, the work and the personalities. We pair them up with a second-year trainee buddy and encourage them to develop a sense of belonging with their own cohort.”

“The level of responsibility they get at an early stage is impressive – many are taken along to client meetings in their first week – so they are truly immersed in the teams from day one,” adds Zoe. “Support is available if they need it, but our feeling is that the training contract is also what each individual decides to make of it – if someone asks for more responsibility, they will normally be given it straightaway.”

Ben looks back over his experiences as a trainee: “My supervisors have all been excellent; we’ve always had weekly catch-ups and they are always available to chat. Each of the five I’ve had put masses of effort into making sure I was welcomed into each team and given a good spread of work. I never think of partner contact as separate – it is daily and a reflection of the collaborative atmosphere at the firm. Even just being in an open-plan office makes a difference, as you don’t have to creep into someone’s office or knock nervously on the door.”

In terms of responsibility, Ben’s first-seat experience was instructive of what was to come: “My supervisor was very aware that I had only just started, but was happy to let me run with it as much as I was capable of doing. At the end of that first six months, I was doing work that would have been unthinkable at the beginning. The level of responsibility is personally appropriate to you and your development throughout.”

Catherine confirms that support is likewise tailored to the individual: “Every trainee has a different level of experience and skillset, and we want to help in those areas that need development and allow them to progress more quickly in those they’re very able in. Their supervision and support are focused on them as individuals; and that is possible because we spend time training both the supervisors and the partners who supervise the supervisors!”

Supervisors take ownership of their role in the process, says Catherine: “I know it sounds clichéd, but I can genuinely say, having worked at three different firms, that we really value trainees as individuals. We do that by making sure that the person charged with supervising and giving that trainee work has ownership for his or her development. Supervisors work with trainees to set clear objectives, and give real-time feedback, to ensure that at the end of the two years they have had a well-rounded experience and developed as much as possible.”

Zoe is happy to report that she has no trouble getting partners involved in the process: “Trainees are an integral part of the firm and its future succession planning, so a lot of emphasis is placed on the recruitment and training process. A partner in each of the UK offices takes responsibility for both recruitment and development of the trainees, regularly catching up with them and checking that we are delivering training that is fit for purpose.”

Back to the ownership ideal and how that extends to the trainees themselves, Catherine comments: “Our trainees are not just a junior level of resource – sadly, there are some firms which do see it that way. Rather, there is an owner mentality here, so trainees have their own matters and pieces of work, and are given work needed to develop their skills based on continual feedback. It is a collaborative environment. Turning legal knowledge into commercial legal advice is a skill that trainees develop during the training contract. That can include working as a team within the firm to understand sectors and markets, to being able to prioritise and manage a workload to give added value to a client.”

Ben sums up his experiences: “I feel my ability as a solicitor has improved no end. Looking back to the beginning of my training contract, I have made huge leaps and that is due in large part to the time and effort invested in me by my supervisors, with feedback and training. I also feel that socially, I have good mates in the firm, which is great. I had high expectations, but they have been met; I feel very happy and comfortable here.” 

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