Best Trainer – National/Large Regional Firm

Serial LCN Award winner Shoosmiths continues to go from strength to strength, scooping its seventh gong this year. Yet while this is fantastic news for the firm, its trainees and its clients, spare a thought for the *Best in Law* team looking for fresh footwear-based puns with which to celebrate the firm’s success. Best foot forward, then (groan): what is Shoosmiths doing so right?

“We believe passionately in diversity,” explains graduate recruiter Samantha Hope – an unsurprising admission, given that Shoosmiths has twice been awarded the Commendation for Diversity at the LCN Awards. “We recruit both law and non-law students, as they bring different skills to the table.” In order to encourage this, interviewers have a deliberate policy of not asking specific legal questions so as not to disadvantage non-legal students. It is a simple yet highly effective way of helping to widen the intake and ensure that Shoosmiths ends up with trainees from a variety of backgrounds. In addition, every single candidate who makes it through to interview will benefit from positive strategies designed to weed out unconscious bias.

Interviews at Shoosmiths are CV-blind and have been for about 14 years. “It makes me smile when I read that so and so has just switched to doing this,” says training principal Lynn Knight. “We’ve been doing it for years!” What this means in practice is that while all applications are assessed using a points system, this is used only as a filter – the results are not passed on to assessors. “No interview questions are geared towards university and schools,” Samantha explains. “Although candidates can obviously volunteer that information. It’s about building upon the social mobility and diversity already evident across the firm.”

There are various different routes to a training contract at the firm: either an external application or a place on the firm’s vacation scheme can result in an invitation to an assessment day. Shoosmiths is also keen to open access to internal candidates such as paralegals. Lynn speaks passionately about how much rests on students’ exam results in the industry and how these should not be the be all and end all of their lives. “If you have a bad week over your finals, you can end up with a 2:2 – that’s a world of pain when it comes to applications,” she argues. “We are committed to giving people a chance to qualify as paralegals. There is then an internal route to the assessment day, where they’ll be assessed side by side with the other candidates.”

Second-seat trainee Stephanie Spittle chose the paralegal route, as it allowed her to wait before applying for her training contract and thoroughly research the firms in which she was interested. She worked directly with Phil Barnes – partner and national practice group head in the Birmingham office’s medical negligence team – on high-profile, high-value cases, with the level of responsibility increasing as time went on. “During one of my personal development reviews, Phil asked, ‘What is it you want to achieve; where do you see yourself in say five years’ time?” she recalls. “And I explained: ‘I want to become a solicitor here at Shoosmiths.’ The whole team supported my application. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Shoosmiths is a truly UK-wide firm, with 11 offices across the country from London to Edinburgh, Southampton and Nottingham. Right from day one, it strives to help trainees realise that they are part of something far bigger than just their own outpost. “We want to give our trainees a national perspective,” Lynn explains. For this reason, all trainees – approximately 23 in each intake – gather in a single office for the first week of their training contract and spend their initial induction together. It not only introduces them to life at a multi-office firm but helps to forge bonds between the entire cohort, no matter where they end up.

“Induction involves a mix of IT training and workshops with key people from the firm including the CEO, the directors and the five practice group heads,” Samantha explains. “But there are also a lot of fun activities. There’s a Go Ape-style event, where the graduate recruitment team also takes part; there’s also an important health and wellbeing aspect. Last year we had a hot yoga session and a talk from a nutritionist. The emphasis is about how to start your career the right way – how to beat stress, how to be a well-rounded person embarking on business.”

“Shoosmiths as a business is very forward thinking; it’s not afraid to make changes.”

Once the training contract commences, trainees can expect high-quality work right from the off – hardly surprising, given the calibre of Shoosmiths’ client list, which includes global giants such as Hewlett Packard, Mercedes and Krispy Kreme. “Trainees are given as much as they can handle,” Lynn says. “But there is a good support network there to ensure they’re not being overwhelmed. “

Stephanie describes how these various safety nets work in practice. “You can speak to your supervisor,” she says. “All work should come through them, so they get a sense if you’re getting too much. If you feel there’s an issue, you can then go to your training principal or HR, who are very supportive. They’re very encouraging; and really, it’s okay if you’re struggling or need support. You’re encouraged to be open and honest – it’s not just about your output, but about you as an individual.”

If this sounds progressive, that would doubtless be taken as a compliment. “Shoosmiths as a business is very forward thinking; it’s not afraid to make changes,” enthuses Samantha. During her tenure – she joined the firm six years ago – the firm has rebranded and continually upgraded its premises: at the time of writing, the Reading office is undergoing a major refit, while the Manchester office is moving, and a Leeds office has just been announced. “The latest buzzword is ‘agile working’, whether it’s from home or any of Shoosmiths’ different offices. It means that everyone can be more efficient in the workload. It’s about cost savings, time savings – working smarter.”

There is a sense that Shoosmiths is cherry picking those advances which will add most value for clients and staff alike, while retaining the practices that are working just fine. This is likewise the case when it comes to feedback throughout the training contract, which is provided at both a mid-seat review and a final review at the end of each seat. “The mid-seat one is particularly helpful,” says Stephanie. “You can take a look at where things are going while you still have three months to go and it gives you the chance to refocus, if you need to. If something’s not quite right or if you’re just getting work from one person, then you’re not getting a real picture of how that department works – so it’s important to raise these issues. For appraisals, you get feedback from the whole team; it’s so encouraging that you often forget you’re being assessed.”

All this  investment in recruitment and trainees is not just a drive to win more prizes – although that does seem to be a gratifying side-effect; the Shoosmiths ethos is that getting and retaining the right people is the only way to build the firm and move it forward. “We’ve been values-based for years and years,” Lynn points out. “And we’re widely acknowledged as living these values. Our people are our greatest strength. I’ve been here 11 years and I never cease to be amazed by the breadth and wealth of talent around me. And I think that shines through.”

Samantha agrees:  “It sounds cheesy - a lot of businesses talk like this, but we really believe it. In terms of culture it’s about going to work, spending time with people who you really rate, going into a job you love. For the trainees, it’s a very rewarding environment – they’re learning from colleagues who are very positive and motivational.”

And the proof of the pudding is there for all to see. “We don’t just say these are our values – it really is like this,” she continues. “Anyone who actually meets us – at law fairs, at assessment days – they say to us, ‘You can tell you’ve got something really different.’ It’s like the assessment centres – you can fake that sort of thing for an interview, but not for a whole day.”

As a trainee, Stephanie has seen this first-hand. When researching the firm, her curiosity was piqued by one of the many awards that Shoosmiths has won, the Investors in People Award. “I took a closer look at the criteria Shoosmiths needed to fulfil to qualify,” she explains. “It was really impressive. The firm invests so much in people.”

So there you have it: openness to new ideas and a values-based recruitment and training process which have led to a groaning trophies shelf. “It’s an exciting time,” Stephanie sums up her training contract. “And so short. You’ve got to give it all you have and get what you can from each seat. And just enjoy it!”

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