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How to do effective online research for applications

updated on 18 June 2019

LCN’s Matthew Broadbent gives his advice on researching firms, chambers and other organisations before you make an application.

In this article we will ponder the techniques and skills required to ‘read’ a law firm’s website. This involves identifying the sort of information you need to (i) understand whether it is the place for you, and (ii) demonstrate that you properly appreciate what the firm does and is for, so that you can show recruiters that you know your stuff. The basics are pretty simple, but the exercise should raise further questions that you may have to work a bit harder to answer.

This article should also highlight an important point about the volume of research you need and are able to do. We cannot stress enough that you must be selective in the applications you make. It is physically impossible to make more than 15-20 really strong applications. This is why you need to be clear headed in your research and be quick to identify which firms you want to spend time on and which to consign to the cutting room floor. On the macro level, this involves thinking about general characteristics you favour. These may be related to type of firm (eg, international, national or high street), type of work (eg, commercial, family or criminal); geographical location and size. Using the LawCareers.Net (LCN) Directory lets you cut down the field quite considerably, provided you have successfully formed opinions on what floats your boat (though, of course that is another story), but ultimately you are going to need to look at each organisation on a case-by-case basis in order to generate a manageable shortlist.

A useful exercise is to firstly draw up a checklist of information that you need to extract about the organisation you are targeting. Some will be functional and easy to find (but still important), but the interesting stuff is around the firm and its work. Here are some suggestions.

  • What sort of firm is it?
  • Where is it?
  • How big is it?
  • What year is the firm recruiting for?
  • What is its deadline?
  • Does it have a formal work experience/vacation scheme programme?
  • Does it offer sponsorship for postgraduate study?
  • What is the selection process?
  • What are the firm’s main practice areas?
  • What sort of clients does the firm serve?
  • Are there any notable clients?
  • Which practice areas bring in the most income?
  • Which practice areas are seen as leaders in their field?
  • What seats are offered?
  • What departments do most trainees qualify into?
  • What are the firm’s values?
  • What has been the firm’s trajectory for the last few years?
  • What are its prospects for the next five years?
  • What is the retention rate?
  • What are the PEP (profits per equity partner) figures?
  • What aspects of this firm excite me?
  • What aspects of this firm do I see as negatives?

As you can see, some of these questions will be easier than others and towards the end they become entirely subjective. If you can answer most or all of them, you are some way towards getting a strong hook on the firm and what it dos and, hopefully, why you are keen to join it.

For the purposes of illustration we have selected two firms to analyse, Blake Morgan and Maples Teesdale. We’ll answer the questions we can using a variety of sources, but the focus is on extracting what we can from the firms’ own websites. And the bits of the website we will focus on are not the parts written for potential trainees (useful as they are), but on the parts where the firm speaks to existing and potential clients.

Blake Morgan

First impressions: Their LCN page reveals a fair amount. The firm is large, boasting 800 staff, around 100 partners and offices in six locations stretching from London across the south, and to Wales. They have 29 practice areas listed and mention a range of “70 legal services for commercial and private clients, across many sectors, regionally, nationally and internationally”. They recruit 15 trainees per year, two years in advance and offer 35 work placements. Deadlines for both fall in the spring, LPC course fees are covered and the selection process is outlined and a number of characteristics they seek are specified. The trainee programme consists of four six-month seats and the possibility of client secondments is mentioned.

Maples Teesdale

First impressions: Their LCN entry is less expansive and reveals a rather different sort of firm. They are based solely in (the City of) London and the whole firm numbers only 68 people, while its purpose is very specific: “Maples Teesdale are the UK’s leading commercial property law specialists, providing innovative, full service and truly partner led services to UK based and international clients. The main area of work is therefore commercial property – sales and purchase, development, leasing, funding etc. In addition the firm has specialist groups to provide clients with corporate, finance, construction, planning and litigation advice.” Other work areas are mentioned, but it is made clear that these are to provide additional services to their property company clients. Three training contracts are available each year with a start date a year hence; there is no summer scheme or mention of fee sponsorship. The trainee programme is less formally structured and offers a high level of one-to-one contact with the more senior people responsible for providing training.

Already we are seeing two divergent firms emerging. Both are intriguing and invite further investigation. However, unless these were among the very first firms one looked at, we would suggest that at this point most people would be eliminating one or other of them from consideration. A niche firm in the City with a very focused client base and a broad-based practice spread across the south of England serving a huge variety of clients are quite simply not comparable – apples v oranges if you like. There are no rights or wrongs, but at this point you need to have worked out what kind of fruit you want!

Firm websites 1: graduate information

The part of a firm website dedicated to trainees will vary massively between employers. Very large firms will have expensive looking microsites covering every aspect of the trainee journey and will include profiles, interactive elements, timelines, multitudinous pictures of people looking important in meetings and much more. Others will devote as little as a few lines to wannabe trainees.

But remember the level of gloss is not in direct proportion to the brilliantness of the firm or the trainee process, but more likely reflects the level of resource available for recruitment and the level of difficulty or competition firms find in attracting candidates of the calibre they seek. And of course the story that needs to be told will typically become more complicated with size. This is borne out in the case of our two firms. Maples Teesdale devotes a single page to trainee information and this largely reflects what the LCN page says. The Blake Morgan offering is altogether more involved. The graduate programme information sits within a greater careers area of the website. There is a separate section on work experience and you get a profile of a trainee and some more detail on selection and some FAQs. But again, most of what is here is also in the LCN entry, as it should be.

So what we have learned here is that the information a firm puts on its website for graduates is useful, but not necessarily all that interesting insofar as it is the firm’s agreed public face of what its career prospects look like. This is applicable on internal and external sites as we have seen. One little nugget that emerges from cross referencing internal and external sites is that Maples Teesdale lists a partner as the ‘apply to’ contact while Blake Morgan lists an HR professional. You can read about each of them on their respective sites. What do you read into this? That depends what you are looking for – all I can say is that the dealings I have had with each of them have been most agreeable. This leads us to the good stuff…

Firm websites 2: what they say to clients

We’ll start with Maples Teesdale again. And again there is simply a lot less stuff here for pretty obvious reasons of size and focus, but what there is is telling. On the front page the firm boldly states that they are: “The only property firm you’ll ever need”. This is reiterated on the ‘Who we are’ page that also promises “Total commitment”; “Services you would expect and some that you might not”; and “No client too small, large or complex”. The ‘Our services’ section gives concise descriptions of the firm’s work, but the part that makes the firm come alive for this reader is the recent deals section. Here you can get the best possible online insight into the firm by reading about what it has actually been doing recently. For example, one story about the firm’s new partner hires shows that its commercial property work is continuing to develop and grow, while various reports on commercial property transactions and advisory work showcase the firm’s client base and the kind of work it does day to day. . Reading these reports enables you to get a feel for how the firm works and what it’s there for.

Both firms list their lawyers alphabetically – a small point, but many others list by seniority. Perhaps this indicates a refreshing disdain for rigid hierarchy? Maples Teesdale also lists some lawyers as consultants and a bit of digging on LinkedIn shows that some of these people work for other firms as well. Another interesting insight into the structure of the firm as a business?

Blake Morgan has LOT of information about LOTS of different types of work. The ‘Who we help’ tab at the top of the site breaks down their client groupings into ‘individuals and families’; ‘Businesses’; and ‘Public sector and charities’, which are then further subdivided into further groups. Alternatively ‘What we do’ lists the firm’s activities by practice area. You are certainly not kept in the dark as to what they do and who they serve. Deals, expertise, notable clients and more are listed in each section along with lots of briefings and bulletins. The charities section shows the firm works with many household names (Oxfam and the RSPCA, for example), while the banking section shows that the firm’s banking practice is very different to those run by massive City and international firms, all of whom just seem to work for all the big banks! Reading the various sections will also go some way toward working out which areas of work dominate. If one filters within the ‘our people’ section, ‘commercial contracts’ and ‘dispute resolution’ (ie, litigation) reveal the greatest number of lawyers in harness. This is also a useful cipher for working out which areas see the most qualifiers at the end of their training contracts. But asking directly “Which are the dominant practice areas in the firm?” is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, especially if you are also willing to hazard an educated guess or two (with reasons) to show that you are thinking.

Other sources

There are lots of places to go digging for more on the forms you are researching. These are best consulted when you are fairly sure a firm is of genuine interest. There are two major client guides (eg, Legal 500 and Chambers) that rank firms by work area, geographically. High-tier mentions in big practice areas suggest that the firm is a big deal, whereas smaller areas might reveal interesting niche activities. The client guide recommendations also reveal who firms’ competitors might be. If you like firm A and firm B does something similar, they might well be worthy of consideration as well.

The legal press also has archives that might turn up some interesting nuggets. For instance, the very old may remember firms called Cole & Cole and Morgan Bruce, which merged in the late 90s, and Blake Lapthorne which merged with Morgan Cole in 2010 and swallowed up London firm Piper Smith Watton in 2015. Many firms have complicated family trees and being aware of them won’t hurt! You’ll also find stories and tables on profits retention and other metrics.

But the most important resource at your disposal for delving deep into the business and the psyche of a firm is its people. Meeting people at a firm lets you get a genuine feel for what they and it are like, what the best bits are, where the bodies are buried and how optimistic they are for the future. People at different levels will offer different insights, but you can be sure they will be delighted to talk if you have demonstrated that you’ve done your homework and have understood the basics. If you know you are meeting someone from a firm be it at a fair, at an open day, a presentation or any kind of organised event, doing the leg work in advance will really pay off.

So what have we learnt? That there is a lot of information out there and it is pretty easy to find. A lot of what you uncover will need to be interpreted in the context of what you are looking for in an employer. Either of the firms we’ve looked at could be one person’s dream OR nightmare firm!

One final word on keeping note of what you find out. MyLCN, your personal account on this site is designed for recording this sort of thing. All you need to do is click the ‘Add to MyLCN’ button on a firm’s page and it will be save to your ‘MyFirms’ list. You can keep notes on what you discover against the firm and even change its status (eg researching, rejected, applied etc). Make sure you use this excellent tool.

Now get researching!

Matthew Broadbent is LawCareers.Net’s business development director.