Jessica Iley is the HR adviser at Ashfords LLP. She is based in Exeter and has been at the firm for five years.
We usually run three sets of vacation schemes each recruitment cycle. Two of them take place in Exeter and one takes place in Bristol. We are aiming to run these in person next year after cancelling the schemes last year due to the pandemic.
To be eligible for a vacation scheme at Ashfords, candidates must be at least a penultimate-year undergraduate law student or final-year non-law graduate. Our vacation schemes always end in an assessment centre, so it’s important for candidates to understand that it isn’t just a work experience opportunity; you should be looking to secure a training contract.
The vacation schemes are important because candidates are offered the chance to secure a training contract at the end. It is there to help them decide whether Ashfords is the right fit and provide insight into what working at the firm would be like. Gaining this knowledge is difficult to do without spending a bit of time with the firm.
That said, we also consider and recruit candidates directly through the assessment days. We believe it’s important to offer both opportunities to our candidates.
I worked on a project during lockdown which involved working with a consultant to identify the different behaviours we value in our trainee solicitors. We used an information gathering and interview exercise to redesign our entire graduate assessment process. The aim was to understand what makes a good trainee, identify the skills we value in the trainees who are already working at the firm and then develop a new assessment process that is designed to test and bring out those qualities in a candidate.
At the application stage, we look for well-rounded individuals. We want candidates to show an ability to apply a pragmatic approach, being able to analyse information and problem solve to identify well-thought-out solutions. You must be an excellent team player, while also demonstrating your own contribution to the team dynamic – we want to understand the role the individual plays within a team.
A confidence in your own abilities is also important; you must believe that you have what it takes. We also value a good work ethic, which can be demonstrated through work experience and other roles you’ve undertaken during their studies.
Finally, candidates must have a commercial mindset. We’re not looking for the full package; we want to see potential and some commercial grounding, so we can help to develop your commercial awareness.
We are still finalising our approach and will be publishing information on our transition in the coming months. We are aware that we must respond to these changes in the qualification structure. We will be looking at it with a view to applying the new model to the trainees joining us in 2024.
We are currently doing lots of research with plans to liaise with other firms on their approach. It’s important that we do what’s right for the firm, while also understanding the wider trends.
We are really looking for well-rounded individuals, so all work experience is relevant. We usually recruit a good mix of law and non-law grads. So, while having a little bit of legal experience would be a plus, it is certainly not essential. Instead, it’s about having a clear idea of how the skills you’ve developed in certain roles could apply to the role of a trainee solicitor.
Ultimately, we want candidates to make us feel special when we are reading an application. It’s important to be clear about why we are the chosen firm.
Candidates should understand the fundamentals of the firm, which means being aware of the practice areas and locations, for example. However, we want to see that candidates have done more than just scratch the surface of our website. Research the events we’ve been involved with, read articles we’ve published and think about whether there are recent deals or clients that you’re particularly interested in. What have you found out about our culture and ways of working, and why does that appeal?
We run a standalone assessment centre for Exeter and one for Bristol, and then we run one on the Friday of each of our summer vacation schemes.
The day involves a range of different activities, including an interview with a partner and a member of the HR team. There is a written exercise and a presentation element, so we test a variety of skills.
It was sink or swim with covid-19. The IT team worked tirelessly to enable a smooth transition to remote working. We introduced various ways to keep everyone engaged. We made sure we checked in regularly, listened and said thank you, which was crucial to maintaining employee motivation and making them feel part of something during an incredibly isolating period for many.
In many ways, communication ultimately improved during the pandemic because it heightened the importance of staying in regular contact. There was more emphasis on keeping abreast of what was going on across the business because we weren’t all in a room together.
There have been some positive takeaways from the experience. Although we couldn’t go ahead with the summer schemes last year, we did run an alternative insight day because we wanted to give candidates a window into our culture without having to come into the office. On the insight day we outlined the clients we worked with, our working styles and culture. There was a Q&A partner panel session – we asked lawyers from various departments to provide an overview of their work – and a client-care workshop, which emphasised the importance of client service and helped candidates to understand how we practise this.
We also developed ways to assess candidates virtually with an online platform where they could complete written exercises and we could mark them online. It was a streamlined and straightforward process and one that we will potentially keep in place going forward.
So far this year we have attended the Bristol and All Wales law fairs, and we will be at the Exeter law fair too. We tend to target universities that are local to our offices, for example Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter. Having a presence at these events is important to us; we want the country’s future lawyers to know who we are.
The idea of our attendance at these events is that students pay attention to our name for when they are eventually looking for firms to apply to.
Our goal is to meet potential candidates and keep a note of those who engaged with us on the day for when applications do start coming in. An individual I met at a law fair ended up submitting an application and we have since offered them a training contract. We were impressed with them from the outset, which just goes to show how important law fairs can be to your future career.
Do your research. I want candidates to genuinely understand what it is that appeals to them about the firm – if you are confident that you know the answer to this, you’ll find it much easier to articulate in your application. Piece together the skills you think we are looking for and pair this with the skills and qualities you think are key to the role of a solicitor, and then evidence them using your experiences.
I would also recommend staying up to date with legal developments, as well as the wider, societal and economic situation. You should be able to take a view on developments in the world and the trends in the legal industry – we want candidates to have an opinion.
Most importantly, be yourself. If you reach the assessment stage and are due to take part in an assessment centre, we want to know how you tick. At the end of an interview, we want to feel like we have learnt something about you. Don’t present a version of yourself that you think we want to see; we want to see your authentic self, rather than a modified version. We know that everyone has different parts to play, different contributions to make and a different personality.
Travel writer – when I was on my year abroad during university, I had a blog and really enjoyed writing it. The idea of being paid to visit lots of weird and wonderful places, and then write about my experiences just sounds like the best job!