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Meet the recruiter

Sarah Warnes

Sarah Warnes

Sarah Warnes (she/her) is the trainee recruitment and legal talent manager at Cooley (UK) LLP. She’s been in trainee recruitment for a total of 17 years (nine years at Cooley and eight at a prior firm) and is based in the London office. 

What is your favourite part of the recruitment calendar?

My favourite part of the recruitment calendar falls across three parts. Who wouldn’t love the moment when you make training contract offers to people who’ve worked really hard to get to where they are and are pursuing their dream of a legal career – it’s a joy to make that dream a reality, particularly if you’ve had early contact with them from a law fair or event or they’ve been on a summer programme with us.

I also like being on campus at events, talking to people who genuinely want to engage in conversation about Cooley and our opportunities. It’s a chance to demystify elements of the recruiting process, and offer useful insights and support – it’s nice to feel you can help! I also love witnessing our second-year trainees receive offers for newly qualified solicitor roles – knowing I’ll have the privilege of seeing them grow with the firm is important to me. I’ve known some of the partners at Cooley since they were trainees – it’s pretty special to have been in the role for an amount of time and with the same people, which has allowed me to see that trajectory of success realised for them. I guess there’s quite a lot I like about my job!

Does your firm run a vacation scheme?

Cooley runs vacation schemes – it’s how we recruit trainees. So, if you you’re interested in training at Cooley you must apply to the summer programme (vac scheme) and secure a place. You’re then considered for a training offer at the end of the programme. We run an in-person summer programme but also offer insight events in the run up to the end of the year so those interested in finding out more about the firm, meeting our lawyers and trainees, and getting a feel for how special Cooley is, can do that before they submit their application. Find out more about the opportunities at our firm via the website.

How important is the vacation scheme as part of the recruitment process?

It’s essential because we only recruit from the summer programme! With a small intake, we feel it’s the best way for both firm and candidates. Candidates make their acceptance decision based on actual experience with the firm (we think it’s important they’re making a considered decision with something that’s so impactful and important). Plus, we’re also making important decisions about the firm’s future (and with a small trainee intake, it’s vital we make the best decisions possible). Doing that in a way that allows us to see and experience the full range of an individual’s talent and potential on a programme is critical. Giving individuals the opportunity to see ‘beyond the brochure/website’ and delve into firm and what it does, the clients it serves and its culture, makes for more effective outcomes all round.

What kind of work can candidates expect to experience during the vacation scheme?

Our lawyers and trainees make a huge effort to get those on our programmes involved in real work and often tasks that’ll stretch and challenge them. On the whole, they’re working in the practice teams, looking at client issues, drafting initial responses or coming up with ideas for solving problems, researching matters, helping with business development, writing blogs/research for articles, attending calls or hearings, contributing to pitch materials and getting involved in pro bono matters. It can be a very varied two weeks! We also have two to three set tasks that give individuals an opportunity to hone skills and work as teams within their programme cohorts.

What key skills does your firm look for in candidates when they apply?

At Cooley we’re looking for highly motivated and industrious individuals who demonstrate a real, genuine interest for the work we do. Individuals should have a thirst for understanding the business world and the part lawyers can play helping their clients navigate challenges that arise. We hire those who want to be part of our collaborative culture and contribute to it, and so we’re looking for people who can work well with others at all levels of the firm. Enthusiasm, seeking responsibility, taking ownership are all essential traits we’re looking for as well as a strong work ethic.

How is the firm adopting the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)?

From autumn 2023 future Cooley trainees will qualify via the SQE and will go to The University of Law, our preferred provider, to study for the assessments.

How important is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to your firm?

It’s woven into every facet of what we do at Cooley. Not many things happen at the firm without thought for how inclusive it is and what diversity impacts it might have. We have a separate DEI function and have just appointed a chief diversity officer who sits alongside the other firm leaders at the top of the firm’s management, reporting directly into the firm’s CEO (the great news is that in January 2024 Cooley will be led by a female CEO – Rachel Proffitt). We have our DEI action plan (set out on our website), which has specific objectives, metrics and actions to articulate and deliver on the plan so we’re accountable. Some of those objectives include things like:

  • growing diverse representation among the board of directors and in all key firm leadership positions;
  • meeting or exceeding targets for greater representation of women in the partnership, diversity among lawyers and diversity in business professionals’ leadership; and
  • embarking on continuing education about the experiences of underrepresented groups in the firm and the legal industry.

Our commitment includes active and creative partnerships with clients and in local and national diversity organisations on widening access, diversity pipeline projects (like our diversity fellowships), student diversity programmes and community outreach. The firm also recognises valuable time spent leading initiatives that help to uphold and strengthen Cooley’s commitment to building a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace by giving our lawyers the opportunity to claim up to 50 hours of bonus eligible citizenship hours (effectively billable credit for their involvement in this important work).

Should candidates use examples of non-legal work experience in their applications?

Absolutely – so many of the things we’re looking for aren’t solely developed through legal work experience. All work experience is relevant as there’ll be something you learn or that demonstrates something about you that’ll contribute towards your potential for success in your legal career. Take our hiring competency of service orientation and work ethic – you can demonstrate you understand how to provide great service through student jobs like bar/restaurant work or retail work. Going the extra mile for a customer who’s frustrated shows you know how important being a great service ambassador is. Successful relationships with clients depend on how well we understand how to give good service, so it’s all relatable and relevant.

How important is it for candidates to show they have researched the firm? What key things about your firm should any good candidate be able to talk about?

It’s really important. We need to be assured you’re making a considered decision based on genuine motivational alignment. You should have reasons for believing that Cooley is the place you want to train and build your career, rather than it just being somewhere that offers a training contract. The firm’s website is a good place to start. Show understanding of what we do, why it’s what you want to do and that our clients are one’s you want to work for. We know what we can offer but we need to know that you know that too. We’re known for our work in the tech and life-sciences sectors (both early-stage companies and the tech giants) so, at the very least, we’d expect candidates to know that. Candidates can stand out in applications by taking that awareness a step further and telling the story of why the interest to work with clients in those areas is there: where did it start and what’s it motivated by?

How important is commercial awareness and how can candidates show they have this skill in their applications?

We’re a business law firm (note the business came first there), so you must be curious about the business world, and have a baseline understanding of the things that impact businesses and how they operate; and how what’s happening in the world (economically, politically and socially) might impact what business leaders are thinking about and what they need help to navigate. That includes the law firm as a business too and the work of lawyers. We’re not looking for experts but you should be able to make basic links. In application forms, candidates can demonstrate this by highlighting previous work experience and what they learned or why they’ve chosen to apply to a corporate commercial law firm.

Does your firm run an assessment centre?

Yes – our assessment and selection process features the online Watson Glaser critical thinking, initial virtual interviews with associates then group working on a business case study and, should you be successful through those stages, the final stage of interviews with partners and further associates. As part of the final stage, candidates have an opportunity to attend a networking lunch with trainees and other lawyers. It’s a chance for those who’ve not interacted with the firm to that point to engage and get a feel for whether they could see themselves working with those they speak to or get interviewed by. To see we’re human beings is very important!

What advice would you give to anyone interested in a career at your firm?

The key thing is to be ready for the commitment and be sure that what the firm does and the clients it works with are inspiring to you and excite you. Think about how you’ll convince others of your motivation in relation to this and what you can contribute to the organisation. Our firm is made by our people, how will you add something?

What’s your favourite way to unwind from work?

I belong to a choir which is extremely therapeutic and the group is full of fantastic people. We sing unique versions of pop/rock classics – belting out our version of Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ works a treat!