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Meet the recruiter

Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis is the graduate recruitment manager at Penningtons Manches Cooper. She joined the firm in 2016.

What is your favourite part of the recruitment calendar/working at Penningtons Manches Cooper?

One of my favourite parts of my job is calling candidates to offer them a training contract. It’s obviously a really competitive process and it can take a number of years for some candidates to be offered one, so it’s great to hear how delighted people are to finally get an offer. It’s a really nice experience to share with someone and a real highlight of the recruitment calendar.

Another highlight is when you see trainees who you’ve recruited from a vacation scheme go through their training contract and qualify. They often send me an email with their job title ‘associate’ in their sign off, and it’s very rewarding knowing that you’ve helped them to get where they are today.

These are two pivotal points in candidates’ career journeys. It certainly makes you feel like you’re doing a job that is worthwhile.

Does your firm run a vacation scheme?

From 2020 we’ll be running an Easter vacation scheme between 30 March and 4 April and three, one-week summer vacation schemes between 22 June and 12 July.

How important is the vacation scheme as part of the recruitment process? (ie, do you offer training contracts exclusively through the scheme or is it a mix of vac schemers and direct applications?)

We would always recommend that candidates interested in a training contract at the firm come through the vacation scheme route. First of all because we recruit the majority of trainees through our vacation scheme – it was about 70% last year. That’s not to say that we don’t recruit from external or direct applications, but we feel that it’s a more robust process, as we get to know candidates over a week rather than just over a couple of hours during an interview. It also means that candidates get a really good experience of the firm and know what to expect.

We don’t ask vac schemers to make a training contract application until after they’ve completed the vacation scheme. That way candidates can make adjustments to their application once they have gained some experience with us.

What can candidates expect to experience during the vacation scheme?

The focus is very much on live work. We really do think that our vacation scheme is excellent in that respect: we tend not do simulation exercises. Instead, you are placed in a team for a week. You work alongside a trainee, doing the work of a trainee to really understand what life is like at the firm. Obviously, all of this work is supervised and checked, but you carry out the same work as they do. Trainees love this, as they get to delegate to someone for a week. You could be drafting, responding to client emails or going to meetings and internal know-how sessions, and some people are lucky enough to go to court.

There is a broad range of activities that you will do, but there are no set simulation tasks that our vac schemers have to complete. There is an informal HR interview which is conducted with a senior associate mentor, but that is the only set activity on our vacation scheme. Everything else is real life and reflects whatever our trainees are doing in that particular week.

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

We’re a full-service law firm and for that reason we look for a variety of different skills.  There are some general things like in-depth knowledge of the firm and commercial awareness which are important.  But we also look for individual traits like team work, initiative, attention to detail and problem solving skills, which are imperative for a trainee and a solicitor. All in all we need a broad range of people to service our different practice areas.

What is the most common way that candidates let themselves down in their applications?

Sometimes it’s just silly mistakes such as not reading questions properly or having typos in cover letters.

More generally, not tailoring applications enough to the firm is a common mistake. We want to know that candidates have researched us and understand where the firm is heading and what they can expect from working at Penningtons Manches Cooper. Candidates really need to show that they have done a thorough analysis and explain why they want to join us, what the benefits of a training contract with us are and how that fits in with their own goals. It’s tricky, but many candidates ask us what they can do to stand out from the rest and I think that a good covering letter allows them to showcase why they should be selected over others. It takes a lot of time, but it really can pay off.

Does your firm run an assessment centre?

We have an assessment centre for places on our vacation scheme which runs from December through to the end of February. We ask candidates to apply for our vacation scheme based on office location, so if you want to do a training contract in London, you do your vacation scheme in London and if you want to do a training contract in Oxford, you do the vacation scheme there. We have different dates for different locations and a half-day assessment which consists of an in-tray written exercise and a client interview. There is also a one-to-one interview with HR or an associate at the firm which we’ve changed this year from a group exercise.

We don’t hold assessment days for training contracts, instead we do final round interviews on specific days with HR and partners at the firm. It’s not an assessment centre format though.

Does your firm attend university law fairs in the autumn term? What is your main objective when you go to a law fair?

The main objective is to give students the opportunity to talk with real people who work at the firm. Sometimes it’s about building brand presence too. We went through a merger in July with Thomas Cooper, so we arrived on campus this year with the new name Penningtons Manches Cooper. It was important to make sure that students were aware that the merger had happened and of the direction in which the firm is going. That was a particular reason to attend the fairs, but we also genuinely want to make sure that students can speak to us and ask questions. There are many law firms out there and we need to emphasise what the company’s USPs are and why training with us is such a great experience.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in a career at Penningtons Manches Cooper?

I think that it’s a great place to work. The direction that the firm is going in on the back of the merger is really exciting. We now have a number of international offices and have had a decade of consecutive growth, most of which has been organic. We have also been accredited as a firm to watch in Best Companies.

So it’s a fascinating time to join Penningtons Manches Cooper and I would encourage anyone interested to come and speak to us to find out more about the firm. We’re really well known for our culture as well as our innovative and forward thinking approach, so this is an excellent environment for people to not only start, but also to stay and develop their career.

What is your dream job (other than this one!)?

My dream job would be in property development/interior design. I’ve bought a couple of houses in disrepair and done them up and turned them into beautiful properties. I’ve loved creating a home from something that was dated, having a vision and watching that come to life.  So that would be my dream job, apart from graduate recruitment obviously!