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Meet the recruiter

Gemma Baker

Gemma Baker

Gemma Baker is the graduate recruitment manager at Willkie Farr & Gallagher UK. She is based in the London office and joined the firm in February 2020.

Is Willkie Farr running vacation schemes in 2021-22?

Yes, definitely! We will be running vacation schemes in 2022. In 2020-21, our vacation schemes were run on a virtual basis. We hope that the 2022 vacation schemes will take place in person, in our London office.

We launched our graduate recruitment process in 2020 – it was an exciting year, with vacation scheme participants joining us for the first time, and our first ever trainee solicitors joining the firm in September 2021! This year, we are recruiting from 1 September for trainees to start in September 2024.

Our London office is small – we have around 125 people in total – so vac schemers will get to know nearly everyone during the two-week period and trainees will know every person in the London office by the time they have qualified.

I joined Willkie six weeks before the first lockdown, so have largely been working virtually since, yet I feel I know the firm and its people incredibly well. The London office is dynamic, energetic and welcoming. Everyone is focused on taking the firm forward and building something special, plus it’s very social.

Has covid-19 had an impact on your recruitment process?

The recruitment process for those starting in 2024 is going ahead as planned with recruitment activity starting in Autumn. We have brilliant clients, strong, high performing teams, great people and a fantastic training programme, which will give trainees exposure to multiple teams and practice areas. Covid-19 hasn’t deterred us in any way.

Will you be attending any virtual law fairs this autumn?

Willkie will be attending lots of virtual law fairs, including ones with Legal Cheek and All About Law, as well as a couple of events with candidates from Rare’s Vantage system. We are also attending virtual law events with universities, including Bristol, Durham, Exeter, King’s College London, Kent, Leicester, Oxford, Queen Mary University of London, Warwick and York. We will also be hosting some workshops and an open day, which candidates can register for via our website.

I know the virtual environment can be daunting, but 2020 saw so many opportunities to meet firms virtually, coupled with the ability to have meaningful one-to-one chats, which is often impossible in person.

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

We recruit our trainee solicitors solely via our vacation schemes, so it is incredibly important. It provides a wonderful platform for candidates to showcase their potential in a welcoming setting. More importantly, it enables people to ascertain whether Willkie is the right firm.

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

We need people who can take initiative, demonstrate a can-do attitude and work well with others. Our teams are small and nimble, meaning our associates, partners and trainees will move from matter to matter quickly. Our London office has grown by 91% since 2017 with no signs of stopping. Our trainees will work directly with partners and senior associates in small teams giving them fantastic exposure to high-quality work from the outset.

We believe Willkie is a place where juniors can thrive. Therefore, we want people who are enthusiastic, motivated, hardworking, bright and can pick things up quickly, as well as people who are team and people orientated. Candidates must be self-starters – we need people who can spot opportunities both for themselves and the firm. Other key skills include an understanding of the business of law, an interest in Willkie and our clients and great communication.

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

I have been working in graduate recruitment for 20 years and I worked for nine years heading up employability teams at several different places, so I think I have read around 65,000 applications (!) in total.

Often candidates don’t demonstrate enough interest in the firm and their applications are incredibly generic. If you want a long-term career at a firm that invests in its people, you must invest in the firm from the outset. Submitting generic applications is one way to let yourself down. People are far better focusing on six to eight firms, rather than applying for 20 in the same timeframe. It is a long and exhausting process, but I strongly recommend spending more time on fewer applications to set yourself apart.

It is important for candidates to focus and be honest with themselves about what they want before the application process starts. They should consider what type of law firm they want to work at – whether that’s a US firm, a City firm, a strong regional firm or something else entirely – what kind of clients they want to represent and what else is important to them. Once they have answered these questions, they should research firms that fall into these categories. Reading interviews (like this one) can be a good place to start because you can ask yourself whether you like the sound of the people at the firm and the type of work they do. From this research, create a shortlist and focus on those firms at law fairs. Meet them and don’t be afraid to ask questions. These events are great opportunities to delve a little deeper and get to know the people who already work there. Afterwards, ask yourself whether you liked the people you met and what you learnt about the firm. You could spend your career at the firm, so it is crucial that you like the people you work with, as well as the firm’s ethos. Consider whether you will thrive and feel welcomed.

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

Candidates should include examples of both legal and non-legal work experience in their applications. I am just as interested in non-legal work experience – to me, consistently working 10 to 16 hours a week at McDonalds, WHSmith or Tesco alongside your studies is more valuable than having done a week’s work experience at a law firm.

How important is it for candidates to show they have researched the firm?

It is incredibly important for candidates to research the firm. We want to invest in our trainee solicitors and ensure that they have a long-term career with us. We need to be assured that they want to work at Willkie specifically. Candidates should demonstrate that they have researched the firm and can tell us why they want to build a long-term career with Willkie. Those interested could look at our growth in London, our clients, our work, our approach but, most importantly, tell us what this means to them and why it is important to them.

It’s good to hear different perspectives. I certainly can’t expect every candidate to have the same viewpoint or opinion. I like a diverse perspective – I am just interested to hear what different people say interests them. There is no right or wrong.

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

Willkie candidates must be interested in the business of law. This means having an interest in Willkie’s clients and their businesses, as well as an understanding of how law firms operate as a business. There will be opportunities for candidates to demonstrate this skill at interviews and on the vacation scheme – it is not something that Willkie would test for on an application form.

Does your firm run an assessment centre?

Our application process is split into four stages: an online application form; a video interview for which candidates have seven days to complete; a written analytical exercise, which takes place online; and an interview with partners and/or senior associates. To ensure fairness, the written exercise is marked by at least two different people (associates/partners) from Willkie’s London office. Neither ‘marker’ would have seen, and will not see, any applications or video interviews and each exercise is marked on a name-blind basis. Our interviews are conducted on a CV-blind basis.  

Before speaking to you at a law fair, how much should a candidate have researched the firm?

If I were a student, my approach to law fairs would be to do some research beforehand. Then, use the law fair to target my shortlisted firms. I am not expecting candidates to have done huge amounts of research, but I would certainly approach a firm with something to say – for example, “I read that you’ve just opened an office in Chicago” and ask about that. It’s these small bits of knowledge that demonstrate your interest in the firm. The law firm world is at people’s fingertips – there’s a wealth of information online so I would use that and the law fairs to meet people at your shortlisted firms and find out information that you can’t find online.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in a career at Willkie Farr?

We are a small London office, which means our people work in small, nimble teams so our associates and partners must be able to turn their hand to a variety of different matters. No one is siloed in the work that they do, which means we need candidates who can pick things up quickly, want to be challenged within a supportive environment and be part of a truly dynamic office that is consistently growing and going from strength to strength. We want people who want to contribute to that kind of dynamic.

What's your desert island disc?

I’m going old school… ‘Buffalo Stance’ by Neneh Cherry.