When you hear the phrase “careers fair”, there are probably two words that come to mind: free stash. All the free pens, highlighters and (most exciting of all) coloured sticky tabs I accumulated at the various law fairs I attended saw me through my four years at Nottingham University no problem. But complimentary stationery aside, careers fairs are a fantastic opportunity to get your name out there at an early stage and if you go about them in the right way, they can give you a real edge over other candidates.
I’m not saying that you have to rock up in a three-piece suit and bow tie, but I do think that it’s a good idea to make sure that you look relatively smart. Jeans are fine, but pyjamas? Probably not so much. The firms you’re talking to will want to be able to envisage you working for them as a lawyer and that’s far more difficult if you’re wearing tracky bums and trainers and look like you’re still feeling the effects of last night at Oceana. Be alert, look enthusiastic and act professionally. Apart from anything, it shows that you've made an effort which helps create a really good first impression.
Think about how you will present yourself to the recruiters: come across as confident but not cocky; be interested in the firm but don’t be pushy. And most importantly, let your personality shine through – law firms don’t want cookie-cutter solicitors. It’s increasingly common for offices to be open-plan, and so firms will want to hire someone who can hold a conversation and get along with people. You might be a bit nervous; it’s easy to feel like you’re being constantly scrutinised as you walk through a room full of recruiters. But remember that the law firms are there to make a good impression on you as well as the other way round so people will be friendly. If you’re not quite sure how to break the ice, just go and introduce yourself! The recruiters will take the lead and ease you in until you feel confident enough to dazzle them with your super-intelligent questions (see tip 4!).
Like I said, careers fairs can be a bit daunting and it can be difficult to know where to start. It’s a really good idea to have a look at the firms that will be attending before you go and decide which firms you want to make a beeline for. Not only will it give you more confidence, it will give your day more structure and knowing a bit about the firms you’re talking to will really give you a chance to impress. A quick Google search will tell you a lot about the firm, what it does and what's going on there at the moment - make a few notes and refer to them just before you approach each firm so everything is fresh in your mind. When the recruiters go home at the end of the day, the people they will be talking about will be those who knew their stuff about the firm. Doing your research now before exams and coursework deadlines hit will also save you time when it comes to filling in application forms – win/win situation!
It’s all well and good turning up armed with a stack of generic questions and yes, there are some questions you’ll have that will be the same for several different firms. But what’s really going to impress the firms is showing that you know them in more depth than that by asking all the right questions. Don’t ask questions that you could (and should) have found out from the firm’s website. Have a good think about the things that matter to you from a firm and personalise your questions. Questions like “Do you have any upcoming plans for expansion?” or “What are your secondment opportunities?” are much more impressive than “So, what kind of law do you do…?”
Law fairs are also a good opportunity to find out what each firm is looking for in particular from their applicants. All firms want strong academics but there are often specific qualities that are especially important to particular firms. Ask them what makes candidates really stand out for them and make a note of what they say. In fact, on the subject of writing things down, make sure you take a notebook with you. Although frantically writing everything down verbatim makes it difficult to carry on an engaged conversation and makes you seem distracted, it’s a good idea to take a moment after leaving each stall to jot down the key things you've taken away with you. Then you can refer back to your notes later on when you're completing application forms and use what you learnt at the law fair to your advantage.
Law fairs are a great start but at the end of the day they are just that – a start. If you want to give yourself the best possible chance at a training contract then make an effort to stay in touch with the firms you’re interested in.
Some firms will invite you to open days/evenings at the law fair itself. If they do, take advantage of it and sign yourself up there and then. Make every effort to go (most universities will understand if you have to take a day out of lectures to go to an open day) and if it turns out you can’t go, make sure you let the firm know as far in advance as you can. Apart from the fact that simply failing to turn up is rude and comes across pretty badly, calling up and saying how sorry you are that you can’t go gives you a chance to show how keen you are on the firm. Ask if there are any more events coming up that you could attend – even if there aren’t, at least you’ve shown an interest and you can guarantee that when it comes to application forms, your name will stand out as that one who was eager enough to call up and ask.
If there’s no mention of an open day at the law fair, drop HR an email after a week or so, mention that you spoke to X, Y and Z at the law fair and are really eager to learn more about the firm so would love to be kept in the loop about upcoming recruitment events. At the very least, mention on your application form that you spoke to the representatives at the law fair – it will show you were interested from an early stage and it's a really good way to back up your reasons why you want to work at the firm.
So there you go: law fairs done right really can be the best way to get your foot in the door and give you an extra advantage over other candidates. Make the most of them and even if you're a first year, don't be put off by the fact that you can't apply for vacation schemes and training contracts yet. The information you gain from talking to the recruiters will be extremely valuable over the next couple of years and showing early on that you're taking steps in the right direction makes a great impression. You'll leave with a much better insight into the firm, some good ideas on how to put together a stand-out application and, of course, a lifetime's worth of free highlighters. I'd say that makes for a pretty successful afternoon.
(Emma joined us for her training contract in September 2013 having studied Law at Nottingham University and the LPC at the University of Law in Bristol.)