Jonny Hurst argues more should be done to prepare aspiring lawyers for face-to-face networking
According to Dr Deborah Jones of Brunel University, who gave evidence to the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group in 2021:“Reading and writing are viewed as pre-eminent to the detriment of talk in UK classrooms. Government policy, particularly in England, undervalues oracy, thus signalling to other sectors that spoken language is less important than reading and writing.”
I was also quoted in the same inquiry, acknowledging “the recruitment process is stacked against those who struggle with oracy”, as I am now seeing evidence of Dr Jones’ observations in postgraduate classrooms.
If you look at spoken language like a muscle and limit its opportunity to develop over time, is it any wonder a good proportion of Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Solicitors Qualifying Examinations (SQE) students dread their oral assessments as much as an in-person networking opportunity?
But what of the spoken word?
The SQE generation’s digital dexterity is extraordinary. Not just in an electronic context, but also in a ‘fingers and thumbs’ sense. In a world where social networks dominate our personal and professional lives, emailing, texting and instant messaging has, by default, become the method by which we frequently choose to hold a ‘conversation’. To get things done, quickly, efficiently and clinically. But what of the spoken word?
Oral networking for aspiring lawyers starts at university. Most take to the social aspect very well, but when it comes to career-focused events, that’s another matter. I’m not talking about the presidents of the student law and bar societies or their committee members. Some of them are born to network (often as a result of a privileged educational background), a small number have a misplaced ego the size of the Royal Courts of Justice.
Yet the majority are simply self-assured young adults who understand the rules of engagement when it comes to career development. What they all have in common is self-confidence and an appreciation that successfully running for a senior committee role gets them onto the first rung of the career ladder.
The ability to network and make a good impression following a successful campaign gives committee members confidence in the recruitment process, especially during the less cerebral activities which are built into vacation scheme schedules. Even though candidates don’t always appreciate their sociability at lunches, quiz evenings and even a karaoke session may get reported. But the student law society committee members are the exception: a significant number of their rank and file members look on and wonder if they will ever catch up.
One of the first opportunities law students get to meet members of the profession is at the Autumn law fairs, most of which were held online over the last two years. As I have previously mentioned in these pages, the vast majority of students never switch on their cameras and consequently fail to maximise the gilt-edged networking opportunities presented to them. Instead they remain content to enjoy the relative anonymity of communicating via chat boards, or, worse still, they prefer to eavesdrop on other students’ discussions.
When I have asked why so many of them are reluctant to switch on their cameras, the regular answers I get are “I don’t want to say the wrong thing”, “I just want to listen” and a combination of mental-health themes, such as lacking confidence or self-esteem and body-image anxieties.
Networking internally as a trainee
Creating and maintaining personal working relationships doesn’t always come naturally, perhaps even less so for the SQE generation. I was always advised to make sure you’re popular with the receptionists, secretaries and other support staff, not just for the office gossip, but because they are a great source of valuable information, like who is leaving and which teams are recruiting. You won’t find out this stuff on the firm’s intranet or tied to your desk all day.
Developing strong professional relationships with supervisors and partners is essential to enhance a trainee’s prospects of retention on qualification and the ability to do this is built into the seat-rotation structure of most training programmes. In contrast, US firm Jones Day has for several years operated a non-rotational training contract. Instead of spending two years in three to five departments, the firm’s trainees are encouraged to network across the firm to find their work.
It’s not an appropriate training programme for every aspiring trainee. However, those who are recruited by the firm learn quickly how to establish their personal brand. Those who succeed often develop some of the basic tools needed for managing client relationships and business development.
Online networking – the digital world’s shop window
Aspiring lawyers are far more comfortable networking on social media platforms than in person, the most popular platform being LinkedIn.
It’s the first place some graduate recruiters look to verify the motivation and character of a candidate. The best student exponents start by creating an engaging, professional profile, presenting their academic achievements, the mandatory graduation photo, transferable skills and work experience. They then begin to reach out to people they already know and connect with them, such as their law tutors and their university peers. As they build up their network, they start sharing information about the opportunities they have seen and interesting articles they have read. All without opening the front door or chatting (in the traditional sense) to anyone.
In no time, the best of them are blogging on how their career development is going, posting certificates and screenshots from online events they have attended. It’s not showing off as some cynics might say: I’d prefer to describe it as showcasing their personal brand in the digital world’s shop window.
There are some great examples of students and junior lawyers who create and share content relating to the recruitment process. For instance, there is Harry Clark, a trainee at Baker McKenzie, who currently has over 21,000 followers.
But for all the podcasters and bloggers like Harry, there are far more students who don’t ‘get’ LinkedIn, or, if they have set themselves up on the platform, it all too often falls into disuse like their now dormant Facebook accounts.
Networking and ‘small talk’ training
At BPP, we recognise the SQE generation has had fewer opportunities to network in a legal or business context because of the pandemic. Thus, we have introduced optional networking training for our prospective and current students.
As part of one of these sessions, two tutors, both former practitioners, model how to network and exchange ‘small talk’ in a professional context before allowing students the opportunity to be randomly paired for five minutes to do the same. Half the audience goes for it – usually reporting that once they shake off the initial nerves, they learn a lot from the experience. Regrettably, the other half don’t have the confidence to meet a complete stranger they will never see again. The prospect is simply too terrifying.
Bearing in mind that most early ‘twenty-somethings’ will have had limited experience of practising their oral skills in a legal context before they start working, it becomes all the more important that they begin to develop their professional oracy as undergraduates. While networking is not assessed as part of SQE 2, four of the 16 tasks in the SQE 2 assessments focus on related oral skills, such as interviewing, advising and advocacy.
Consequently, I worry for those in the SQE generation who struggle with their spoken language – not least because the standard expected throughout, including the oral skills for SQE 2, will be that of a ‘day 1’ newly-qualified solicitor. With news that the overall pass rate was only 53 per cent for the SQE 1 multiple choice papers in November 2021, I fear those who shy away from professional networking opportunities as undergraduates are going to struggle to pass their SQE 2 oral assessments.
Jonny Hurst is a senior lecturer and head of outreach and student recruitment at BPP University Law School bpp.com He is a former law firm partnerTags:
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