The Virtual Law Fair
By Jonny Hurst
Jonny Hurst asks whether virtual law fairs are a one-hit wonder or here to stay
The profession has stumbled across a number of gamechangers during the pandemic. Homeworking, for instance, provides a viable solution for businesses seeking to reduce office overheads; and in their way, online law fairs are likely to prove just as radical. A little over 12 months ago, trainees and graduate recruitment managers schlepped around the country in all weathers, dutifully staffing their firms’ beautifully branded stands with sage advice and a smile. All were vying to attract the next generation of talent, with ‘on message’ answers to a familiar set of questions, ranging from – ‘What is your firm’s trainee retention rate?’ to the less impressive ‘What exactly does your law firm do?’ So, imagine a similar world where the graduate recruitment manager doesn’t need to leave their kitchen table. Online events are a refreshing and overdue change, but from my experience of the first virtual law fair season, they remain a work in progress.
A VIRTUAL CHANGE
Unlike face-to-face law fairs, which were bursting at the seams with roller banners, marketing collateral and bucketloads of merchandise, the Autumn virtual law fairs had much less of a homogenous look. Hosts used a wide range of online platforms with varying degrees of success. The most popular was Hopin, used by both Legal Cheek and BPP who each delivered among the most successful series of law fairs in terms of student attendance and engagement. Their preferred platform combines a simple and user-friendly but effective layout and design. Navigating between the virtual stands is achieved in seconds, with the video and audio functions as stable as any other platform.
When combined with an easy-to-use screenshare facility, chat, polls and even a networking function, it’s easy to see why feedback from law firms has been overwhelmingly positive. In contrast, the designers of several other platforms missed the mark considerably, overthinking what they thought the user wanted. When we were researching which platform to use for BPP’s fairs, we were shown various overpriced options which attempted to replicate the look of a real-life law fair by using expensive but clunky graphics to mimic the appearance of the venue itself, accompanied by animated exhibition stands and avatars waiting to ‘help’ you. Those designers misjudged the fact that neither students nor firms wanted something that looked more like a third-rate gaming experience from the noughties. Most platforms steered away from pointless graphics, focusing on their chosen site’s functionality, but some still made the wrong call on how they scheduled events. For example, some hosts disappointed exhibitors by holding too many themed talks and panel sessions, diverting much of the student traffic away from the virtual stands. Not a great return on an exhibition fee of up to £1,200 per day for those who saw less than a dozen candidates for one-on-one conversations.
One of the biggest providers, All About Law, who hosted a week-long series of themed fairs in October, arguably made this mistake. But to its credit, it was hugely successful in recruiting several thousand delegates to its week of themed events. The number of students attending most law fairs didn’t come anywhere close to those who attended in person fairs in recent years, partly due to the lack of effective online and on campus promotion by organisers. But there was also event saturation and fatigue. It’s not surprising that one graduate recruiter told me their firm paid around £1,000 for a stand at Oxford University and met four students all day. Their conclusion? “We’re not doing that again.” A number of non-Russell Group universities cancelled their 2020 law fairs altogether, and instead directed students to larger national events hosted by the likes of Legal Cheek, All About Law and BPP, although some did host a series of themed talks and panel sessions.
Some events had a diversity and inclusion theme; others were promoted mainly to first year or non-law students, so between them, the organisers had all bases covered. However, it was regrettable that some providers chose to hold events exclusively for the Russell Group with students from non-Russell Group universities scheduled for another day. Perhaps the most noticeable absentee was the Law Society’s London law fair, usually held at Chancery Lane at the end of November. Instead, the Society offered a poor substitute – a two-hour live webinar featuring two panel discussions, with no exhibitors.
Career-changer and BPP graduate diploma in law (GDL) student Charlotte Endacott acknowledges: “Entering into a virtual room with potential future employers is a daunting prospect for any student.” Even so, I was still surprised at the relative reluctance of students to switch on their cameras and engage with graduate recruiters face-to-face in a virtual booth. Instead, most students voted with their mouse, preferring to hide behind discussion boards. This camera shyness isn’t altogether surprising, given that some first-year undergraduates may not have left their bedrooms or properly met anyone on their course since starting their LLBs. We can, perhaps, be more forgiving of them than students further into their degrees. Then again, being an undergraduate student in Autumn 2020 was an awful experience, so we should cut some slack to the majority who preferred the stress-free option of a chat box. Some firms left law fairs disappointed with the relative lack of student engagement, particularly because they were often paying similar fees to 2019 but getting a fraction of the footfall. In addition, on some platforms it was impossible to know how many students were lurking in the background, hopefully watching and listening with intent, but preferring to remain invisible.
One university attempted to get funky by insisting exhibitors used an app on their smartphones alongside the online platform on their PCs, which was an unnecessary gimmick. But the worst offenders provided no camera functionality at all (or one so complicated it proved impossible to find). Simply providing a depository for firms to leave pdfs of their marketing collateral and a text chat box had little more value than visiting the exhibitor’s website. Gemma Baker, a seasoned graduate recruitment manager, now at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, echoes the thoughts of firms who enjoyed several positive experiences with the relatively small proportion of well-prepared students who fully engaged: “We believe that the virtual environment has enabled us to connect with more candidates from a far greater range of universities than would have been possible in a ‘normal’ law fair season.” There’s no doubt the arrival of online law fairs is a positive development, and if leveraged effectively, will evolve into something better.
This year, firms will be more discerning and won’t say ‘yes’ to almost every event as before. I expect the larger national events run by established online careers and media platforms, as well as LPC/SQE providers like BPP will take the lion’s share of the online law fair space. Consequently, several law fair hosts and, particularly, a number of universities will be disappointed when they’re unable to attract the same number and quality of firms as in previous years. Maybe the concept of an old fashioned ‘stand’ doesn’t translate online as well as everybody thought. So, unless students engage more on camera at this year’s virtual stands, the larger law fair providers may start to deliver events with more of an online conference feel than the ‘regular’ law fair. It’s now down to those running the virtual fairs of the future to deliver the right model on the right platform(s). But one thing is certain: the vision of swathes of students buzzing around a crowded exhibition space, dashing from stand to stand, clinging on for dear life to their ‘swag bags’ of merchandise looks set to be consigned to history.
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 partner