Making the most of (virtual) law fairs – by Alex Hum

For the first two years of my LLB I didn’t think I would be a solicitor. Pursuing a career as a Barrister was my initial passion. For various reasons, my mind changed in third year, so I attended my university law fair for the first time. At the law fair, I was keen to talk to as many people as I could to demonstrate my confidence and competence, but when I got there, confidence and competence turned into awkwardness. I didn’t know what to talk to people about, what questions to ask, or how to make a positive, lasting impression.

Since joining Pinsent Masons as a Trainee in September 2019, I have made a point of attending law fairs and graduate recruitment events, on behalf of the firm, to talk to students in the same position as I was in not so long ago. I’ve met many students who have been intelligent and impressive, but who I get the sense struggle from the same awkwardness that I initially felt. The first point to make, therefore, is that it’s completely natural to feel unsure of yourself at the law fair, and that everyone feels the same. It’s also okay to attend a law fair with an open mind if you aren’t sure about the law as a career and you just want to find out more. As much as you are trying to make a good impression, the law firms are there to get in front of you too, to teach you about what they do and encourage you to apply for them. Nobody expects you to know everything and firms anticipate questions from the law fair attendees.

Regardless of your reasons for atending a law fair, whether virtually or in person, here is some advice to help you make the most of the opportunity

Online events – how do they differ?

Networking in a virtual environment can be even more daunting than in person, but the good thing is that everyone is new to the experience. The majority of online law fairs will give you an opportunity to join a ‘virtual stand’ where you can engage directly with the representatives or simply listen to what they have to say in the background. Chances are people will have similar questions and you will be ale to focus on taking notes. . Don’t be shy to bring up with questions that will be tailored to your situation or interests. Virtual sessions can be uncomfortable because it is harder to “raise your hand” and create space where you can ask a question – you often “bump” into someone else trying to speak which might make you nervous. But the sessions are still, first and foremost, for your benefit. Be polite and gracious, don’t speak over anyone, but also be assertive to make sure you get the chance to ask your questions. You can also use any chat/hand-raising functions to make sure you are heard. Understandably, making a connection will be more difficult in a virtual environment but being genuine and asking specific questions will go a long way. If you do not feel comfortable appearing on the main screen, or do not have a working camera, use direct messaging functions to get your message across in a way that is comfortable and helpful for you.

Ask specific questions that will help you get information to bolster your application

Generic information about vacation schemes, training contracts, and secondments can usually be found on the website or by firing a quick email to graduate recruitment. While all the representatives attending the law fair are there to help, it isn’t the best use of anyone’s time to answer those kinds of administrative questions. Equally, it can be difficult to answer extremely broad questions like “What can you tell me about the firm?” because there are so many points of potential interest to talk about and we’re note quite sure what is of most interest to you. Also, a first seat trainee will struggle to answer questions such as “Where do you see the firm in 10 years?”, whereas a Partner who makes strategic decisions will be in a better position to answer.

Doing some research beforehand can put you in a much better position to ask insightful questions:

  • Look at which firms will be attending and try to get an impression of which ones you are most interested in. Hone in on what areas of law they specialise in (practice areas and business sectors), what they have been recognised for (awards and rankings), and use resources like Chambers Student and Legal Cheek to try to get a more detailed insight into each firm (culture and testimonials). Law firms are particularly proud of these achievements, so sharing enthusiasm over their success is a great way of making a connection. Look for changes or developments at the firm such as new offices, new clients, and new technology which you can use as conversations starters.
  • Go beyond the website as well and be creative about research – look on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to see what projects firms are proud of. Deeper research may prompt more interesting discussion points at the law fair that will be helpful to reflect on in your application. However, keep in mind that in big firms, many people will not be directly involved in the project you’ve looked at. Instead, think about what your research says about the firm’s principles, strategy, and culture, and use that as a basis for a more meaningful discussion; this will make you more likely to stand out, having made a positive impression.

Make a good impression by being authentic and engaged

You can make a good impression with a genuine smile and eye contact, or by looking at the camera/speaker on your screen. Often I find that when students ask questions, they are so busy trying to think of the next thing to say that they’re not listening to the answer. It takes practice; many people well into their careers still struggle with active listening. A good tip to know that you don’t have to fill every silence – take your time to reflect on the information someone is sharing with you, and think about what would be helpful for you to know, or what that might lead you to be curious about. Most of all, the representatives you’ll meet at law firms are people too who have thoughts, emotions, stress, and biases, and who have personal familiarity with the process you are going through. Don’t be afraid to show us some of your personality – we’re more likely to show you ours too – and the sincere conversations are the most enjoyable and memorable.

Follow-up and look for the next opportunity

If there was anyone that you found particularly helpful, you might consider asking them for an email or LinkedIn to stay in touch. This might seem obvious, but the majority of people ask to connect and then don’t reach out again. People will extend themselves to help if they feel their time will be appreciated, so it goes a long way to message after the event just to say “thank you”. Looking ahead at a potential next step, you could even ask when the next opportunity to interact with the firm might be. As long as you are gracious, you reaching out won’t be seen as intrusive because the people you’ve met will have volunteered themselves to help. They will be understandably busy with their professional lives and it is important to respect those boundaries, but they will appreciate the enthusiasm. If nothing else, it shows that you took the time and effort to find out more about the firm, which can only strengthen your application.

From my experience both as a recent student who struggled to do the above, and as a firm representative who meets students at these events, it is one thing to know what you ought to do, and another to be able to do it. With a sense of mindfulness and purpose, I’m sure you’ll make even better use of the law fair – best of luck, and remember to try and enjoy yourself!

Alex Hum