When inviting applications, training organisations generally either do so via an application for or by asking candidates to send in a CV and covering letter.
Both processes have strengths and weaknesses – and it is for training organisations to choose which method they prefer.
The main strength of an application form is that it can be tied, far more obviously, to your job description and person specification. This, in turn, makes it easier to select candidates by comparing their application with those two documents. Curricula Vitae are not standardised and often contain incomplete information. Using CVs, and covering letters, will generally be a more time-consuming process – for all concerned.
We know that one concern of training organisations is that they are worried about being inundated with applications for a trainee solicitor position. It is likely that an application form may limit the number of applications as completing them is generally more time-consuming than sending an email with attachments. It is for this reason that here we focus on application forms.
This section of the guidance is for training organisations that wish to design their own application form. It also explains why the Society’s own exemplar application form looks as it does.
Your application form should be based around the job description and the person specification. There are generally three parts to an application form:
(i) Personal information
(ii) Education information
(iii) Professional information
Here we look at what should and should not be part of an application procedure. The motivation behind each suggestion is to try and ensure that training organisations are cognisant of the impact of their choices regarding recruitment. The way an application form is designed may accidentally limit applications from certain sections of society. It is in all of our interest to help ensure that employers get this right.
Some of the ‘standard questions’ about candidates’ backgrounds may lead to them giving answers that indirectly trigger negative assumptions.
When asking for personal information, we would recommend not asking for the following information:
- Home address
- Marital status
None of these are directly relevant to the role. We all have unconscious biases. Top-performing organisations will want to limit this in all recruitment. It is easy to begin, in a recruitment process, to ‘’second guess’’ people’s backgrounds:
- ‘’would someone based in Edinburgh want to relocate to Dumfries? Won’t they want to move away as soon as the traineeship is over?’
- ‘a married woman in her early 30s may be more likely to go on maternity leave’
- ‘I’d prefer a fresher faced candidate for a trainee solicitor’.
None of these are relevant to selection. Removing title, age, home address and marital status from the application forms should help reduce the opportunity for unconscious bias to play a part in trainee recruitment.
Given the nature of trainee solicitor roles educational information is generally viewed as extremely important. Many prospective trainees will not have significant legal - or, in many cases, work – experience.
Matters that are generally covered in the educational information section of an application form include:
- Schools and school results
- The academic stage (LLB or Pre-PEAT 1 Training Contract)
- Extra-curricular activities
- The vocational stage (the DPLP)
Schools and school results
Rightly or wrongly, the legal profession has been dogged for many years about the alleged importance of ‘the old school tie’. From the Society’s Fair Access to the Legal Profession research and Profile of the Profession work, we know that compared to the Scottish population as a whole those entering each of the stages of legal education and training are disproportionately likely to be privately educated.
We recognise that talent and potential presents itself in different ways and at different stages in people’s lives. Not using Higher results as an assessment tool, would make trainee recruitment fairer and create a more modern environment in which trainee solicitors are selected on their own merit, irrespective of background.
We would recommend never asking a candidate where they went to school.
The only exceptions to this would be (a) for training organisations that are looking to broaden the socio-economic diversity of their firm. Such organisations – generally, though not exclusively, larger organisations – may want to target candidates who attended particular schools. In the event that a training organisation wishes to do so it suggested that they only do so in circumstances when they are using recognised data sets (i.e. free school meals tables, SIMD statistics etc).
(b) for training organisations that have chosen to use a monitoring form for equality and diversity purposes it may be appropriate to build schooling in to such a form to help assess the socio-economic background of candidates (but this should not be taken into account when deciding whether or not someone should get the job).
Most universities – as part of a move to widen access to Higher Education – now operate some form of contextualised admissions. This is explained below.
There is no doubt Higher results can indicate potential but for the majority of students there are other factors that influence results.
We know in Scotland, and across the UK, there is a strong correlation between social class and school academic performance. This suggests that placing too much emphasis on Higher results could mean employers missing out on exceptional talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Using performance in Highers assessment can also undermine the ability of applicants from certain universities whose entrance requirements may be lower. It will also likely inhibit – and in some cases stop - applications from those who have gained access to university via the college sector or via an access route.
This is bad for the employer, the graduate, the profession, and wider society. It also undermines the work of the University admissions departments.
Some training organisations insist upon a certain level of school grades being attained (i.e. it is an Essential Criteria). If such grades have not been achieved and are ‘Essential’, then the applicant will not be able to apply – despite, potentially, having a First Class Honours degree!
We acknowledge that using Higher performance as an Essential criteria may reduce the number of applications that an organisation receives but the costs of doing so likely outweigh the benefits. It is interesting to note that large-scale recruiters in other sectors are moving away from this approach (most notably – in spring 2015 – PriceWaterhouseCoopers which is one of the largest recruiters of graduates in the UK).
We would, therefore, recommend not using Higher results as a means of evaluating candidates.
The academic stage
It is important to remember that not all potential candidates applying to your organisation will have been to university. Some will have undertaken the Pre-PEAT Training Contract (and sat the Law Society exams).
Currently though the overwhelming majority of candidates applying will have at least one degree. As with the allegations around the alleged importance of ‘the old school tie’, the Scots legal profession has been dogged for years about the alleged importance of the ‘the old university scarf’: that is that graduates from certain LLB providers are favoured in the graduate recruitment market over graduates from other LLB providers.
Given the nature of the work that will be performed by a trainee solicitor (and the work they will undertake when qualified) it is understandable that employers want those candidates who have been to university to have achieved a certain standard – either the achievement of Honours (the requirement to have Honours is a relatively recent development in trainee solicitor recruitment) and/or a certain classification of degree (usually a 2:1 or above) All universities are accredited to the same standard.
All ensure that their graduates have attained the Outcomes necessary to progress to the Diploma stage. As well as this, there is a nonUniversity route to qualification. Candidates who have undertaken the Pre-PEAT Training Contract cannot answer a question about which university they attended.
We would recommend not asking which University a candidate attended.
With this in mind, when asking about how a candidate completed the academic stage we would recommend (depending on at what stage your organisation recruits trainees) asking either:
Have you passed the Law Society of Scotland examinations or do you have an LLB?
Yes – passed the LSS examinations
Are you studying for the Law Society Of Scotland examinations or are you currently studying the LLB?
Currently studying LLB
The wording of these means that candidates from all four main routes can apply, ensuring that your organisation gets a wide range of excellent applications.
We would recommend that organisations consider carefully why they require a particular classification of degree for traineeship positions. If you do insist on a particular classification then remember to leave room for those on the Pre-PEAT Training Contract to apply.
We would recommend not insisting on an LLB Honours. An accelerated LLB candidate will almost always have an Honours degree in another subject.
We would recommend giving serious consideration as to whether a trainee really does need an Honours degree. A candidate may choose – for various reasons – to undertake an Ordinary degree.
Some training organisations put great stock in extra-curricular activities at university. It should be noted that some candidates cannot undertake extra-curricular activities to the extent they would like to due to other responsibilities (e.g. family, caring, the requirement to work full or part-time). Consider who is more impressive: the captain of the rugby team who was financially supported by his parents throughout university or the student who has worked, and funded themselves, through the route to qualification but who hasn’t taken part in traditional extra-curricular activities?
We would recommend that any consideration of extra-curricular activities be phrased in such a way that it is inclusive (i.e. including work, charitable work/volunteering, extra-curricular activities etc).
The vocational stage (the DPLP)
The Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP or PEAT 1) is the vocational stage of the route to qualification. No matter which route a candidate takes they will require to undertake the DPLP.
Candidates for traineeships come from a wide variety of backgrounds. A candidate who has had a career prior to law school will necessarily have significantly more professional experience than a candidate who went straight to university from school.
When looking for professional information, it is likely that candidates will offer firms the following examples:
- Experience of legal practice via an internship or summer associate position with a law firm or legal organisation;
- Experience of legal practice via other work experience (e.g. paralegal work, assisting throughout the university year, the Pre-PEAT 1 Training Contract);
- Experience outwith the legal sector (for those converting to law this is often extensive);
- Experience of volunteering for a legal charity or advice body
We are aware that some training organisations recruit a number of their trainees directly from their summer internship programme or have a recruitment process that allows such individuals to miss out certain parts of the process (e.g. guaranteed interviews; ‘no need to apply’ etc).
This is understandable as internships offer training organisations an extended look at potential candidates (and give a far more rounded view of a candidate than a 30-45 minute interview).
Top Tip: When considering professional attributes it may be useful to think ‘’how can a candidate evidence these in an application and at interview?’ and, also, ‘how can we assess them?’. It is also useful to consider: what do we really want?
Recruiters often complain to the Society that they get identikit applications and identikit candidates – is that because application forms, and selection procedures, encourage this?
If you offer internship places follow the Society’s guidance on the payment of interns.
We would recommend not insisting on a candidate having undertaken an internship with your (or another similar) organisation. There are good reasons why a candidate may not have had undertaken such an internship (e.g. having to return to a rural location during university holidays; needing to work full-time/part-time during the summer etc). In reality, other commercial or professional experience is likely to be as (if not more!) useful to a potential trainee solicitor than a two-week summer placement.
For reasons outlined in the previous recommendation, we would similarly recommend not recruiting solely from your internship pool.
We would recommend asking candidates a question such as ‘Please use the space provided to explain how any work experience you have is relevant to your application for this role. This may be legal work experience such as an internship but it is important to remember that non-legal work experience is just as likely to be relevant’. This opens up your organisation to a wider range of strong candidates.
We would recommend that if asking for certain business attributes that you have a very clear idea of what you expect the candidate to be able to do and how they might evidence those attributes. For example, rather than asking for ‘’good IT skills’ ask for ‘’Good IT skills which should include the ability to use all Microsoft packages’’ or if asking for ‘’commercial awareness’ consider what that actually means to your organisation.
We would recommend working with Adopt an Intern if you need assistance with recruiting and selecting an intern.