Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How I became 'Law Undergraduate of the year 2012'

This year's winner Robin Morris advices on how to win the Law Undergraduate of the Year award.

What they are looking for (part one)

There’s still something surprising about the glass award which sits on the shelf in my bedroom. I first entered the TARGETjobs Law Undergraduate of the Year Award scheme (sponsored by leading international law firm Mayer Brown) in 2009. At that time I didn’t even pass the first stage of the competition. I entered again for the second time (and during the final year of my eligibility) in 2011 and went all the way to win the award at a gala dinner in Canary Wharf. I’ve often asked myself therefore – what changed in those two years?

This blog post is intended to provide the reader with a better understanding of my background and an insight into some of the qualities, attributes and experiences I consider relevant to a winning candidate. I must, from the outset, emphasise the ‘I’ in that last sentence. I was invited to blog about the award by TARGETJobs and so cannot claim, with any degree of certainty, to know the minds of the award judges (senior partners at Mayer Brown). Nor do I intend to assert any kind of ‘winning formula’ here which Mayer Brown look for in a candidate. What follows are my own thoughts and my own suggestions about some of the qualities which you should consider before applying to the award scheme which, in many ways, mimics the application process for any vacation scheme or training contract.

1) Work hard!

The importance of a strong academic record cannot be overstated. Candidates who perform consistently well during the first few years of their undergraduate degree should comfortably progress to the mid to latter stages of the award scheme. To be clear, a grade within the higher range of the upper-second class mark bracket should be sufficient. That does not necessarily mean that you should discount yourself if you’re averaging a lower upper-second class mark or if a few second-class marks have crept in during those first year exams. But keep in mind that among the first impressions made to the judges about your abilities as an individual will be the academic performance noted on your application / CV. Unless you have very strong extra-curricular experiences, a low average in your second year should make you pause and think. This is especially important if you did not perform as well as you had anticipated in your A-levels. At the time I applied for the award in the autumn 2011 I was averaging a reasonable upper second-class mark. Remember, the award seeks to recognise an outstanding penultimate year law undergraduate with “an excellent academic record”. High marks won’t guarantee success but they do provide a great starting point. So put in the hours!

2) Make the most of every opportunity available

Leading firms such as Mayer Brown not only look for the most academically able. What use is a trainee with a solid first class degree if they cannot effectively communicate with clients or colleagues?

During my experience as a Student Tutor and a Mentor for first and second-year undergraduates I often heard students say “I wish I’d taken part in more things when I had the chance”. I’m not talking about the Law Society Pub Golf evening, or the Pro Bono cake sale here either. Demonstrating a wide range of interests and abilities through several extra-curricular activities is essential not only for the sake of employability but also for your own personal development. You must demonstrate that you are a well-rounded individual. Good verbal and written communication skills, an ability to analyse, good judgement, thoroughness, client focus, an understanding of teamwork and excellent interpersonal skills are vital. If you’re unsure about how to develop these skills pay a visit to your university careers service who should be able to offer a range of workshops and practical exercises to help you improve.

As an undergraduate my self-development occurred through my involvement in a range of activities: as a member of the Innocence Project; the editor-in-chief of the student law journal; as a course representative; as a student ambassador and so forth. If you are given the opportunity to work or study abroad as I did for a year in Vienna as an ERASMUS student, take the chance to do so. Not only will you gain an enhanced understanding of a foreign legal system and benefit from the experience of an alternative learning environment, but the commercial insight you’ll possess will become invaluable.

Of course, participation in any extra-curricular activities should never be done at the expense of academic studies – an on-going assessment of how you divide your time should always be made. But nothing demonstrates career motivation more than a readiness to participate. After all, Mayer Brown is “seeking lawyers who are keen to make a genuine contribution to the future of the business”.

There is one more tip from Robin, tune in on Thursday to find out what it is.