If you’ve missed out on an internal newly qualified (NQ) position after your period of recognised training, then it’s important to stay calm and positive, try to understand and accept what has happened, and take practical steps to find an external role.
This guide aims to help you take charge of your career and navigate the newly qualified jobs market.
Although the guidance is mainly aimed at trainee solicitors in private practice, most of the advice also applies if you’re training in house.
Keep a positive attitude towards your future and map out where you want your career to take you next.
Explore options with family, friends and contacts you trust. Get input from your trainee supervisors and other senior colleagues.
Keep an open mind and think of a ‘plan B’ just in case you need a back-up. For example, this might include:
- qualifying into your second-choice practice area or department
- downsizing to a smaller firm
- moving in house (or moving from in house to private practice)
- taking up a fixed term contract
If you do decide to focus on finding an external NQ position, then a proactive job search strategy that combines conventional methods (legal recruiters and jobs boards) with more creative ones is likely to work best.
This is especially important for NQs because, based on recent trends, the number of candidates looking for new opportunities often outnumbers the number of vacancies. This is partly because many firms and in-house legal departments have their own trainees to consider and are unlikely to interview external candidates ahead of their own talent pool.
Start by preparing a ‘master CV’. Put yourself in the shoes of a busy recruiter, partner or HR professional. How easy will it be for them to skim over your CV on screen to find your qualification date, current employer/position and experience?
Make sure your CV is easy to follow and only includes relevant information. Getting this right is more important than the length of your CV.
The key headings to include, and a suggested order, are:
- academic achievements
- career history
- representative matters (this should be split into each seat)
- business development initiatives
- published work
- other relevant experience
- hobbies and interests (only include if it adds to your CV)
Career changers or mature students may also wish to include a section on early career history.
Most of the sections listed above are fairly self-explanatory. The key with academic achievements and career history is to account for all ‘unusual’ gaps. Whether or not you include every single job, vacation scheme and mini pupillage will depend on how historic they are and how relevant they are to the roles you plan to apply for.
Read more on writing a CV
Representative matters is the most important section of your CV.
Jot down the most significant deals and/or cases you worked on during your traineeship. Then break these down further into matters handled in each seat.
The preferred method is to list representative matters in reverse chronological order so that the work handled in your most recent seat is at the top of your CV. Alternatively, you can list them in order of relevance so that your work in the practice area you want to qualify into features first.
If in doubt, get a second opinion from your recruitment consultant or a senior lawyer contact with experience of recruitment.
If your team’s involvement on a deal or case and its value are in the public domain, it should be fine to include the client’s name.
Do not simply add a long list of deals or cases to your CV. Recruiters and hiring partners are looking for your specific involvement on these matters that goes beyond process. For example, did you play an integral role and get involved in drafting and negotiating, or were you stuck on a massive due diligence, verification or document review exercise?
Showcase your experience using action verbs such as ‘achieved’, ‘developed’, ‘drafted’, ‘managed’, ‘negotiated’ and ‘researched’.
The more evidence you include that shows your technical development and client skills, the stronger your chances of getting an interview. You do not have to include every single matter you worked on, and you should be confident discussing any deal or case on your CV at an interview.
Next, update your LinkedIn profile and make sure it contains:
- a good quality photo
- a brief career history
- qualification date
- seat choices
- academic achievements
Then stay active on LinkedIn by posting regular updates and liking or commenting on relevant content posted by others. This should improve your chances of getting noticed by recruiters, hiring managers, partners, old contacts etc. You can also join relevant LinkedIn groups and forums.
Keep a regular check on jobs advertised in the legal press and jobs boards. However, approach these with caution as often the employer will not consider NQs even where roles are advertised as suitable for 0-2 years' PQE.
If you have friends or colleagues who have already found a new role, ask them if they can recommend a recruiter. Failing that, an internet search will provide a list of agencies.
Typically, agencies operate two separate desks, for private practice and in house. The way the private practice desks are split will differ between agencies. Some of the larger ones will allocate each of their consultants a dedicated practice area and share the responsibility for managing relationships with law firm clients.
Others will have consultants working on vacancies in multiple practice areas but will have exclusive relationships with certain clients. That’s why with larger agencies, candidates often do not have one point of contact and are passed between different consultants.
Smaller or boutique agencies are more likely to offer a consultative hands-on approach. Agencies that operate a candidate-led model may not have as many vacancies on their books but provided they have strong client relationships they should be able to seek out suitable roles by having discreet conversations with carefully targeted hiring partners.
Do not be surprised if many roles are handled by more than one agency. Very few law firms operate tight preferred supplier lists and instead release roles to many agencies.
Using recruitment agencies for in-house roles
In contrast to private practice, in-house legal departments usually use a smaller number of agencies, or only one. This means that if you’re looking for an in-house opportunity you may benefit from contacting several recruitment agencies.
Before sending your CV to a recruitment agency it’s worth doing some due diligence on them. You can do this simply by phoning an agency you’re thinking of registering with and asking some basic questions, including:
- what type of firms do you mostly work with?
- do your consultants specialise in any particular practice areas or geographic regions?
- how many years’ experience do you have in legal recruitment and what’s your background?
- what’s the market for qualified lawyers/NQs looking like?
You can also review consultants’ backgrounds on LinkedIn or on the agencies’ own websites.
Once you’ve signed up with a recruitment agency, try to stay in touch with them regularly, so you do not drop off their radar. Typically the number of candidates outweighs the volume of NQ vacancies, so recruiters have the pick of the crop. But you’ll soon figure out who is putting your interests first and going that extra mile.
If you do decide to register with multiple agencies, keep a detailed record of who’s doing what for you. This will reduce the risk of two different agencies approaching the same employer on your behalf, which can cause embarrassment and potentially prejudice your application.
Networking and direct applications
Start networking to tap into the hidden jobs market. Word-of-mouth is often the best way to secure fresh leads.
Speak to old law school friends, colleagues and other trusted business contacts. Explain your situation to them in a positive manner and ask them to look out for opportunities, or better still, ask if they would be happy to speculatively pass your CV on to relevant partners or heads of departments.
Many jobs get filled before they make it to agencies or jobs boards. This is especially the case for NQ jobs.
Supplement the approaches being made by recruiters with direct applications. Work through the legal directories and prepare a list of target firms. Check their websites for any suitable vacancies. If nothing appropriate is posted then sign up for alerts in case vacancies become available in future.
Direct applications (if sent to the right person) for NQ roles can often be more effective than using an agency. Some firms refuse to accept CVs for NQ candidates from legal recruiters as they are getting more than enough suitable applications.
The key to making successful direct applications, especially speculative ones, is to ensure they get to the right person. That means contacting partners or heads of departments because if you email HR then you’ll probably get a standard rejection email.
Explaining why you do not have an internal offer
Sitting on an offer of an internal NQ role will give you the best possible chance to secure an external one as well. But most of the candidates you’re likely to be up against will not have internal offers, so you will not be alone in having to explain the 'elephant in the room'.
The key is to offer an honest explanation of why you missed out on an internal NQ role. Avoid being overly negative about the firm you’re leaving and instead focus on points that sell you in the best possible light.
Focus on the positive factors such as why the role you’re applying to is a better option for you.
Be brief, because long answers risk coming across as defensive or apologetic.
After speaking to recruiters and your contacts, if suitable roles are simply not coming up then it’s important to have a serious think about a potential plan B.
This will usually mean compromising on your preferred size of firm, practice areas or location, or moving in house.
Although qualifying into a second-choice practice area may feel like smallest compromise, there’s a significant risk that you will not be able to switch back to your first choice later. Similarly, moving in house when you qualify may mean that you cannot return to private practice.
Whether you’ll be able to switch practice areas, location or to return to private practice will depend on things such as the future state of the job market and the quality of your caseload in the first 12 to 18 months of your post-qualified career.
Whichever NQ role you do decide to accept, you should plan to stay for at least 12 to 18 months because you’ll continue to be treated as an NQ candidate until you get beyond this level of PQE.
Preparing 2nd year trainees for qualification part one: navigating the internal qualification process or external NQ market
Preparing 2nd year trainees for qualification part two: tips for marketing yourself both internally and externally