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Maintaining legal internships through the pandemic

Becky Lowe, Head of Talent Acquisition at CMS, talks to Jo Faragher about how the firm kept its internship programme going with Zoom and WhatsApp, and how the initiative might evolve into a more blended approach to early career recruitment.

The summer months are usually a time when law firms welcome their annual cohort of interns and vacation placements, giving students a taster of life in the legal sector and scoping candidates out for potential training contracts.

Unfortunately, coronavirus put a stop to many firms’ summer internship schemes this year, but CMS was determined to go ahead. The scheme is of particular importance to the firm’s early career recruitment pipeline, as it recruits all of its training contracts from the summer internship, whereas some organisations only hire a proportion.

CMS had in the past brought in its summer interns for a one-week ‘business of law’ taster, prior to the internship itself.

“We believe it’s not enough to be able to interpret and apply the law, we need people who are business savvy, understand the context of the external environment and how that applies to clients,” explains Rebecca Lowe, head of talent acquisition at the firm.

“The business of law week is sponsored by one of our global leaders, demonstrating what we’re looking for, where the law is going and what it means to be a lawyer. After this week the group go off into their two-week internships warm, confident and with a ready-made network of people.”


Going virtual 

This year, both the introductory week and the internship themselves had to be carried out virtually, with 124 people taking part. A welcome day that would normally take place in April also had to happen over Zoom. CMS worked with an external consultancy to iron out any technical issues so the recruitment team could focus on giving candidates “a great experience”, says Lowe.

“We’re a future-facing law firm so we needed to show we were agile when many firms were postponing or cancelling their summer internships,” she adds. CMS was still able to run a complex simulation game and ask candidates to investigate a case study around how they could monetise a new platform for trading legal services.

Everything took place over Zoom, and the only event the firm did not feel would translate as well was a panel discussion featuring high-profile speakers, so this was removed from the agenda.

The recruits themselves were enthusiastic to get to know each other, asking for additional sessions to chat informally.

“We planned the agenda but were relaxed if we had to flex unexpectedly,” says Lowe. “It becomes harder to read people and really listen to what people are saying over Zoom, so we set up extra time for the interns to network.” The cohort also set up a WhatsApp group to keep in touch through the internships and when they start their training contracts.


Future focus 

The feedback on the virtual programme has been so positive that it has made Lowe and her team question how they might adapt the internships and other aspects of early career recruitment in the future.

“We think there will always be a place for the cohort to come together and get connected. But with this virtual world we can reach a much broader audience, such as career changers or people who might not have previously considered a career in law,” she says.

They are already looking at potential virtual events to replace some of the milkround recruitment visits to universities this autumn.

“We’re looking to have a more blended approach, and we’re working with our learning and development team on this too. It’s surprising how quickly both the talent and our team have adjusted to and embraced this new way of working,” adds Lowe.

First-round interviews could be made virtual and open up to a wider audience, for example. “It can be hard for people to make interviews if they need to take time off, so we might start running them over video,” she says.

Virtually all of the 124-strong cohort will take up training contracts in the autumn. The initial stages of the application and recruitment process had already been run before lockdown hit, including an assessment centre.

Lowe adds: “We felt comfortable that the assessment process running up to the academy was rigorous so we were happy to go out with the training contract offers. Everyone came at this with a positive outlook.”

The success of running the internship virtually is one of many positives the firm will take out of new ways of working during the pandemic.

“There can be an air of formality that hinders dialogue sometimes, and with us all embracing virtual working that was dropped, and dialogue got better,” she concludes.

“Early talent like working this way, so let’s see what works and take a more blended approach going forward. We don’t want to revert to exactly how it was before.”

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