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Recruitment: how firms replicate culture virtually

Giving graduates and other early careers candidates a taste of what it is like to work for your organisation has been a challenge during the pandemic, but not impossible. Law firms tell Ashleigh Webber how they are showcasing their culture in a virtual environment.

With it approaching a year since offices closed to curb the spread of Covid-19, it’s been a while since firms have been able to physically show prospective candidates what it is like to work at their organisations.

Traditionally, law firms have been able to showcase their culture to early careers candidates via internships and vacation schemes. Job interviews would have usually been carried out in the office, giving them an opportunity to witness the workplace “buzz” first hand, while careers fairs and talks at universities would have created the ability for students to connect with graduate scheme alumni to ask questions about company culture.

But Covid-19 made this more complicated. With graduate recruitment and internship opportunities going virtual, giving candidates that all-important “feel” for what it is really like working for a firm has been hard.

Impact of remote working on culture

The legal sector has embraced and adapted easily to working from home, but as Gemma McCall, CEO and co-founder of Culture Shift, says, this can have consequences for how employers attract new talent.

“Research we recently commissioned uncovered that more than half (52%) of employees working in the UK’s legal sector say working from home has improved their work-life balance, while 30% confirmed lockdown/working from home has had a positive impact on their workplace culture,” she says.

“The impact of the pandemic has resulted in a huge shift, however. Showcasing workplace culture to new and prospective employees in a virtual environment can be a challenge.

“The same research also uncovered that almost all (92%) of those working in the industry admit that having an employer that trusts them is important to their overall happiness at work, meaning it’s absolutely essential that employers showcase that they trust their employees to work autonomously from the outset, if they want to not only attract but retain great talent.”

Adapting their approach

Firms have been adapting their strategies to show their culture in the best light in a virtual environment. But have these been successful?

“The number one question that everyone has been asking this year is ‘will culture permeate virtual channels?’, and from our experience it clearly can,” says Hannah Rolph, senior graduate recruitment manager at Allen & Overy.

The firm has opted for a “blended” approach to graduate and student engagement, by hosting its own virtual events as well as participating in events organised by third parties.

Rolph says 2020 was an interesting year for recruitment in the legal sector, as the requirement to approach hiring digitally shifted the access to students back to employers themselves.

“Our virtual events allowed us to engage with a much broader group of students and we saw a larger turnout than we would have for in-person events,” says Rolph. “We hosted a variety of events from virtual presentation evenings though to virtual open days for student groups. We also dialled up the amount of content available through our media channels, with the idea being that students can access this at a time which suits them.”

Rolph was concerned that the firm’s culture would not come across in its online vacation scheme, but participants were still able to get a feel for the type of individuals who work at Allen & Overy.

“We really thought about the design of the scheme and tried to give as much broad access as possible to students, both during the scheme and for anyone who has followed up with separate requests,” she says.

As well as the ability to engage with more people, the shift to digital has enabled the firm to consider the depth of information it can offer candidates and it began posting short videos on its Instagram channel to show the firm’s culture.

Development opportunities

Similar opportunities to showcase what it is like to work at a firm have been seized by Clifford Chance, which launched a programme of virtual events and development opportunities for early careers candidates.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to shake up how we approach candidate attraction,” says Yasmina Kone, interim graduate recruitment manager at Clifford Chance.

“We moved away from the traditional open days and events and designed an innovative core curriculum of 50+ sessions, all aimed to provide varied and interesting skills development to attendees. For example, we gave an insight to our culture through our Together We Are series, which profiled key speakers from the business on topics such as gender parity, campaigning for racial equality, and resilience and mental health.

“By moving away from the traditional format and focusing on important themes, we were able to provide a much more genuine and interesting insight into our business.”

Clifford Chance also launched its global virtual internships last year, which gave graduates and students the ability to learn first-hand from trainees and lawyers. Kone says these have been completed by “thousands” of people since August, meaning that thousands have been given an insight into the firm’s culture.

Connecting with employees

Face-to-face careers fairs and internships would have given candidates the ability to talk to employee representatives and find out about their experiences of working at a law firm first hand. This is still possible in a virtual environment, suggests Kone.

“We have for many years had a section of our website where candidates can ask questions directly to our Clifford Chance insiders, and that’s been more popular than ever in the virtual world,” she says.

“As well as participating in networking events at careers fairs, we’ve also hosted a number of live chats which give prospective applicants the chance to ask all of their questions to trainees, lawyers and graduate recruitment.”

Allen & Overy has also been facilitating access to current employees during every stage of its recruitment process.

Rolph says: “At the front end (attraction) this access is much more high level, with students attending sessions to hear from our lawyers. Once into the selection process and onto our schemes, we were then able to facilitate much more face to face virtual contact.

“Due to availability and everyone working from home, I feel the students may have managed to get in more coffee chats than usual.”

Here to stay?

Virtual arrangements have appeared to serve firms and candidates well while face-to-face meetings and events are off the table. But when the ability to host physical open days and events does return, will virtual events still be viewed as a success?

Rolph says: “I believe virtual is here to stay – the benefits are clear. However, I do believe that there is still value in vacation schemes and programmes being run in person. Offices will still be an important space for collaboration in the future and we know students are still keen to visit.”

Clifford Chance is also likely to have a combination of virtual and in-person events, but the latter is likely to be smaller in scale.

“We will definitely continue to deliver the vast majority of our sessions virtually, because there’s immense value in being able to reach candidates across the country that we may not have met before, and the fact that numbers aren’t capped when we host virtual events,” says Kone.

“It’s also given us the opportunity to think more about sustainability, and how we as graduate recruiters can have a positive impact on the environment. Laura Yeates, head of graduate talent at Clifford Chance, was the driving force behind the Sustainable Recruitment Alliance, which encourages organisations to take a more eco-friendly approach to early talent recruitment.

“This is just another example of how going virtual and taking a pause from on-campus recruitment has made us all assess how we currently recruit, and what we can do to have a positive impact on the student community and the wider population too.”


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