Bar & Bench caught up with Aastha Malhotra, a final year student of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), who recently received a Training Contract from Magic Circle firm Allen & Overy.
In this interview, she talks about her journey to securing a Vacation Scheme at the firm and eventually landing a Training Contract, the road ahead and what Indian law graduates can do to increase their chances of making it to international law firms.
When did you start working towards this opportunity?
I was always interested in a career that was global in nature but I did not know the route to it. So I did what every law student did - varied internships from the beginning of law school. I really liked the work and enjoyed my time during all my corporate law internships at AZB & Partners, L&L Partners and Khaitan. I also had an interest in working on the business side of law. So a career in transactional law would help me combine my interest in business and the regulatory aspects of the law - that’s how I found my calling in corporate law. Magic Circle firms like Allen & Overy, Herbert Smith Freehills and Linklaters have dedicated India recruitment programmes, with university tie-ups in India.
Run us through the application procedure. What do the timelines look like?
The application process at A&O focussed more on what you are capable of doing and your potential, as opposed to what you have already done. A&O has support networks for women lawyers from South Asia and for mental health as well. All of these were added perks to aspire to be a part of the A&O team. They value you as a person and as a lawyer.
Interested applicants need to start applying in the summer before the fourth year. A&O has an application form where one needs to fill their personal details and academic records, internships, etc along with some subjective questions through which they want to gain insight into how commercially aware the applicant is, whether the applicant understands the firm well, etc.
The Situation Judgment Test (SJT) that follows is to assess the skills you can bring to the table and the approaches you would adopt as a lawyer. There are no correct answers - a scenario is put forth for the applicant to understand the thought process adopted and how one would be as a lawyer and as a person.
Stage 2 is the Assessment Centre, where shortlisted candidates across universities are invited to be interviewed by Partners and the Human Resources team. This comprises of two rounds - first is the technical interview taken by a Partner and the second is a Graduate Recruitment round taken by the HR.
How did you prepare for the application process and the interviews?
Studying at NUJS, I was very fortunate to have access to alumni who are working similar jobs and get their perspectives on what the interviews are like, and how to navigate the application. More importantly, I never planned my law school years to just do a Vacation Scheme. I always did what I enjoyed and did it with a lot of dedication and hard work. The achievements were just a by-product of the activities I was interested in. Since I was interested in commerce and business, I took part in Mediation competitions which had a commercial perspective. I had corporate law internships, was part of some Research Centres at NUJS and was an Editor for the NUJS Law Review. The skills I picked up during all of these engagements is what I demonstrated.
I think the best way to streamline your application is to analyse from the firm’s website and see what values they prioritize and then trace them back to what you have done at law school. I deliberated on my responses with my parents because they know me so well.
What was your experience of these interviews?
The interview was based on a case study which I had to analyse from both the business and legal perspectives. My case study was based on the retail fashion sector. I had to talk about the hurdles that come with any acquisition by assuming the role of a lawyer at the firm. I was expected to go through some documentation to answer some targeted questions. A general conversation with the Partner on questions about the case study ensued.
The second part is the HR round, where a situation will be given and one has to express how they would respond to it. It is always good to back your answers up with examples of situations you have faced and responded to in the past.
Take us through your experience of the Vacation Scheme.
The Vacation Scheme is a chance for you to get to know the firm and vice versa. We were a given a group task to do and at the end of the Scheme, we had to deliver a presentation. Throughout the Vacation Scheme, a mentor is assigned who will assign tasks separately. In another exercise, we were asked to draft some clauses of a contract impromptu. Firms like A&O really take the effort to know you as a person - how interactive you are, how good you are at holding a conversation, how intelligently you ask questions, etc - all of this is assessed before being awarded a Training Contract. Most firms have an exit interview, where the candidate is interviewed again by a Partner and the Graduate Recruitment after the Vacation Scheme. A&O does not have this.
What are the challenges you faced while doing the Vacation Scheme remotely?
It was a little challenging, since everything was online and we had to work in British time. But those are adjustments that can be made. Everyone at the firm is also very understanding and accommodative if you are in a different time zone. During the Scheme, we are encouraged to reach out to different Partners and other lawyers at the firm. The tasks assigned are a mix of senior-level interaction and peer interaction to gauge how well one can manage both.
What are the acceptance timelines for the Vacation Scheme and the Training Contract?
The same week after the interviews I heard from A&O and I was offered a place for their Vacation Scheme. Overall, within a span of 6 months, I applied, got through the Vacation Scheme and had the offer for the Training Contract.
Why do you think is the acceptance rate for candidates receiving a Training Contract so low?
The way we study at law school is not geared towards answering questions like those posed by the case study. The internships that we undertake during law school don’t match up to the exposure required by foreign law firms.
When I was starting out, the resources on how to write my application or what to write in my application were non-existent. That’s what I found most challenging. There were some forums for British students where they would extensively discuss the application process - like what one can do to build their application or profile, how to write answers, how to make oneself more recruitable, etc. All of this guidance is absent in India, which makes it challenging.
Culturally, law schools in India don’t really help you develop the skills that foreign law firms are looking for. There is a general notion that grades are the be-all and end-all, which is not true. Though it is important to showcase that you have academic rigour, you need a strong profile to back up your candidature. Also, students are mostly attracted to doing Tier 1 law firm jobs in India, because moving across the world is not something everyone wants. So that’s probably the reason why many don’t end up applying. Additionally, I think candidates don’t really scrutinize the values of the firm or introspect how they can align themselves with the firm.
What are the keys to landing a Vacation Scheme/Training Contract?
There is a lot of material available for British students and nothing stops us from accessing that. There are forums like The Corporate Law Academy which is a good place to start. Having the knack to write well and getting your point across is important. So if you have seniors, peers or teachers who know you well and can have a look at your answers, that really helps. I also think most candidates don’t market themselves uniquely because everyone is mostly doing the same activities in law school. So one needs to introspect a lot to see what is it that sets you apart from others.
For example, mooting is a celebrated activity in law school, but it is not something I engaged in heavily at all. Not following the set path and figuring out what makes you unique is crucial. So getting different people to bounce their ideas off you can be very important.
There aren't sample case studies online, so I spoke to NUJS alumni working at foreign firms to understand the nature of case studies that could be asked. There are some finance-related case studies online which are probably used for MBA preparation. What was more helpful was building an acumen for things that are commercial in nature. I started reading The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and started getting more familiar with the terms and phrases that are used and what is happening in the market. So, conceptual understanding is more important than speculating what could come in the case study.
Most case studies that A&O gave were based on M&A transactions; what happens in a deal, what aspects one must inspect from the buy and sell side, what are the important labour law, tax considerations, etc. Having a good grip and understanding of how the deal works is most important. Then you can answer anything that is thrown your way.
What else do you think made you stand out from others?
I researched the firm very very well. I read every document that was on the firm’s website and all the deals that the firm had done in the past year, very thoroughly. I also knew the kind of deals they were doing and which practice areas were doing what deals. In the case study, there was a question on what team should be involved in a particular kind of deal. I was able to answer that easily and also relate it back to the firm.
I knew the policies of the firm in terms of their diversity, structures, mental health well being, etc. Having researched about some people at the firm, I had a good understanding of what the firm was looking for and what the firm does to support its people, etc.
Other than that, all extra-curricular activities are important. If one is more interested in sports than moot courts, one can talk about teamwork, discipline and hard work. Everything may not come from moot court competitions; doing activities that one likes and doing them well is important. Good grades showcase that you are disciplined, focused and serious about your degree. I kept my answers very personal to myself and ensured that they were unique to me. That really set me apart from the rest, I believe.
That being said, I was realistic about the odds against me and also applied to HSF and Linklaters. I was called for a telephonic interview for HSF, but didn't make it past that stage. For Linklaters, I was not called for the interview. This goes to show that you can be a good candidate for one firm and not ideal for others. Rejection from any of the firms is not a reflection of how one is or how strong one’s profile is. It is a matter of which firm is a better fit for you.
What are the other requirements for Indian graduates?
The Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE) was something I wasn't aware of. All Indian graduates have to take this to become a Solicitor with a foreign firm. This is a replacement of the QLTS. The SQE has 2 parts - SQE 1 and SQE 2 - which are further divided into written and oral assessments. My batch is going to be the second batch to take these exams. The exams have not taken place so far even for the batch before me. Previously, there was a buffer period of 3-4 months after graduation and before joining the firm. Now, one needs to give these exams before beginning work at the firm. This is a timeline I did not account for during my applications.
SQE1 is to happen in July 2022 and SQE 2 written assessment will happen in October 2022 and the oral assessment is to happen in November 2022, for which I need to fly to the UK. I will start eventually in February 2023, so that is a gap of 8 months after graduating.
The firm provides for a generous grant during this time and also pays for the exams, and will have me enrol in a preparatory course with a service provider. The firm is quite generous to take care of one during the transition period, but more awareness about the route to eventually get to the law firm would have helped.
It is also dependent on the individual firm policy to allow one to start working before having taken the exams, and it is not a regulatory requirement. One can start before as well, but firms prefer you to finish all your exams before you start. The firm also discussed whether I’d want to start the preparatory course during my final year, if I’d prefer being in India or UK during this period, etc. That just shows they care enough about you to decide and negotiate the terms. So we were equal stakeholders in deciding what our future at the firm would look like.
The Training Contract will have four rotational phases of six months each in different practice areas. The last phase can be a secondment, where you opt to work out of any A&O office in the world or you can work with a company in-house to gain different kinds of experience. It is only after these 2 years that one qualifies to become an Associate at the firm.
What advice would you give to future aspirants?
During law school, don’t do things just for CV value or things that you think will make you more marketable. Steer clear of any activity that you feel an obligation to do. The recruiters are extremely well-trained to identify candidates who are really passionate. There is always something for everyone. Just because one does not succeed at debating, does not mean that one won’t succeed at ADR or client counselling competitions. Doing the things that really gives you happiness is more important than blindly following the crowd.