Are Law Firms Playing an Effective Role in the Recruitment Process?

Hong Kong’s recruitment year for penultimate degree year students begins with each September’s Law Fair and, for the larger firms at least, ends with internships the following summer. Offers of training contracts, commencing in two years’ time, are then made on or after 1st August in accordance with the Hong Kong Law Society’s Code of Good Practice.

But, except perhaps for a small minority of law students who meet the exacting academic, language, behavioural and technological skill requirements of the international firms, for most of the rest the process of matching individual skills with recruitment needs is a scramble, which present each student applicant, law firm HR and law faculty careers department with a challenge, to say the least. 

The Law Fair itself, even though now restricted to card-carrying students, is seriously overcrowded and increasingly staffed by junior HR and legal staff, giving out brochures and numerous baubles which attendees take away by the bagful. But the day offers limited scope for finding out what the firms are really like, or what they do, and the vast majority of Hong Kong’s law firms do not attend due to the cost and lack of space. 

Alongside this process there has meanwhile grown up the practice of seeking law firm marketing slots at the law faculties, targeted mainly at the same cohort, although these have to be restricted in number in order to avoid students’ already-crowded calendars becoming congested with the inevitable dilution of attendance.

So, against this background, are law firms playing their part in ensuring that their recruitment methods match up to their needs in an effective manner? 

Effective Matching of Requirements and Needs

Clearly an important part of any recruitment process is ensuring that the firms get applications from the right people, in order to avoid a mismatch between their requirements and the abilities of those whom they intend to recruit. The provision of up-to-date information both on firms’ websites and to the law faculties about their recruitment needs, methodology and timing is therefore very important as well as some indication of selection criteria, such as the academic level expected. Some law firms spell this out, others do not and in some cases the process is, to some degree or another, opaque.

Amongst the requirements of many law firms is evidence of ‘non-academic’ qualities, including professionalism, communication skills, commerciality and languages. Others will also test problem solving, analytical or critical thinking abilities. Some applicants will have a good academic record but perhaps lack sufficient competence in a particular skill such as the spoken or written form of a required language. Knowing these requirements in advance of the application process will therefore avoid wasting time all round.

Students often ask about the firm’s culture and about the practice areas they should consider. Occasionally firms offer work experience outside the recruitment process to enable would-be applicants to sample both. But the majority of the larger firms only offer internships linked to their recruitment programme and since, at most, only two summer internships are usually possible, the ability to use these opportunities for such sampling is limited. At present applicants therefore make their assessment based upon information firms provide on their website or to the law faculties and, for larger firms, what is to be found in law directories along with what they can glean at the Law Fair, from brochures, from networking opportunities and at any events arranged by individual firms. 

It follows that it would assist the matching process during the recruitment round if greater scope were offered of opportunities for students to engage in work experience as well as to participate in less formal law firm activities such as law clinics or other pro bono projects or to attend in-house training sessions. Added to this could be the provision of feedback to law faculties on the performance of their alumni with a view to the provision of suitable student training and ‘matching’ as part of the career service that each law faculty provides. Law firms could also encourage mentoring of law students by alumni of the law faculties at the firm in order to provide feedback on the firm’s practice areas and what it is like to work there.

Improving the Recruitment Process

But, even if steps were taken along these lines to improve the information available to applicants, the key is surely to find a way to avoid the somewhat chaotic annual recruitment-linked internship allocation process whereby (anecdotally at least) it would seem that the larger firms receive hundreds of applications, the vast majority of which are misdirected, whilst many smaller firms get no applications at all and often recruit according to a different timeline, sometimes in the months before the training contract starts. In this regard, according to the most recent Law Society figures Hong Kong has 933 law firms of which 46% are sole practitioners and 42% comprise 2 to 5 partners and so catering for the needs of the larger firms is not even half the story.

The ideal solution would be to create a clearing house through which law firms could register their requirements in terms of both numbers of vacation placements and training contract places, along with their criteria for selection, and applicants could register their own preferred choices, followed by a matching process.

However, this would be a difficult scheme to administer effectively and fairly, particularly given the subjective nature of certain law firm criteria for recruitment. Even a more mechanical matching process, along the lines of a university clearer, such as UCAS in the UK, would require a high-level of buy-in from Hong Kong’s law firms to make it work effectively.

An alternative, therefore, would be an on-line register, organised by firm type or size, in which law firms could set out their needs and requirements and students could make their applications all in one place, attaching such documentation, including CVs or transcripts, as the firms required. This would both save time for the larger firms and would help Hong Kong’s numerous small law firms find a way to advertise their recruitment needs. Such a scheme could be undertaken as a commercial enterprise, or promoted jointly by the law firms or education providers, it would not matter. But technology has now gifted the Hong Kong legal world an opportunity to simplify the law firm recruitment process if only there were a concerted effort to achieve that goal. 


Careers Director, CUHK Law

Paul Mitchard obtained an M.A. in Jurisprudence at Oxford University in 1974. He quali ed as a Solicitor in England (1977), Hong Kong (1984) and the BVI (2006), becoming Queen’s Counsel (2008) and Visiting Professor of Law at the CUPL in Beijing (2012 – 15). He was a solicitor at Slaughter and May (1977 – 1984) joining Simmons & Simmons where he became a Partner in 1985 and Head of Litigation (1994 – 1998). In 1999 he became co-head of the London arbitration practice at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and in 2001 joined Skadden, Arps as Head of European Arbitration, moving to Hong Kong in 2009 as Head of the European and Asia practices until 2014 when he was appointed Careers Director at CUHK Law.