Clifford Chance: Sparking an interest in law

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Clifford Chance’s SPARK work experience programme is causing a buzz on campuses.

As one of the world’s pre-eminent commercial law firms, Clifford Chance has always prided itself on being a pioneer, something that really shows in its unique SPARK programme. Open to first-year students from all degree backgrounds and universities, as well as second-year students on four-year degrees, it offers the opportunity to secure a training contract (the two years of on-the-job training required to qualify as a solicitor) a year before law students traditionally start to apply for them.

‘The programme was a hot topic among my fellow students’, recalls law student Oliver James, who completed the programme in July 2017. ‘There was a buzz around how you could get a training contract. However, I also saw it as a brilliant way to discover what a commercial law career entails.’

London to Amsterdam

Over the course of a week, students experience life at Clifford Chance and its different practice areas (specialisms), taking part in interactive workshops and work-shadowing opportunities. They even visit one of the firm’s international offices. They are paid £350 for the week and there is a bursary to provide financial assistance for those that need it.

Law student Tyra Ntege, who attended SPARK in June 2018, says: ‘I don’t think there are many first-year schemes that take you abroad – let alone offer you so much access to the work of the firm and its people.’ It’s no wonder that the programme won the award for best work experience programme at the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards, which celebrate the best in early careers recruitment, for two years running.

Training contracts without trepidation

Both Oliver and Tyra were offered training contracts upon completing the programme. ‘I was amazed, happy and so relieved’, Tyra says. ‘This was the only firm I wanted to work for.’ Oliver was also pleased: ‘It means that you have to focus less on your career for the rest of your degree. Without job-hunting stress, I had a really nice two years’, he added.

Tyra and Oliver share more about their experiences below.

 Tyra, second-year law student at the University of Kent

I came across Clifford Chance when I took part in a series of careers programmes aimed at BAME students. The head of graduate recruitment spoke on how the firm is passionate about increasing diversity and making sure that opportunities are accessible to all. She admitted that they weren’t yet where they wanted to be, but I saw there was a genuine willingness to change.

Law for one and law for all

The recruitment process was rigorous – they set the bar high because of the possibility of gaining a training contract – but the recruiters were interested in me as a person. Sometimes, I think students don’t realise that they can apply to a top-tier law firm. Since completing the programme, I’ve met some people who told me they counted themselves out of applying because of their socio-economic or ethnic background. I’d encourage you not to do yourself out of
an opportunity; I’ve found my place at Clifford Chance.

Being talked into tax

I got a lot out of the practice area talks, where a partner or senior associate explained their group and had the department join us for a networking and a case study session. Before that week, I thought I’d avoid tax with my life, but now I’m considering doing a seat (rotation) in it during my training contract!

The world of law

Clifford Chance have always prided themselves on having a ‘one firm’ approach and how, wherever you go, you encounter the same culture. Before going to the Amsterdam office, I questioned this but I saw that they practise what they preach. I recognised it was possible for me to work as easily from an international office as I could in London.

An activity during our Amsterdam trip has stayed with me. We had a skills session with a partner about moving out of your comfort zone. He explained how, at first, he wasn’t comfortable giving presentations and that he used to shake, which surprised me because he came across so well. This has now inspired me to seek out opportunities to stretch myself.

Investing in my future

The people at Clifford Chance made my experience. The graduate recruitment team were outstanding – I’ve not had that level of engagement with any other employer. Everyone at the firm seemed invested in us, even before we had been offered training contracts. The trainees I met were actively helpful and offered practical tips.

My intake posed loads of questions; for example, a lawyer in one of our talks was pregnant and the girls in our group asked her about what working in the City is like when you are pregnant and whether she felt supported – I didn’t feel that she held back in her answers. I think the firm was keen for us to get all the answers we need because it was valuable for us to make the right career decisions.

 Oliver, final-year law student at UCL

The best thing about Clifford Chance is its people. I remember speaking to a partner at a careers event before I applied and asking him a million and one questions; he answered all of them. On the programme itself, I even had a casual conversation with the managing partner. Realistically, he shouldn’t have had time for me, but he found time and was genuinely interested. The firm is very collaborative and it’s not a dog-eat-dog environment.

Concentrating on clients

The culture of the firm shone through during the work-shadowing. We’d been asked which team we would like to experience prior to the week and I sat in real estate with a senior associate who let me listen in on a client call. He was super busy but made time to give me a detailed brief and I got so much more out of the call because of it.

Cutting-edge pro bono

Many aspects of the scheme were really useful – I didn’t know much about the business side of a firm until that week – but one aspect that stood out was their pro bono work. I attended an amazing talk by the head of Arcus, Clifford Chance’s LGBTQ+ network, about how the firm was working on a challenge to the UK government’s refusal to issue non-gendered passports. I’m now researching the topic for my dissertation. I thought it was so cool that this was something a commercial law firm was doing for free, and the prominence of Arcus showed me that this was a company where I could be my true self.

Probably around half of my cohort studied law and half came from a huge range of other degree disciplines. That variety is reflected throughout the firm – I met lawyers who’d studied biology, medicine and maths. Some on the programme have become my closest friends: even though they are now in Paris, York and Warwick, we talk daily. It’s lovely knowing I’ll be going into a job having already made friends.

Bouncing to Britney

The socials were exhaustingly fun! We did things you don’t usually get to do as a student: from immersive theatre to a night at Bounce, known for ping pong. The firm wasn’t doing it to be flashy, but to enable us to get a sense of what things are like in a more relaxed environment.

I’ve since been invited back for further socials. Probably the highlight was when I went along to see Britney Spears in the firm’s box at the O2 – dancing along to Britney, all thanks to Clifford Chance!

Click here for further information about Clifford Chance.

*This article first appeared in the UK 300 2019/2020.