In conversation with Aastha Malhotra on receiving Training Contract at Allen & Overy

Aastha Malhotra is a final year BA LLB (Hons.) student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (WBNUJS), where she studies on the Aditya Birla Scholarship. She is an incoming Trainee Solicitor with London-based Magic Circle law firm, Allen & Overy, with a keen interest in the intersection of the law with commercial issues, intellectual property matters, and gender and sexuality. In pursuance of her interests, she has previously interned with L&L Partners, AZB & Partners, Khaitan & Co., Justice A.K. Sikri, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, and Advocates in the High Courts of Bombay, Delhi, and Punjab and Haryana. In her spare time, she enjoys playing tennis, watercolour painting, and travelling.

She has been interviewed by Tushmi Udyalak, EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing law from NUJS.

 

  1. Congratulations on your training contract at Allen & Overy. It has been an incredible journey since law school. How did you feel after securing the contract?

I feel very excited to start this new chapter in my life. There is a lot of relief involved, as well. Since the entire application process was made virtual, it was tougher than usual to navigate, but I am glad I was successful in my application and became one of the only 2 Indians to receive an offer from the firm. I am also very grateful to have the opportunity to apply for a role as prestigious as this.

  1. What are the things one should keep in mind before applying for the vacation scheme? Could you throw light on the constraints, and interests that should be considered before applying?

I think the most crucial thing is to know that you want a career in commercial law, and you want to be based abroad. Shifting base is perhaps the biggest constraint, in my opinion. There are a lot of lifestyle changes that come with moving halfway across the world, but as long as the possibility of these changes makes you more excited than nervous – I would say that is a good sign. It is also important to remember that applying for a training contract is at minimum a 2-year commitment, so you must be quite confident that this is the path you want to follow for the immediate future, at least.

 

As far as interests go, I found that personally for me, a liking towards commercial law and some commercial acumen to accompany my interest was most helpful. If you have a passion in the field and the drive to undertake activities that are interesting to you but also demonstrate your passion, the process of applying becomes a lot more simplified – the sky is the limit, really.

  1. What is the procedure of applying for the vacation scheme? Would you recommend any areas of law that are more lucrative in the international domain, over the others?

Most firms have a fairly rigorous process of applying to be recruited as a Trainee Solicitor.

The first stage is the filling of an application form, which comprises personal details and your academic record.  There are some subjective questions to gain an insight into who you are and what you offer to the firm. There is also some psychometric testing involved at this stage, and the format of this can vary from firm to firm, but usually it is to understand your personality in more detail. I filled out the applications in the summer of 2020, which was the beginning of my penultimate (4th) year at NUJS.

 

Shortlisted candidates are then invited to sit for the assessment centre, which comprises two parts. The first part is a technical interview with a partner at the firm. This involves a case study where you are required to apply your commercial/business acumen and analytical abilities in order to provide creative solutions for the problems at hand. The second part is an HR based interview, where a professional from the graduate recruitment team interviews you about your working style, strengths and weaknesses, expectations from the role, and what you bring to the table. I sat for the assessment centre in October 2020, and heard from the firm shortly after.

 

A successful candidate is then invited to be a part of the firm’s vacation scheme. Allen & Overy offers two choices for these schemes – one in the winter of the same year, and the other in the summer of the following year. I chose to do mine in the summer of 2021. This is a form of an internship where you get to know the firm and its culture very closely. Firms like A&O then assess your performance on the scheme, and if found satisfactory, offer you a training contract, which commences upon graduation. Some firms also have exit interviews at the end of vacation schemes. I completed my vacation scheme in July 2021, and was offered a trainee position soon after. Official paperwork is signed in the weeks that follow.

 

I would say that firms that offer legal services in the commercial sector are the most prominent recruiters for Indian students. These students are recruited as commercial solicitors. The range of services offered by these firms, however, is expanding everyday. More non-traditional fields such as tech law are also gaining momentum, so recruitment in these sectors is likely to go up. A&O now also has a dedicated consulting branch, alongside a team dedicated to advanced delivery systems for those looking for careers that are connected to the legal services industry, but allow for exploration beyond its traditional confines. Public and private international laws are also interesting fields of study for careers abroad. Anything that is not jurisdiction-specific is always helpful as it allows transferability of one’s skills.

 

It is also possible to be engaged as a barrister in the UK, but the route to qualify as one is quite different from the one I have adopted to become a commercial solicitor.

  1. What was your interview like? What are the types of questions asked and what, in your opinion, are the standard replies?

I found my interviews to be quite challenging and interesting at the same time. The interviewers always make an effort to make you feel comfortable, and it is important to remember that they are rooting for and not against you.

 

My technical interview was taken by Pallavi Gopinath Aney, who is a partner at A&O’s international capital markets practice and is also the Joint Chair of the firm’s India Group. For the interview, I was given a case study on an mergers and acquisitions (M&A) transaction in the fashion/retail sector. I was required to understand the proposition from both legal and business perspectives, much like lawyers at the firm. There were some specific questions about the legal hurdles that came with the acquisition, along with a requirement to chart out a business strategy going forward. This was then followed by a question-answer session with the interviewer. I also had time to informally chat with her and gain an insight into how her work at the firm had changed because of the pandemic, and the ways in which lawyers had adapted to the ever-evolving circumstances.

 

My HR interview was taken by Hannah Rolph, the Head of Graduate Recruitment at the firm. A&O does HR interviews in a unique way, where they adopt a forward-thinking approach. The questions are not based on past accomplishments, but instead on what the candidate would do in the future, when faced with a variety of different circumstances. This allows the interviewer to level the playing field for candidates and truly assess potential, as opposed to past achievements. The questions are scenario based, and one is expected to respond to these questions with honesty about how one would approach these situations. Even with Hannah, I was able to chat about the adjustments of remote working, and I found her to be extremely friendly.

 

I would say that there is no “ideal” way to answer these questions, and recruiters are very well trained so they can catch your bluff if you try to answer in a dishonest fashion. The best tip is to be yourself and if you are truly a good fit for the firm (and their values), nothing will stop you from being successful.

  1. Having been an active student at NUJS, how do you think that acted as an advantageous point for you as against brilliant minds from across the globe? What would you say worked best in your interest?

I found that there was a lot of support from alumni and teachers at NUJS. All former students who are now pursuing careers abroad were more than happy to have a chat and guide me through the process. Mr Shouvik Guha, who is an Assistant Professor at NUJS and taught me corporate law, was also incredibly helpful.

 

Additionally, there are ample opportunities at NUJS to find activities that pique your interest, whether it is debating, ADR competitions, mooting, academic writing, research, or even sports. Very quickly into law school, I found the activities that I enjoyed doing, and pursued them with great fervour. I participated in international debates, ADR competitions, moots, was an editor for the NUJS Law Review, undertook research assistant positions, sporting tournaments, and was actively involved with societies on campus. NUJS provides you with an environment that is conducive to be as busy as one wants to be, and I found that this was crucial in me being able to participate in extracurricular activities without compromising on my academics.

 

The NUJS Recruitment and Placement Committee is also helpful in streamlining the process for applying for corporate law internships with Indian firms, which add a great deal of value to one’s application.

  1. Your college has online database of SCC which provides for resources to research better. What according to you has been the importance of smart and precise legal research?

The database provided by SCC Online has been of utmost importance throughout law school – it has helped me in carrying out legal research for academic coursework and internships. Additionally, it has been a great tool and aid for extracurricular activities such as mooting, ADR competitions, and research papers, as well. Tools like SCC-EBC allow one to really streamline one’s method of research, which can be time saving while allowing for comprehensive research.

 

Smart and precise legal research is perhaps the most important prerequisite for a career in law, especially commercial law, which is so heavily based on regulatory and statutory frameworks. It encourages candidates to develop their attention to detail, analytical abilities, and be quick on their feet. If there is one skill that is essential to lawyering – it has to be carrying out legal research in a judicious manner.

  1. What inspired you to apply at Allen & Overy? Who would you recommend it to?

It was a combination of factors for me. I always knew that I would benefit greatly – both personally and professionally – from working abroad in a firm that could provide me with global exposure. Through work experience and internships, I also very heavily gravitated to a career in commercial law as a transactional lawyer. I enjoyed a fast-paced environment that allowed me to work on cutting-edge deals and transactions.

A&O specifically seemed like a great fit for me because I echoed their values. When I was researching firms, I found a lot of helpful information on the kind of candidates they liked on their websites. Like A&O specifically, I also deeply value curiosity and ambition, so it felt like a natural fit. I found that the firm allowed for their lawyers to combine their analytical abilities and creative bent of mind to produce the highest quality of work. Through my vacation scheme and conversing with lawyers at the firm subsequently, I was even more convinced that it was the right choice for me. Everyone at the firm seemed welcoming, warm, and helpful, while also recognising the importance of giving young lawyers professional responsibility. The firm also provides exceptional training during the 2-year training contract period in order to prepare you for everything that follows, which is an added bonus.

Further, A&O provides a lot of benefits to employees in terms of gender and racial support networks, and mental health assistance, both of which are very important to me.

I would recommend A&O to anyone who feels like the firm would be a good cultural fit for them. If you enjoy commercial law and feel like the firm recognises your potential and can offer you an opportunity to grow, you have found the one.

  1. What are your plans at Allen & Overy? Do you plan on leaving behind the option of higher studies?

Upon graduation in April 2022, I will spend time till February 2023 writing the two stages of the solicitors qualifying examination. This is a necessary prerequisite for me to convert my Indian qualifications to ones that are recognised in the UK, and eventually be dual qualified. For 2 years starting February 2023, I will then sit in 4 seats (practice areas) with the firm for 6 months each. The final seat could also be a secondment with an A&O office outside of the UK, or an in-house role with a business. Then, upon the completion of my training, I will qualify into one practice area and begin my legal career at the associate level.

I do not wish to pursue higher studies at the moment, and am instead eager to jump into work. I feel like once I have some work experience under my belt, I will have a more concrete idea of what exactly I would want to do an LLM or a different postgraduate degree. I would want to take a calculated decision for my higher education instead of doing a degree for the sake of it.

 

  1. What advice would you want to give for students dreaming like you, to work at an international reputed firm, such as Allen & Overy, in the coming years?

My biggest piece of advice would be to not get stuck in the web of doing things for “CV value” or because you think they might look impressive to recruiters. Instead, do things that you are passionate about and truly enjoy, because that will really shine through in your application and interviews. It is important to be authentic to yourself and focus on skill-building instead of chasing achievement. Achievement is just a byproduct of putting your heart and soul into the activities that you enjoy doing. It is also important to not lose sight of your larger goals with minor setbacks. The big picture is always more important than the challenges right in front of you.

Lastly, network as much as you can, and build real relationships with people in the area of law you are interested in. Spend dedicated time to research your career options, routes to get there, do not be afraid to ask for help, and have undying faith in your abilities.

  1. Do you have a source of inspiration you would like to share with us?

My family and friends inspire me to do better and be better everyday. It truly takes a village to support one in applying to a Magic Circle firm, as the process can be quite arduous and time consuming at times. I am so grateful to everyone in my life for all the guidance and help that they have offered me. Additionally, I also found a lot of motivation in building a life I am passionate about and proud of. An amalgamation of these factors drove me to giving it my best shot and eventually emerging successful.

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