Legal Talent in the South West - How to Stay Ahead of the Curve

We have had some significant success helping partners move from the The City to the South and South West. The demand for City talent in the South West market continues to grow. The pool of lawyers, at all levels, active in looking to relocate is getting larger, yet demand continues to exceed supply.

As the quality of work and complexity of client engagement continues to evolve, the need for the best lawyers is going to increase further.

Our white paper looks at the rationale behind a relocation, with a focus on the South West, and aims to provide an insight into how you can engage, attract and win talent looking (or not looking) to move from the City.

A cross-section of lawyers with personal experience transitioning from City to South West, were interviewed. An open discussion was conducted around their own moves, as well as the wider market picture and a view on the commercial landscape in the South West.

The report revealed 5 key factors that should be at the forefront of the mind of any conversation involving talent for firms in the South West looking ahead. These are:

-     Promote a commercial rationale

-     Foster early engagement

-     Strong brand message

-     Differentiate through clarity, openness and understanding at interview

-     A value approach to compensation

The overarching ambition should be to create a sustainable, long-term talent pool, that can start to sculpt strategy conversations and move recruitment away from reactive processes.

Firms should be aiming to increase the flow volume of City talent to the South West by shifting the rationale from personal/lifestyle, to commercial. By doing this, you can start to tap into the wider movement of lawyers for career reasons, rather than waiting for the right relocator with the right personal circumstances.

Piper Pritchard, the legal recruitment specialist, is proud to announce its partnership with Route1, the award-winning digital marketplace for legal jobs in the UK.

Piper Pritchard, the legal recruitment specialist, is proud to announce its partnership with Route1, the award-winning digital marketplace for legal jobs in the UK.

Route1’s innovative technology has enabled it to build the fastest growing platform in legal recruitment in the past 18 months, with over 8,500 users taking advantage of its mobile app and web based interface, successfully establishing itself as a leading technology business delivering bespoke recruitment solutions to the legal industry.

Using its GDPR compliant database solutions, social media techniques for candidate acquisition, self-reinforcing algorithms and data analytic solutions, Route1’s proprietary technology intelligently matches jobs with candidates.

The platform enables Piper Pritchard candidates to choose how they interact with legal and other relevant content provided to them, as well as highlighting targeted roles suited to their own selected criteria. Deploying its anonymised user data, the platform also gives employers access to up-to-the-minute information on user habits, making hiring processes much more targeted, effective and efficient.

Piper Pritchard – the Helix Management Services Group’s long-established legal recruitment and resource consultancy – has licensed Route1’s technology as the next step in modern recruitment techniques.

Group CEO Jamie McEwen said: “I am excited to announce Piper Pritchard’s expansion into the digital recruitment marketplace. We believe that Route1’s proprietary technology and know-how, partnered with our seasoned recruitment professionals and strong HR relationships, will significantly improve the speed of hiring for our clients.” 

Piper Pritchard is delighted to announce that Harry Phelan has joined us as an Associate Director of PP Associates.

Piper Pritchard is delighted to announce that Harry Phelan has joined us as an Associate Director of PP Associates.

Harry worked at a major financial institution before moving into legal recruitment at a small but specialised agency. He focused on US law firms, before moving to Piper Pritchard in 2017 where he now works with a broad range of clients.

Harry comes highly recommended by our clients and focuses mainly on London and Brussels, although has also worked for UK national offices and the Middle East.

The Prestige Trap

I was a lawyer for a long time, and now that I look back on my time in practice I think - gosh, that was a round hole and I am a square peg. The things that appealed most to me about practicing law - working closely with clients, making a tangible difference in their lives, and making clear, persuasive arguments on their behalf - were only a tiny proportion of the job. So why did I stay in practice for 9 years? The short answer is inertia. The force behind you - keep doing this thing, you've pushed so hard to get where you are, where you are is objectively good and respectable - is a powerful beast.

I think the same people who are drawn to the law (type A achievers) are very susceptible to just keep going through any measure of pain, singularly focused on a goal. I'm here to tell you to stop.

As lawyers we're quite status-conscious. Our firms are our brand names. I talk to lawyers all the time who are reasonably happy at work but want a "prestige bump" at their next role. I get that; I had the same goal. In some ways it feels hard-wired.

So it can come as a real shock when we get where we want to go - whether it's to a Magic Circle firm or a US firm on a New York pay-scale, and we find we hate it. I met someone recently whose professional life-goal was to get to one firm in particular. He got there. Spoiler alert: he's miserable. He got his "prestige bump" and found that it comes with a toxic team and a tyrannical practice head. He may have been so blinded by the name brand of the firm that he didn't ask the right questions at interview or ignored his gut instincts.

As lawyers we're programmed to want to be in the best possible firm. It's a badge of honor. But what we're missing in that analysis is something very important: ourselves. I jumped between two of the most prestigious firms in San Francisco for my practice area, and was no more or less happy at either one. I was good at my job but my job wasn't good for me. No higher status firm was going to change that. In fact, if anything, I would have been happier in a totally different environment (my move to recruitment has confirmed this). It's about fit, not status. Sometimes they coincide - I've worked with associates who are happier at their more prestigious firms. But prestige is not a guarantee of professional satisfaction.

My memo to you is this: don't just keep going on the same track, from a regional firm to a City firm to a Silver Circle firm, if it isn't working for you. Consider a radical move, and don't count out the little guy. Some of my happiest candidates are at much smaller firms than they were when I met them.

A candidate moved between two tier one practices, though she couldn't be having a more different experience at her new firm which is only in London and not an multi-national powerhouse like her old firm. You don't necessarily have to sacrifice quality of work to make a move like this. You may, however, have to let go of having that fancy firm name embossed on your business card. It's up to you to either let that go, or not. But I would urge you to think carefully about not just what you're doing, but why you're doing it. If it's inertia pushing you from one career decision to another, take a breath. Try to think about what makes you happy at work, and how to find it. Don't blindly keep going.


The Grass IS Greener on the Other Side!

The Grass IS Greener on the Other Side! - How Changing Practice Areas Can Revive Your Career – by Kathleen Harris

There are many reasons why a lawyer might want to change practice areas. Junior lawyers may not have been able to qualify into their first-choice practice, more experienced lawyers might have developed an interest in another area of law or simply had enough of his or her practice area!

As a recruiter, I have experience helping lawyers make a variety of switches from more straightforward moves such as real estate litigation to general commercial litigation, to well out-of–the-box moves such as capital markets to private client. Moves are easiest to make when you are willing to fully commit and prepare for them. When planning a move the following things should be kept in mind:

(1) Be Willing to Compromise

The first thing to remember is that if you are looking at a move to a very different practice area, you will have had very little, (or even zero) experience relevant to the new practice That means that most people who make a move will start roles where they will be considered a much lower PQE level. Even 5 PQE lawyers may have to start as NQs or 1PQE associates. This means there will likely be a (large) drop in pay for most people moving practice areas. Additionally, if you are making a move to a most specialist area, e.g. project finance to media finance, it is likely you will be looking at specialist or boutique firms which pay less than bigger city firms, but are often more accommodating to individuals from non-conventional backgrounds (especially if they have excellent training, regardless of practice area).

(2) Showcase Your Skills

Secondly, you must be able to make a convincing case for your move. Partners want to know that they are getting someone who is genuinely committed to learning about the new practice area and staying in it! There are easier cases to make, such as a move from investment funds to corporate private equity, or from Commercial to Sports, but other moves will require more of an explanation. It is crucial that you have a strong cover letter to submit to firms along with your CV – this should explain both why you want to make that move, and how you can use your current skills to contribute to the new practice area. This will require you to:

(3) Do Your Research

Before you rewrite your CV/Cover Letter, you must first make sure you have as much relevant material for it as possible. There are many ways to demonstrate your willingness to learn and interest in the new practice area. Here are just a few options:

  • Attend seminars, lectures, conferences, or other events relevant to the practice area
  • Complete pro bono work in the new practice area or sector
  • Involve yourself in relevant organisations or societies

All this will help massively to prove your commitment to the move. Next, you must do your research into the practice area. You must be able to pinpoint to any interviewers exactly what it is that attracts you to that practice area (as opposed to your current area of work). Find any overlap between your current practice area and the new one, for example from insurance litigation to employment litigation – Directors & Officers’ Liability litigation is very relevant to both. Once you have identified the overlapping areas between your practice and the new one, make sure your CV has plenty of examples of this work. This isn’t a time to be wishy-washy – only seriously consider changing practice areas if you’re committed to the new practice and ready to do all of the work involved in switching over.

(4) Demand & Supply

Some practice/sector areas are easier to make a move into than others, usually down to supply and demand. Commercial litigation is the best example of an oversubscribed practice area, but corporate and TMT are also very popular. You should keep this in mind when deciding on a move, a good recruiter should be able to give you an overview of demand for certain practice areas in the market at a given time. Timing will affect demand for your skills. As you are likely to have to go into your new practice area as a junior lawyer or NQ, you should try to move before new trainees qualify in March and September. The best times to look at a move are therefore December/January, and June/July. This is when firms will be looking at junior lawyers but will be before trainees start looking actively for roles.

(5) Speculative Applications

Of the two practice-changers we’ve helped in the past few months, both were granted interviews (and eventually offered jobs) based on speculative applications. If you’re a practice changer, and there is a listed job vacancy for a 2-4 PQE, you’re unlikely to be considered favourably against other candidates who actually have been in this practice for that long. Your best bet is going to be working closely with a recruiter to make a few targeted speculative applications. One exception is NQ roles, however for these you’ll still be in direct competition with the best and brightest 4th seat trainees. Speculative applications are, generally speaking, the way to go!

All of this is a lot of work for an individual, especially one who already has a full-time job! A good recruiter will be able to help you with your research and will be able to tell you what to put in your CV and cover letter to make sure you are representing yourself in the best light. He or she will also be able to fully research appropriate firms and roles, and should give you plenty of information on them. The best recruiters are those who will help you make the most complex of moves with ease.

The Power of Time Within the Recruitment Process

The Power of Time Within the Recruitment Process by Steve D Salem

There are many key considerations for candidates and indeed clients to bear in mind when it comes to the recruitment process. For instance, on the candidate side, whether the role is suitable for their experience, salary, work/life balance, cultural environment, and future career progression. On the client side, considerations include whether the candidate might be a good cultural fit, provide the firm with the expertise and experience they are looking for, and whether that candidate might be a good long term prospect (particularly where partnership might be a factor).

However, when these criteria match, the proverbial stars align and both the firm in question and the candidate are keen to move things forwards, another important aspect in the process is time. This is to say that once the recruitment process is ongoing and in order to maintain momentum (on both the candidate and the client side), both must keep things ticking along promptly to avoid it breaking down. This is easier said than done.  Candidates can be busy and can delay responding for a few days, and clients can also keep things in limbo by seeing the process through with other candidates, waiting for larger group approval, or even through vacation absence (when key decision makers are away).

The effect of a delay in the process can be drastic; candidates that have expected to join up with a firm can pursue or secure other opportunities elsewhere, become disinterested or even pull out of the whole recruitment process altogether. Firms faced with a slow responding candidate/recruitment consultant can also become disinterested, secure a candidate elsewhere that enters the process or a set of circumstances could come up in the interim that mean the firm is not hiring altogether.

There are however a few things that both candidates and clients can do to smooth over the process and keep things rolling along.

For Candidates

Assuming that the candidate has applied via the help of a recruitment agency, it helps to keep your recruiter in the loop, particularly if there is an active position within the market that you have been approached about that looks of interest. Giving the green light to go forward in a timely manner can save the role going to someone else (who might not even be as well suited).

Whilst in the interview process, passing across prompt positive feedback (both on the part of the candidate and then the recruiter) to the client can also be very important. A client that initially had a positive impression of a candidate can grow disinterested should that not be reciprocated, and delayed or non-existent feedback sometimes has a tendency to stall a process altogether.

For Clients

Similarly, for clients, if interested in progressing with a candidate, passing across detailed instructions on the future recruitment process, and next steps can be very helpful. Providing the candidate with a roadmap and an end goal, provides certainty and an understanding of where the process is heading, rather than a series of assessment hoops to jump through that don’t seem to have an end.

If there is a delay in the process (i.e. if key decision makers are away or cannot make a decision promptly), passing across a positive message to the candidate can go a long way. It will maintain any accrued goodwill with the candidate gained during the interview process and keep the candidate focused on that particular opportunity, reducing the risk of them heading for a competitor.

For example, if a candidate is currently considering options in the market, there is a high probability that they will be interviewing with more than one firm (particularly the good ones).  In an incident that I saw with a candidate of mine, she began the process with Client A much earlier than with Client B, but it was Client A’s failure to act quickly that resulted in her joining Client B. She really liked Client A, but their inability to communicate next steps resulted in the candidate taking the offer she had in hand. Client A may have been able to avoid this by providing at the very least a timescale upon which a decision was due to be made.   

Furthermore, for candidates seeking a move, and particularly those who mentally have one foot out of the door, a day can seem like a week, and so providing an update for future action and a defined timeline can go a long way in giving candidates certainty as to when feedback might be received (if there might be a delay).


In sum, and besides the other key criteria in assessing an opportunity or a candidate, time is another key factor and is one that perhaps is overlooked a little too often during the process. To avoid the risk of missing out on an opportunity, candidates should follow up with, and update their recruiters promptly. Similarly, clients should keep candidates they are interested in proceeding with in the loop, to fend off any risk of them seeking other opportunities elsewhere. 

What Biglaw Can Learn from California Tech

I was born and raised in San Francisco and lived there for most of my adult life before moving to Singapore and then to London, so it's safe to say I'm partial to a very California way of thinking. You might say I left my heart in San Francisco (and you'd be right). I can rattle off the names of friends who work in tech in San Francisco and the Bay Area generally - at Apple, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Lyft, Facebook, Square, Uber, Etsy, Box. It's the lifeblood of the economy in my home-city, and while it has its own issues (for example this, and this) I believe there are some lessons that Biglaw could stand to learn from more agile, less entrenched, more meritocratic organisations.

Look past someone's degree. We all know Mark Zuckerberg didn't graduate uni - that's part of his lore. It didn't stop him from founding Facebook which is, to put it casually, a valuable and thriving company. What is less well-know is the fact that it's quite possible to get one of many well-paying, highly-respected roles in tech without a university degree. There are contributors at tech companies big and small who either didn't go to uni, or went to universities that are decidedly not fancy. Consider Jack Dorsey. Jack was one of the co-founder of Twitter and is their current CEO. Jack initially attended Missouri University of Science and Technology (a far cry from the Ivy League) and later dropped out of NYU without a degree. Obviously as lawyers we have specific degrees that are required for practice, but Biglaw would be well-advised to look past Oxbridge and The Russell Group to find talented associates. Some of the associates who have impressed me most in the London market did not attend ritzy universities, but instead have had to fight their way to the top. Law firms would be very different places if they were pure meritocracies.

Hire outside the box. I've recently helped two associates move practice areas (capital markets --> private client and project finance --> film and TV). I respect the firms that have taken these chances on my candidates, because in doing so they are recognizing the various applications of talent. A good lawyer is a good lawyer, and a new sector can be learned. Tech does this beautifully. A tech founder could, as in the case of Jack Dorsey, found Twitter and then move into the mobile payment space. Seeing the portability of associates' skills could pay massive dividends for firms. Talent is talent. Hire it when you see it.

The skills that were valued a generation ago may not be what's required in 2017. If you're over 35, how many of your classmates were passionate about their computer science degree? Not many. But in 2017, it's one of the hottest degrees going at American universities. The law is not static, and while the fundamentals remain the same (research, writing, client interactions, advocacy, technical know-how) it is increasingly important that associates have a strong commercial sense and comfort with emerging technologies. While some practice areas remain quite traditional, firms should focus on fostering future-forward associates who are ready for what the law is becoming. One of my clients is at the forefront of the tech revolution - Sheridans accepts bitcoin and has since 2014. Talk about being ahead of the curve.

Agile working breeds creative solutions. It's fairly standard in the tech world for a mass of programmers to cruise into the office in hoodies and remain that way all day. Working from home is not just an option but encouraged and a very normal part of the culture. Does this lead to slacking and disappointing results? On the contrary, the metrics show that workers in San Francisco are clocking more hours than any other US city. While some firms in London have introduced some agile working opportunities, it's still quite frowned upon at many firms when associates actually take them up on it. My advice to firms is to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Let your associates work in the way that's best for them, and watch as their productivity increases.

Law firms are sturdy, long-established structures, and change is hard. But I think there are some lessons to be learned from how tech companies in my (thriving) hometown hire and support their staff. Onwards and upwards!

The Key to Developing a Strong International Profile: 5 Reasons You Should Work Abroad as a Lawyer

The Key to Developing a Strong International Profile: 5 Reasons You Should Work Abroad as a Lawyer - By Steve D Salem

Looking back on a year riddled with uncertainty both economically and politically, we are at a significant crossroad. The United States has handed over the reins to a new President with as many controversies surrounding him as new radical shifts in policy. Closer to home, Prime Minister Theresa May has set out her plan for a clean break from the European Single Market, providing some clarity to a strategy that has been shrouded in secrecy ever since the referendum vote in June 2016.

With significant upcoming European elections in 2017, notably in Germany and France, it remains to be seen whether the anti-globalisation sentiment prevalent in the two big electoral decisions in the US and UK will subsist.

In any case, whilst Teresa May might very well negotiate a strong deal to leave the EU, there will be a period of uncertainty following the triggering of Article 50 likely to involve power struggles, negotiations and compromise – pushing the pound on its continuing roller coaster ride, and reinforcing the hesitancy that business leaders have shown over the last 6-8 months.

As such, and in addition to furthering your profile as an international lawyer, it is a very appealing time to move abroad, not only to develop international legal experience and cultural awareness but to gain a new understanding of life in another country outside of your comfort zone.

I will, in this article set out 5 key reasons why any lawyer should gain experience working abroad.

1) Learning a New Business Culture

Understanding and appreciating a new business culture is the cornerstone of developing good business relationships and can avoid any potentially embarrassing faux pas.

To give a quick example, new business deals in the west are traditionally concluded within the relative formality of the boardroom, with contracts and deals executed via pen and paper. The underlying understanding being that the provisions agreed upon within the contract are binding and accurately reflect the parties’ intentions.

Western businessmen concluding business deals with their Asian counterparts may be very surprised to discover that contracts drawn and finalised are breached with minimal regard for the provisions within. In short, new business deals in these jurisdictions are typically agreed in the more social setting of a restaurant, bar or even at karaoke. This is traditionally the setting for business relationships and more importantly, trust between business partners to be forged and strengthened.

In relocating and working abroad, one can gain a distinct appreciation and perspective on differences in business culture first hand – vital for the lawyer already engaged with internationally-based clients. 

2) Putting Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone

The next key advantage of working and living abroad is that you put yourself out of your comfort zone. Waking up at the same time, taking the same route to work, speaking to the same colleagues, and going to the same gym – we all have our standard routines that we follow, but these can become a little repetitive and provide a little too much complacency and comfort.

Immersing oneself in a foreign, new and sometimes challenging environment can fine-tune our problem-solving skills and open up new personal insights that were once unknown.

Speaking from personal experience having relocated to Shanghai myself, I can attest to the value of taking yourself out of your comfort zone. You will gain a distinct sense of achievement in meeting and surpassing the new challenges that living in a different country will bring. For me, it was getting to grips with the complexities of learning and speaking Mandarin, which was a real necessity on the streets of Shanghai!

3) Speaking a New Language

‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.’

Nelson Mandela

This brings me nicely onto the third reason that any lawyer should move abroad. Moving to a new jurisdiction where the first language is not English provides a gilded opportunity to learn a new language, and furthers one’s own understanding of that particular culture.

To give a quick example, a customary response to a compliment given in China might be to say ‘nàli, nàli (那里那里, “no, no”) or bù huì ba (不会吧 “that’s not true”). This reinforces the values of humility and modesty prevalent in Chinese culture. In fact, accepting a compliment may also be seen as rude or arrogant.

So as I found at the law firm I was working for in Shanghai, this social difference was particularly relevant to know when receiving a compliment from a superior. The natural tendency would be to accept this with a simple ‘thankyou’ but this could have easily alienated him, and in some cases caused offense. Understanding that the best way to respond was to either reject or downplay the compliment altogether was a very useful tool in developing relationships with my Chinese counterparts.  

4) Appreciating a Different Way of Life

In addition to appreciating a new business culture, gaining an understanding of another jurisdiction’s more generalised culture can be eye-opening, and provide us with a strong sense of perspective. In particular, it may instil in us a different way of looking at things and a renewed sense of appreciation for the things we take for granted.

For instance, on the ground in Shanghai, I noticed quite profoundly the extent of the investment into the city and it isn't hard to notice the glitzy skyscrapers, malls and cars over in the districts of Lujiazui and Xintiandi, but this does well to hide the underlying struggle amongst the lower/middle classes. With property and rent prices soaring, gaining a place on the property ladder is incredibly hard, and many young locals need to rely on the savings of their parents just to own a place. The rising cost of living also does not help, with some restaurant prices matching London standards.

5) Developing a New Network and Establishing a USP

Finally, gaining the chance to make a new international network, and create a bridge across borders can be so vital to establishing connections that will be with us for years to come. As the typical lifespan of the expat can be as short as 5 years, those business contacts, friends and acquaintances you might have made working abroad can suddenly span over a much more diverse territory – which in turn, can exponentially enhance your own global reach.

Steve Salem is a Consultant at Helix Associates, and having worked in Shanghai for several years at one of the leading law firms in China, he has amassed an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the legal market helping to guide candidates to their ideal positions in Asia. Steve also assists with recruitment in the Middle East, Australia, Continental Europe and the US.

For an initial discussion about international relocation options please contact Steve on 0207 421 4572 or via

Keeping Your CV Updated

By Kathleen Harris

As a recruiter I review and offer advice on candidate’s CVs on a regular basis. I am also the main person in my family and group of friends who is called upon to help with a CV when someone is applying for jobs, training schemes, or even university courses.

I always ask candidates to send me a copy of their most up to date CV, this is often met with slight panic from lawyers who haven’t updated their CV since they applied for their training contract. It can certainly seem like a waste of time to keep editing a CV when you have a great job and can see yourself at your current firm for your whole career. However, your working situation can change quite rapidly, whether because of a change in family or financial circumstances, or because of a wider problem your firm is facing. At this point it becomes essential for you to have a CV you are confident with ready as soon as possible. Now CVs are largely quite quick to write, some of the best CVs I have seen are just two pages long. When considering a move it is not the time it takes to update a CV that is the problem, the issue is forgetting to include something which could be the deciding factor in whether you receive the perfect job offer.

Quite often firms will be looking for quite specific experience depending on the type of clients they serve (and their location) and the firm’s areas of focus. A recent example I have found is of a firm looking for an insurance litigator. The role was posted on the firm’s website without further description; upon talking to our contact at the firm we were told that they were specifically looking for someone with D&O liability experience. It is crucial that your CV is adapted to closely match (as much as possible) the profile of the firm’s ideal candidate. This is where maintaining and updating your CV on a regular basis becomes crucial. You may well have worked on a case which precisely matches the experience a firm is looking for – but now (perhaps two or three years later) will you remember it, or remember enough details about the case to put on your CV?

This is the same for academic history, especially for junior associates or for lawyers looking to change practice areas. You may be a general banking lawyer who wants to shift their practice to focus on project finance work; but may have had very little projects experience in your current role. At this point it becomes essential for you to be able to prove how committed you are to making that transition. One of the easiest ways of doing this to go list any relevant courses you have taken whilst at or since university, any lectures or conferences you may have attended, or even articles you may have written. All of these things help to support your case when making an unusual move. In order to help you remember all of this when the time comes to thinking about a move, it is always useful to note down anything you do on a CV – even if it doesn’t seem relevant to your career at the time.

The easiest ways of keeping you CV up do date with minimal effort include: updating your LinkedIn with publications, awards, courses, and similar (LinkedIn prompts you to update sections of your profile on a regular basis), and having a CV format that is easy to add to. Have a word/pages document version of your CV saved on your laptop with different sections for training undergone, courses taken, events attended, publications, and examples of work you have completed (including when, and which firm you were at). Having these sections makes it easier to update your CV regularly, as well as making it easier to condense and adapt to specific roles you are applying for at a later date.

Get Your Head in the Game: a Playbook for Interview Success

So far, so great. Your first interview’s been scheduled. It’s actually going to be your first interview for three years. How do you make the most of it? And how do you stand the best chance of being successful?

Helping lawyers prepare for interviews is one of my favourite parts of being a recruiter. My time coaching elite athletes with British Swimming in the run up to the London Olympics has something to do with it. This is race time. It’s where a dream performance begins, where potential becomes actuality. Or not. After Beijing in 2008, the great Michael Phelps talked about going blind in an Olympic final. More of that in a minute.

I’m a really conscientious interviewee myself. Also, as a bright optimist, part of me can’t help but feel that an interview is an opportunity that could be life-altering. I stand in those shoes alongside the lawyers I work with. It’s one of the junctures where I have the privilege of being able to make a big difference. So where to start?

First by wiping away the myth that preparing for an interview makes for a stilted performance. It doesn’t. Not preparing or underpreparing does. If you come across as ‘rehearsed’, it’s because you’re under-rehearsed. Proper preparation takes you to a level where your performance just flows. What you do and what you say becomes natural, even instinctive. It’s why the virtuoso violinist Nicola Benedetti still puts in six hours’ practice a day when taking on a new piece, and Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench still pours in weeks of fastidious preparation before performing (another) Shakespeare play. They rehearse so hard that their performance doesn’t look like they still are. That’s a lot of time. Which like most lawyers, you probably don’t have an excess of. Preparing smartly is the way to go.

Begin with not doing what you don’t need to do. Take, for example, research on the partners that you’ll be meeting. You want to be familiar with their work, their publications, even them personally (uncovering a personal Twitter account can add a useful dimension). Anything that can be found online is fair game. A great recruiter will do this for you. A really great recruiter will do this better than you. They’ll add the original insight that can’t be found online. Like the HR director at the top US firm who’ll appear dour and low on enthusiasm – and bring that tone to the first interview – but is actually looking for you to break through it and show yourself to be the exact opposite.

Next, think. Imagine what a successful interview looks like. Seeing what success looks like, means you can logically and smartly plan preparation to get you there. Preparation is both mental and physical. Consider likely questions. What question would you love to be asked? How would you answer it? Think through it. Perhaps write it down. Visualise answering it. Physically practice answering it.

Visualising success may sound simple, but it can be a mightily powerful tool. The brain can’t distinguish between actual and visualised experience; to the brain, a neural pattern is a neural pattern. MRI scans show that blood moves around the brain, even if you’re only visualising. For a lawyer short on time, it’s also something you can do in otherwise ‘dead’ time – that commute home where you’re so squished in on the train that all you can do is stand there.

On this point, let’s return to Mr Phelps. Michael’s known for spending hours visualising his races. He’d visualise everything going well – and things going wrong. He’d then visualise what he’d think and do to get through the bad moments that might come. Swimmers wear goggles, so that they can see clearly under water. Your goggles filling with water is about the worst thing that can happen during a race. You’re effectively swimming blind. That’s what happened to Michael in the final of his best event, the 200 metres butterfly, at the Beijing Olympics. On the third length of four, he described how his goggles leaked and filled with water. The pressure of an Olympic final is of a unique kind. A gold is the ultimate prize and it’s what you’ve trained four years for. Having to do it blind is unimaginable. Yet Michael had imagined it. He’d prepared for it. He talked about having trained himself to think and act correctly (even subconsciously) under pressure. Michael Phelps finished the race, broke the world record and picked up his fourth gold of the Games.

Unsurprisingly, Michael also does (a lot of) physical practice. Between 1998 and 2003 he trained for 1825 consecutive days. Dr Judd Blaslotto’s 1996 basketball experiment is a seminal authority on the power of visualisation, but also underlines the raw value of physical practice. Blaslotto got a group of student to take a series of free throws. He then then divided the group into three. Over 30 days they were asked to do different things: group one was told to take it easy and not touch a basketball at all, group two was told to practise shooting free throws for half an hour a day every day, while group three was told to spend half an hour every day simply visualising making free throws. After 30 days, all three groups retook the original free throw test. Group one did not improve. Group two, who had physically practised, improved by 24%. Group three, who had visualised success, improved by 23%.

Clearly then, you should physically practise too. The sheer volume of Michael Phelps’ practice is illuminating, but the quality of it is just as important to him. For a lawyer short on time, it should be too. Look to pack your physical preparation with high quality practise of the success you’ve imagined, centred on the questions and answers you’ve planned out and visualised. Practise aloud on your own, or better still with a friend or partner. A good recruiter can help too. A great recruiter can make a big difference and really help the quality of your practice soar. They’ll be happy to run a full mock interview with you and then help you dissect your performance to make every marginal (or major) gain possible, based on what they know will appeal to the firm and partners you’re meeting.

If your first interview’s been scheduled, as we said at the start, so far, so great. If it’s actually going to be your first interview for three years, it needn’t be. To make the most of it and stand the best chance of being successful, it shouldn’t be. Proper preparation – research, visualisation and physical practice – will ensure it isn’t.