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Who's the right hire? #3: the intern

In a high-growth in-house environment, when time becomes such a blocker that you need to expand your legal team, what kind of hire should you go for? In this series, we look at the different options, and share the insights of real-life tech GCs on why they chose the role profile they did.

This is an extract from our guide, 'Scaling your legal team: who to hire, how and why', featuring insights from legal leaders at Monzo, Zoopla, Habito, Peakon, Fleetcor and CharlieHR.

Role profile:
a student or trainee who works, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification.

Hiring manager:
Natalie Salunke, VP Head of Legal, UK, Europe & ANZ, Fleetcor

What are the specific skills and qualities that an intern brings to the business?

Interns aren’t expensive. You can hire somebody relatively young, who hasn’t been too indoctrinated in legal process yet, but with some experience in the discipline - for example, someone studying for a law degree or for the LPC, or with some interest in law, perhaps preparing for training applications.

You must then follow internship guidelines - in our case we opt to make sure our interns are paid. Because the candidate is quite junior, they’re much more likely to be interested than a senior hire would be in rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in whatever work they happen to get, which is often heavily administrative.

But in return, you set up a programme that exposes them to all the work you do, letting them sit on calls and come to meetings. You set them up with tasks and exercises to practise things like communicating with senior stakeholders, proofreading, drafting clauses, and so on. Their schedule is a mixture of tasks and training that benefits them, and then also the work that we need more manpower to complete.

I’ve found that interns are great when you’re setting up new processes - they’re really helpful when it comes to capturing findings and making sure there’s good documentation. They’ve also helped me with things like chasing down signatures, and getting your contracts database in good shape by scanning and saving contracts.

What are some other advantages of an intern as opposed to other types of legal hire?

Things like notice periods, non-competes and gardening leave aren’t an issue when hiring an intern. Term time is your only worry. At Fleetcor we usually run summer internship programmes - in fact I have in the last four businesses I’ve worked for - and I’ve found the best approach is to map out the summer, and try to take on as many interns as is appropriate for that summer’s workload. That might mean three or four coming in for four-week placements, which covers the summer. You can also take on interns at other times in the year, to coincide with periods when they might not have exams, or might not be studying. You can try to align those spikes of admin-heavy work to coincide with those periods when you can hire interns.

"Even when you’re hiring graduates with superb grades from the top universities, you can’t take things like basic IT skills for granted - be vigilant!"

And are there any potential disadvantages to hiring an intern?

Making sure the knowledge transfer is handled properly at the beginning and the end of their placement is a challenge. Often, by the end of their internship, they’re really getting into it. It can be a challenge from a HR perspective too, because short paid contracts are less cost-effective when it comes to onboarding and offboarding. But it’s important to us to invest that time in our interns and to give something back to the legal community.

It’s an obvious point, but quality varies when it comes to intern applicants. I’ve had some absolute superstars, and some who unfortunately didn’t turn out to be as good as they looked on paper. Even when you’re hiring graduates with superb grades from the top universities, you can’t take things like basic IT skills for granted - be vigilant!

Where do you go to find good intern candidates, and what do you ask them at interview?

We’re based in London, so we aim to tap into the London talent pool. Practically that makes it more likely that a candidate’s parents live here, or they have somewhere to stay. London universities are all part of the same careers forum, and you can post roles there at no cost, and get your job advert to that pool of people. Then you can target the law schools themselves (BPP, the College of Law, and so on), and again post short ads for free. It’s also good to use your alumni connections, and those of your team. I encourage students to apply from my old university, which usually leads to a good standard of candidate for a startup.

Finally a personal post on LinkedIn will always generate plenty of interest, as well as other social media like university Facebook groups. Together, all of this will typically yield 100-200 applicants without much cost. That’s an acceptable volume of candidates - over time you get used to what you’re looking for, which might not always be ‘the best candidate’, but rather a deserving one who’ll grab the opportunity with both hands. An internship is great for their CVs and will help them in terms of securing training contracts, and it’s great to be able to give access to the opportunity to people who deserve it the most.

"More than any special characteristic, I look for people with the mentality to want to be involved and to throw themselves into it"

How do you benchmark the candidates?

You need to think about what you want to achieve from the internship, balancing your values for the programme with the work that’s coming up. One year the tasks might look different to the tasks that interns worked on the previous year. It’s important to keep the programme varied in terms of making sure the intern gets the most out of it, but the tasks to be done drive what we’re looking for. Attention to detail is always extremely important, as well as a propensity to want to learn and get the most out of the placement. More than any special characteristic, I look for people with the mentality to want to be involved and to throw themselves into it.

What kind of approach do you take to management and development if you opt for an intern?

That depends on how hands-on you are with your internship programme. The first one I set up back in 2010 was fairly hands-on, as I was more junior myself; as I’ve progressed, it means my team can take on that management and learn those skills. For example, managing an intern programme is a great development task for a paralegal. When the intern is getting started, catch-ups every day (or perhaps twice a day) might be needed; as time goes on, a weekly meeting might be enough.

From a development point of view, you should make time to ensure the intern benefits properly from the programme, regardless of whether you have a big team or you’re a sole counsel. Make sure they get exposed to tasks and work at all levels, so that everyone gets the most out of it and they learn a lot. Good housekeeping is also crucial - making sure you don’t skip the welcome lunch, and carry out exit interviews, so you can constantly redesign the programme and make it useful for the next intake.

This is an extract from our guide, 'Scaling your legal team: who to hire, how and why', featuring insights from legal leaders at Monzo, Zoopla, Habito, Peakon, Fleetcor and CharlieHR.

Learn more about graduate recruitment with Give a Grad a Go.

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