Law firms aren’t usually known for using innovative tools to assess and select their graduate trainees. But Simmons & Simmons isn’t your average law firm.

“We get lots of comments about our culture, which is friendly, approachable, inclusive, tolerant and welcoming,” explains graduate recruitment and development manager, Jenny Briston. “This ties in with our stance on diversity: we’ve been a Stonewall Star Performer for many years now.”

But being welcoming and inclusive doesn’t make the firm an easy option. In fact, in recent years, it’s worked to develop a high-performance culture across its 21 offices in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

For the 35 graduate trainees Simmons & Simmons takes on each year, this means having drive and ambition, as well as analytical skills, commercial acumen and the ability to work as part of a team. But unfortunately, the firm’s previous assessment process wasn’t as effective as it could have been.

Good on paper isn't always good in practice.

“We had a fairly typical process for most law firms,” says Jenny. “First, there was a long application form that asked about academic performance, career motivation and work experience, and assessed interests and hobbies. It also had three lengthy competency questions.

“Round two was the Watson-Glaser critical reasoning test, which is very popular among law firms. And round three was the assessment centre.” By the third stage, the team was looking for candidates with the drive and ambition that are so important to the firm. But not everyone who made it to the assessment centre showed those characteristics, as Jenny explains. “We had some people who’d say nothing in a group exercise, for example, despite being very bright and capable on paper.”

A fresh perspective. 

Jenny and her team recognized that they could benefit from some external input. So they started by asking a consultant to review the whole recruitment process.

The recommendations that followed included removing work experience and interests from the application forms, because they put some candidates at a disadvantage. It also recommended creating a situational judgment test (SJT), bringing in video interviews and swapping the Watson-Glaser test for verbal and logical reasoning tests.

Because the review came from an external expert, Jenny could use it to convince her stakeholders of the need for change. And, with help from Korn Ferry Hay Group, she’s been able to implement nearly all of it.
That doesn’t mean there was no resistance, though – particularly to the SJT. But as one of the firm’s key values is innovation, its people are open to finding new ways of doing things.

Real-life scenarios bring the results to life. 

Jenny’s next step was to ask Korn Ferry Hay Group to design and roll out the SJT. She also asked us to introduce Elements Verbal and Logical, which measure a candidate’s ability to understand and evaluate arguments, work flexibly with unfamiliar information and find solutions.

To create the SJT, we first analyzed the skills and behaviours Simmons & Simmons needs from its graduate trainees, and established where trainees were falling short. We then interviewed stakeholders and used their feedback to create scenarios that would test those skills and behaviors in a realistic way. For example, the firm values independent thinking, but managers reported that they’d like graduates to check in with them regularly during their training. So we built this into one of the scenarios.

The result is a Simmons & Simmons-branded SJT that tests for commitment, collegiality, challenge and ambition.

In each scenario, the candidate can choose between three courses of action. If they choose well, the test adapts by giving them more challenging scenarios; if they choose the less favourable option, it adapts in such a way that they can still pass overall.

A more rounded view.

For Jenny, combining the SJT and Elements tests with more traditional methods has allowed the firm to be more flexible about what ‘good’ looks like.

“We still look for evidence of academic ability, such as 2:1,” she says. “But if someone does really well in the SJT, we can be flexible about a less good degree result. We can take a more rounded view.”

As new recruits might not join the firm for two years, it’s too early to say if the ones who come through the new process fare better in the job – or come from more varied backgrounds – than their predecessors. But Jenny says she’s noticed that the overall quality of candidates at the assessment centers has gone up. As a result of this, and a 40% increase in application numbers in the last two years, she thinks the firm has increased the standard at which it makes offers.

“We’re also rejecting candidates in a fairer way,” she says. “Previously, much of the rejection happened at the application form stage. Now, we sift candidates out more evenly across the first two stages (application form/SJT and ability test/ video interview).”

What's next? 

Since redesigning the assessment and selection process, Jenny’s team has introduced another Korn Ferry Hay Group product: the personality questionnaire, Dimensions.

“We’ve used it with our graduate trainees about six weeks into the scheme, to get them thinking about personal awareness and their own working style early on,” says Jenny. “We might join the dots a bit more in the future – for example, by seeing what data we can use from the selection process to help them get started.”

Until then, Jenny’s happy with the new selection process, and interested to see how it affects the quality of graduate the firm takes on.

“Bringing in a whole new process could have been risky or challenging,” she says. “But with Korn Ferry Hay Group’s help, we delivered in a short time frame. And we’re really pleased with how it’s worked so far.”