CityLawLIVE's application master class
It's training contract application season, so rather than drowning in a sea of ill-judged, poorly worded applications, why not cling on to this life raft of vital information from CityLawLIVE organiser Anna Williams? She offers excellent advice on how to approach your applications and edge ever closer to success.
It's June already and this is now a key time to be creating and submitting carefully planned and credible training contract applications. Thinking of applying to Allen & Overy? You and 2,500 others are chasing 90 openings. Charles Russell? You and 1,500 others are competing for just 20 openings. Irwin Mitchell? You and 2,000 others are vying for one of 45 positions. It's a similar story everywhere. Using a blunt-edged calculation, you have a one-in-28 chance of success with A&O, a one-in-44 chance at Irwin Mitchell and a one-in-75 chance at Charles Russell.
The only way to succeed is to submit flawless, well-targeted applications. These are immensely time consuming and tricky to create, and only those who master the art will succeed. This master class is designed to give you the edge.
Step 1: understand yourself
Only by understanding yourself will you know what to emphasise in your applications. This in turn will help you to select your shortlist of firms. The MySelf tool on LC.N is designed to help you unpack and assess your achievements so you can then use the right examples to demonstrate your suitability for the positions you are applying for. Application forms typically ask competency-based questions: you demonstrate your competency by citing examples of your past behaviour. What you don't do is come up with a list of great-sounding traits and then claim to have them. Demonstrate through your achievements and your long-term commitments. If you have no achievements or fail to identify them at the right place on the application form, you won’t stand out.
Remember: work experience in any type of firm/organisation will be useful when applying for a training contract, even if it was within a different type of legal or business environment. The important thing is to have developed an understanding of what lawyers do, and to then use this understanding to answer questions such as 'Why law?' or 'Why do you want to be a commercial solicitor?'. It is no longer adequate to say that you want a stimulating and challenging career that allows you to use your legal knowledge. What is it that excites you about the law? What appeals about becoming a (business) advisor? You might want to consider concepts such as detail, analysis, argument, word craft, risk management, practical thinking, the advisory nature of legal practice, business facilitation and client relationship building. What experience or understanding do you have in relation to these facets of legal practice?
For tips on which achievements and experiences to include in your MySelf analysis and then your applications, spend 50 minutes listening to this podcast of experienced recruiters speaking at CityLawLIVE. If you follow the advice they give, you will significantly improve your odds.
Step 2: create your shortlist of firms
Only through recognising which firms you realistically have a shot at can you prioritise the most appropriate ones and allocate your precious time wisely. Filling in application forms is a time-consuming activity that will weigh heavy on your mind, even when you’re doing other things. Spend your time wisely: pick 10 firms and then choose your five top targets from this list. With your top targets, you'll need to spend more than a day on each form, maybe three days if you do extensive research. Think that's OTT? The candidates who succeed are able to convince recruiters that they are the ideal match for that particular firm and that they have something valuable and interesting to offer the firm.
None of this can be achieved unless you know what a firm does, who it does it for, where it is doing it and what its general tone and ethos is. If you want a sponsored law school experience, you're looking at roughly 200 or so firms. You must pick the 5% that represent the best match for you and then halve that for your top-five list. There are plenty of resources available to you: key to everything are the firms' own websites and recruitment materials. Look at the work areas they emphasise; their press releases, press mentions and client publications/newsletters; the physical footprint of the firm and its size/demographics; the style of language it uses and the messages it has chosen to send about its culture.
Away from the firm's own materials and events, there are independent resources such as The Training Contract & Pupillage Handbook and LawCareers.Net. Don't forget Facebook and Twitter – as well as finding firms on these networks, you'll also be able to follow or Like your university careers service, legal bloggers, LC.N and CityLawLIVE. Sometimes you need momentary distraction during an application form session, and following legal social media can feel like a break, even though you're still learning.
To shortlist, ask yourself:
- Where do I want to work? Use the LC.N website search function to ID your long list of potential firms.
- What manner of lawyer do I want to be (international; corporate; niche, etc)? Use the LC.N search function to make your long list a bit shorter.
- Do I have any specialist commercial (legal) experience or academic interests? Use the LC.N search function to identify firms with practice groups in your preferred fields.
- Do I have an interest in a particular area of commercial activity? Eg, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals/biotech, broadcasting/media, projects/international development, or wealth management. It may simply be the case that you follow news stories in this field because you enjoy reading about them.
- Have I developed any relationships within law firms, for example through meeting people at events?
- Which presentations or other firm-led events did I attend? The following sentence comes across as a perfectly credible reason for choosing a firm: 'I first encountered the firm at xxx and this session subsequently sparked an interest in emerging markets…'
- Have I written any papers or good blogs on a particular subject?
- Do I speak a useful language or have experience living in a different part of the world? Russian, Arabic and Mandarin speakers are particularly sought-after by firms who want to grow their business in regions where these languages are spoken. Portuguese and German are also useful for the same reason, but don't overestimate the pulling power of your language ability. It is an added bonus – everything else about your application must be perfect. Listen to this podcast (one hour) of City firm partners and other lawyers discussing the usefulness of languages and the relevance of things like gut feel for a firm.
- Did I do well in my first-year exams? If you have straight 2.1s then consider applying to the most prestigious firms, especially if you have some high 2.1s (or, better still, firsts). If you have a 2.2 in the odd paper, you'll need to convince recruiters that it was a blip in an otherwise impressive record of academic achievement (including A levels). For commercial firms, the most important papers to score well in are contract and tort. Fluff these and you need a very good explanation, such as the untimely death of a close family member or your own serious illness. 'I nearly got a 2.1' impresses no one at a time when many firms are looking for 'I nearly got a first'. Any academic shortfall must be an exception to an otherwise good record, and you probably also need a 'something else' that hooks in a recruiter.
Remember: just because you went to a low-achieving school doesn’t mean you’ll be ruled out on the basis of your A-level grades. Someone with unremarkable A levels who goes on to give an impressive performance at university will be of real interest to recruiters. Believe it or not, many firms will be keeping a special eye open for this type of candidate.
Step 3: create flawless and meaningful applications
By achieving a high standard in your written applications you are already improving your odds dramatically. Submitting anything slightly substandard equates to immediate rejection, a waste of your time and a blow to your confidence. A flawless application proves you are capable of producing flawless work product as a lawyer. You must perfect the ability to write well and proofread accurately. You must also rope in a friend, family member or careers adviser to check your application and offer criticism. Spend 21 minutes watching this video of partners, trainees and recruiters giving advice on good application form technique.
- Do not apply in the last few days before a deadline. This is when a high proportion of the forms hit the firms' systems and most of these are lower in quality. Stand out by applying well ahead of the deadline. Don’t expect anyone to allow you to apply late.
- Adhere to word limits and use them as a guide as to how much a recruiter expects you to write.
- Read the question and make bullet points listing what it is asking. Check with someone you trust that they agree with your interpretation of the question. Identify which of your achievements evidences the themes you are incorporating into your answer.
- Every claim should be demonstrable otherwise it’s just meaningless words on paper, all of which will have been repeated in hundreds and hundreds of other applications.
- Recruiters want to understand how you tick as an individual so make your answers authentic and allow them to tell the real story of you. One in 28, remember?
- Wordiness = woodenness. Let your answers flow by introducing a concept (beginning); developing the concept (middle) and underscoring the relevance (end). Persuasion should be your goal, not using the words that you think the firms want to read.
Here's an example answer, with notes on why it's compelling:
"I founded a bear-baiting society at university [this demonstrates organisational ability, initiative and persuasiveness]. This required me to liaise with individuals in the illegal animal entertainment sector in Russia, and it was often necessary to speak and write to my contacts in Russian [emphasises the practical usefulness of your language skill, demonstrates your international outlook and healthy disregard for laws and regulations concerning animal welfare and importation]. The experience taught me a great deal about time management, task prioritisation and negotiation, as the importation and subsequent accommodation of the bears proved both tricky and far more expensive than I had previously imagined. I was most proud of the fact that I managed to persuade the night porter at my halls of residence to allow the society to keep the bears in the basement. By the end of term, the society had grown to 200 members and we had secured local sponsorship to cover all the bears' food and veterinary costs [who wouldn’t hire this persuasive, mountain-moving character?]"
Step 4: create a persuasive covering letter
Ideally, if a firm asks for a covering letter it will indicate how long it should be: 600 words, or a page to a page and a half, are probably about right. Don't waste too much time stating why you are writing. If you wish to open your letter that way, why not go straight into the why you want to train with this particular firm. For example:
"I wish to be considered for a training contract at Smartie & Co, having first become aware of the firm at a careers day at the University of XXX, when I spoke with two of its trainees. Our discussion about their experiences at the firm led me to find out more about Smartie & Co's insurance and reinsurance practice, which is an area I have now become interested in exploring further.
I am aware that the firm has a number of clients in the insurance sector and is still working on residual claims arising from Hurricane Katrina. I was visiting with family in the southern states of America at the time of this disaster and gained a degree of insight into the consequences of such a large-scale and disruptive event. I am aware that litigation in cases such as this can be particularly complex, given the large number of parties and high stakes involved, and I believe that my attached application demonstrates that I have an aptitude for complex analysis and long-term projects. In particular I would draw your attention to…"
As well as delivering some factual information, the above paragraphs introduce a person who:
- is committed to finding out about their career;
- possesses networking skills;
- has researched the firm;
- understands something about one of its key business areas and shows interest;
- thinks about things from the clients' perspective;
- is realistic about commercial law in practice;
- writes fluidly, can pack many messages into few words and is not too informal; and
- has an authentic and interesting story to tell.
The covering letter is hugely important – as much so as the application form itself. Use it to sell yourself. Just as Mad Men's Don Draper still agonises over every pitch to a client, despite his years on Madison Avenue, you too should agonise over each covering letter to a firm. It needs to sell you explicitly but subtly. It also needs to hit the right buttons at each firm, and that necessarily means a letter that is tailored firm by firm. Naturally, if you have shortlisted your firms using a particular theme or strategy then there will be noticeable areas of crossover.
Good luck to all LC.N users!
Anna Williams is CityLawLIVE conference organiser and research manager at LawCareers.Net.