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Demonstrating resilience as a candidate

Demonstrating resilience as a candidate

Matthew Dow


A legal career can be a stressful experience at times. As a lawyer, you will experience demanding deadlines, complicated legal problems, high-stakes scenarios and even potentially vulnerable clients. Given this challenging working context, it is unsurprising that many law firms seek resilience as an essential characteristic in their future trainees.

Resilience – why it matters

The reality is that many legal issues will be completely novel experiences for a trainee. Even 18 months into a training contract, a new seat will almost certainly necessitate a completely fresh set of skills to master.

Therefore, it is guaranteed that you will make mistakes as a junior lawyer. Further, given the time-poor nature of most solicitors, you are unlikely to be spoon-fed the correct answers that will help you excel on the next occasion.

The legal sector is also notorious for the importance that lawyers place on attention to detail. Hence, for many supervisors, contract negotiations can always be enhanced. Your drafting can be more elegant. Emails to clients can be worded more sophisticatedly. Even basic admin can be organised in a way that closer resembles the stylistic preferences of a partner.

This constant feedback and review can easily develop the self-impression that you are a failure, or that you struggle with the basics.

Elsewhere, the pressured deadlines and voluminous to-do lists can make the workload seem incessant.

For instance, on big deals in City law firms, it is not unusual to be repeatedly amending documents until the early hours. For barristers, weekend-work for a Monday morning hearing or trial is pretty much the norm too.

Consequently, resilience is as indispensable to your success as any academic or commercial qualification. To engage a cliché, law is a marathon, not a sprint.

So, how does an applicant demonstrate that they have the ability to handle such pressure for weeks on end? The answer is with difficulty! This resilience pre-requisite is especially problematic when most candidates perceive that they have limited experience of such legal deadlines and high stakes.

What not to do

I am sure that there may be many who disagree with me, but I would strongly suggest that when a resilience questions appears, avoid using academic examples. For instance, a typical application form question might ask you to talk about a challenge that you overcame or a time that you solved a problem. 

There are a few reasons why I would avoid this last-minute workaholic depiction.

Firstly, while we have all done all-nighters or spent weeks on end revising from dawn to dusk and undertook the corresponding emotional journey, this cramming does not suggest a candidate with careful planning and organisation.

Even if the problem was not your fault, you do not come off favourably from these tales of resilience. For instance, if you had to re-write your dissertation in one day, a recruiter may wonder why you had not backed up your work. Alternatively, the reader may gain the impression that you had not prepared enough in advance to break your work into manageable intervals.

Likewise, compensating on group projects for an incompetent colleague,by performing their share of work will leave questions regarding your teamwork or leadership skills. Praise for your grit and determination will be little more than an afterthought.

Furthermore, an academic story of resilience is perhaps not the most fascinating narrative for a recruiter to read.

By all means, if there were mitigating circumstances, include how you navigated past them. But I would contend that there is probably superior evidence of your resilience that you could employ that better demonstrates your unique personality. This differentiating factor is especially important when you are trying to distinguish yourself from 2,000+ other aspiring lawyers on a written application. Always remember that your goal is to get invited to interview - an engaging answer will increase this possibility.

What to do

Think about how you wish to portray yourself as a future employee. Show that you understand the need to learn from failure. Try to illustrate that you can compound and develop your skills over time. Additionally, prove to your reader that you appreciate that effort is of upmost importance in any successful venture.

Please note too that the answer that you provide may not be your ‘biggest’ achievement.

By this statement I mean that you may have subsequently gone on to lift heavier weights, sell more tickets, win more prestigious tournaments and obtain higher accolades from your peers. Yet the example that best defines you and the example that will impress a recruiter may be a smaller, more personal setback that you overcame.

Also, a partner once told me that it is more impressive to see a non-runner finish a 5k race than it is for somebody who runs every day to do another marathon. I think that this insight applies to demonstrating resilience throughout your application too.

Part-time jobs in retail or hospitality will not offer legal experience like securing a place on a vacation scheme, but do not undersell these non-legal experiences. These scenic routes to becoming a junior lawyer provide interesting examples of managing pressured scenarios, difficult customers and overcoming setbacks. Sure, they are not handling a multi-million dollar transaction, or a day in court, but they offer a sample of what you can achieve in the future.

Ultimately, no matter the tangential circumstances that you outline in your application, an ability to respond to adversity, stay calm and keep going will always be transferable to a legal career.