updated on 21 June 2022
As anyone entering the legal profession is constantly reminded: it’s competitive to get a training contract. Applicants can be competing against hundreds, if not thousands, of other candidates for a small number of training contract vacancies. While some law firms will take on 50+ trainees a year, other firms employ only a handful.
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This high level of competition for every training contract means that your application form must be absolutely perfect if you’re to secure a place at an interview or assessment centre.
Most application forms will ask you to submit some kind of cover letter, as well as complete sections on your work experience, extracurricular activities and skills and attributes.
Here’s our four-step training contract application masterclass.
Step 1: understand your goals and competencies
Your ability to articulate your motivation for becoming a lawyer, as well as what makes you suitable for the role are crucial when writing a cover letter or answers to specific questions on the application form such as 'Why law?' or 'Why do you want to be a commercial solicitor?'
Write two lists of bullet points – one on why you really want to become a solicitor and what you think you would most enjoy about the job; another listing all your experiences and what skills they involved (eg, attention to detail, interpersonal skills, teamwork). This will help you decide broadly which type of firm you want to apply to (commercial? family? civil liberties?), as well as the raw material on which to base your firm-specific cover letters and application form answers later.
Learn more about the key skills you need to demonstrate in your applications.
Step 2: create your shortlist of firms
Writing a truly excellent application is time consuming, so when deciding where to apply, it’s important to be realistic about your chances at each firm and choose a shortlist that gives you the best chance of success. If a firm has a minimum requirement of AAB at A level and a 2:1, but an applicant has BBB and a 2:1, it’s likely that the application will be automatically rejected in the first sift (unless you have mitigating circumstances).
But it’s not solely about playing the game: you should apply to firms that you’re genuinely interested in, with factors such as location, size and work areas all influencing your final decision. If you want a firm to pay for your postgraduate education (ie, law conversion course, Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) preparation course) you’re looking at roughly 200 firms.
It will take a significant amount of time to craft a quality law firm application, and this means that applying to 10 to 15 firms will be more effective than copy and pasting the same cover letter and application answers to 50. It’s essential to know what a firm does, who it does this for, where it’s doing it and what its culture and values are.
There are plenty of resources available, but the firms' own websites and recruitment materials are a good place to start. 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’s chosen to send about its culture. But also bear in mind that a lot of this will be marketing material – it’s therefore important to do your own research about the firm.
Use independent resources such as The LawCareers.Net Handbook and LawCareers.Net, as well as blogs and other guides. Don't forget LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter. You can follow firms and lawyers on these networks, find out about the latest legal news and developments, and gain an insight into what it’s like to work in different firms and areas of the law.
For more on using social media to your advantage, read ‘Aspiring lawyers: a guide to social media’.
To decide which firms are right for you, ask yourself:
Step 3: take a professional approach to applications
A flawless application proves that you’re capable of producing work of the required standard as a lawyer. You must perfect the ability to write well and proofread accurately. Ask a friend, family member or careers adviser to check your application and offer criticism.
For vacation scheme application tips that would also be relevant to training contract applications, read this LCN Says: ‘Top 10 tips for your vacation scheme applications’.
Step 4: create a persuasive covering letter
If a firm asks for a cover letter, it should say how long it should be. If not, aim for no more than one page to a page-and-a-half (600 to 700 words). Don’t waste too much space stating why you’re writing. If you wish to open your letter that way, why not go straight into why you want to train with this particular firm? For example:
"I wish to be considered for a training contract at X, having first become aware of the firm at a careers day at the University of X, when I spoke with two of its trainees. Our discussion about their experiences at the firm led me to find out more about the firm’s insurance and reinsurance practice, which is an area I have now become interested in exploring further.
"I’m aware that the firm has a number of clients in the insurance sector and is still working on residual claims arising from X news issue/story. I know 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:
Either in the cover letter or a separate section of the application, you may be asked to provide a statement explaining why you think you’re suitable for the role by referring to your skills and experience. If you progress to the next stage, this may be assessed further in a competency-based interview or strengths-based interview.
For advice on submitting your application in a timely manner, read ‘Does it matter when I submit my training contract application?’
Take note of the skills and qualities highlighted, both in the application information provided to would-be trainees and in anything you learn about the firm’s wider culture. Then choose an example from your previous experience to demonstrate that you have a particular skill. Consider structuring your example in the STAR format:
The cover letter is hugely important. It needs to sell you explicitly, but subtly. It also needs to hit the right buttons at each firm, and this necessarily requires a letter that is tailored firm by firm. If you have shortlisted your firms using a particular theme or strategy, then there will be noticeable areas of crossover.
Good luck with your applications!
For more application advice, take a look at the below: