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How to apply for a training contract: a four-step master class

updated on 30 June 2020

Welcome to LawCareers.Net’s four-step training contract application guide.

This summer, an applicant for a training contract with Macfarlanes is competing with over 700 others for just 31 vacancies. Someone applying to Stephenson Harwood is up against 1,300 other applicants for one of just 20 places.

The high level of competition for every training contract means that your application form must be perfect if you are to secure a place at an interview or assessment centre.

Most application forms will ask you to submit a cover letter, as well as complete sections on work experience, extracurricular activities and positions of responsibility.

Step 1: understand your goals and competencies

Your ability to articulate your motivation for becoming a lawyer, as well 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 to 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.

Step 2: create your shortlist of firms

Writing a truly excellent application is time consuming, so when deciding where to apply, it is important to be realistic about your chances at each firm and choose a shortlist which 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 is likely that the application will be automatically rejected in the first sift.

But it is not solely about playing the game: you should apply to firms that you are genuinely interested in, with factors such as location, size and work focus all influencing your final decision. If you want a sponsored law school experience, you are looking at roughly 200 or so firms.

The time demands of crafting quality applications mean that applying to 10-15 firms should be more effective than copy-and-pasting the same cover letter and application answers to 50. It is essential to know what a firm does, who it does this for, where it is doing it and what its general tone and ethos are.

There are plenty of resources available, but the firms' own websites and recruitment materials are key. 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.

There are independent resources such as The LawCareers.Net Handbook and LawCareers.Net. Don't forget Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter - as well as finding firms on these networks, you will also be able to follow or like your university careers service, legal bloggers, LCN and LawCareersNetLIVE.

To shortlist, ask yourself:

  • Where do I want to work? Search LawCareers.Net to identify your list of potential firms.
  • What type of lawyer do I want to be (eg, commercial, family, crime)? Do I have any specialist commercial (legal) experience or academic interests? Use LCN to identify firms with practice groups in your preferred fields.
  • Do I have an interest in a particular area (eg, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals/biotech or broadcasting/media)? It may simply be the case that you follow news stories in this field because you enjoy reading about them.
  • Have I had face-to-face contact with any law firms, for example, through meeting people at events?
  • Which presentations or other firm-led events did I attend? Here is a good example of explaining why you’re interested in 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 that 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.
  • 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 will 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. 

Step 3: take a professional approach to applications

A flawless application proves that you are 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.

  • Do not apply in the last few days before a deadline. This is when a high proportion of forms hit 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 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 evidence the themes you are incorporating into your answer.
  • Every claim should have supporting evidence.
  • Don’t copy and paste the same answers and cover letter into different applications, but once you have submitted several applications and have a range of well-crafted and evidenced past answers to draw on, the task of applying becomes easier. Never copy and paste an answer, but you may be able to use elements of past answers in future 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.
  • Structure your answers and make them concise. Introduce the concept (beginning), develop it (middle) and underscore its relevance (end). Persuasion should be your goal, not using the words that you think firms want to read.
  • Don’t let your email junk settings ruin the application process – read these tips for making online 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 (600-700 words). Don’t waste too much space stating why you are 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 am 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 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 client’s 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.

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 are 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.

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:

  • Situation – provide brief details of the scenario so the recruiter can understand the context of your example.
  • Task – outline what the objective was in the situation.
  • Action – set out what you decided to do and how you approached it.
  • Result – explain whether the objective was achieved, any other benefits your actions had and what you learned. 

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.

Find more cover-letter writing tips.

Josh Richman is the senior editorial manager at LawCareers.Net.