Back to overview

LCN Says

How to secure a training contract – international student edition

updated on 31 May 2022

Reading time: eleven minutes

"You’re not from the UK, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a training contract. Are you even aware how difficult it is?" – if you’ve ever heard something along these lines, this LCN Says is for you.

Thousands of international students arrive to the UK each year pursuing their dream of becoming successful lawyers. But, once you dive deep into the process and realise that things aren’t as simple as you were hoping them to be, you can't help but question your chances.

Find out which firms offer training contracts by using LCN’s Training contract search and keep track of approaching deadlines on LCN’s Training contract deadlines page.

Having your proud family and friends rooting for you at home and a haunting fear of ‘going back’ after making so much effort can add even more pressure. As an international student, I know exactly how it feels to be questioned about your foreign accent and losing 15 minutes of precious exam time because you forgot a word in the English language.

In this LCN Says, I hope to provide international students valuable tips on securing a training contract and motivate those who might be doubting themselves.

Turn your ‘disadvantages’ into strengths

Constantly receiving rejections can affect your motivation and confidence. I’ve seen a great deal of international students doubt their abilities and question whether they have what it takes to secure a training contract. I was one of them until I realised something important – if you think you’re at a disadvantage, take a look at things from a different perspective and use them to your benefit.

To find out more about being an international student, read this LCN Says: ‘The pressures of being an international student interested in a legal career in the UK’.

Going through an experience of moving to another country, you acquire qualities directly applicable to a career in law that make you stand out from other applicants. You might be in a situation where you have no family around, you have to learn and adapt to a different culture and speak a non-native language. Then one day you become responsible for not only paying bills and doing your own laundry, but every career decision you make. You become independent and this life skill is attractive to graduate recruiters because it means you can take ownership and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

Advantages of international backgrounds

There are massive advantages of having an international background and you should never forget that. Speaking another language fluently (and sometimes even more than one) shows dedication and willingness to work hard towards your goals. Being able to find common ground with people from different countries and backgrounds is an essential skill for a future lawyer and could prove useful if you have a client that speaks the same language as you. Rather than having to organise and pay for a translator, the firm can save money and time if they already have a lawyer that speaks that language.

To find out about the benefits of being dual qualified, read this LCN Says: ‘The benefits of dual qualification: your path to an international legal career’.

A great number of law firms have offices around the globe and are dealing with cross-border transactions daily. So, your language skills and a global mind-set will be a great asset for them; you just need to serve your abilities under a right sauce.

I’ve frequently being asked how I’m able to stay calm and collected when things at work get stressful. The answer is simple: I’m used to challenging myself and being outside my comfort zone – which I’m sure my fellow international students can relate to.

Start applying as soon as you cross the border

Once you get your passport stamped by border control at the airport, you have to start thinking about your employer research and strategy. This might seem a little premature, but the earlier you start, the faster you will grasp the job application process. It may come as a surprise for a lot of international students that the vast majority of law firms recruit two years in advance for their training contracts, so you have to make sure that you plan accordingly.

A good way to start is making a spreadsheet of a list of firms you’re planning to apply to and their relevant deadlines. Keeping the process structured will help you organise your time effectively and make sure you haven’t missed anything. Don’t diminish your opportunities by leaving things until the last day, as some firms may close their application windows slightly earlier in light of an unusually high number of applicants.

If you’re unsure where to start, read this LCN guide on how to research for law firms: ‘Researching law firms’.

It may sound controversial, but don’t rush to submit your application form. Frequently, people are chasing deadlines and do not spend enough time getting to know the firm they’re applying to and subsequently tailoring their application form. It’s important you give your best to every application you’re doing as, once rejected, you’ll only be able to apply again in the next application round, which will probably cost you another year of uncertainty and unnecessary stress.

A piece of wisdom from me – if there’s a firm that your heart is set on, don’t apply there first. Practice makes perfect, so your first ever application will not be as good as the second one, and the second will probably lack something that your third has. Be strategic and use every rejection as a learning point. Getting upset is perfectly normal but it will not help you in your future applications. Try to think what went wrong and how you can make it better next time.

How to approach the application form

I know how it feels to open an application form and just stare at the screen for a couple of hours with a poker face. Therefore, get all the help you can. There’s no shame in asking your classmate or a friend who has gone through an application experience to explain how things are done or give you tips on how to master the process. Not being afraid to ask questions is another skill that you will need to become a good lawyer.

First thing’s first: research the firm well. The law firm's website is underestimated by many, however, in my opinion, it’s the best source of information you can get. Aside from the sections where leading practice areas are described, you can find news about recent deals and clients, white papers and articles outlining hot topics in the industries where the firm's clients operate, rankings and recognitions, the firm's approach to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and Corporate Social Responsibility, initiatives to support diversity and inclusion and much more. In short, there’s everything you need to make an informed choice of whether you would like to work there and why.

Read this LCN Blog to find out about the sharp rise of ESG: ‘Commercial awareness series: the rise of ESG law firms’.

One thing that you won’t get a taste of through the firm's website is its culture. You’ll be spending a lot of time in the office, so it’s essential to like people that you’re surrounded by. The best thing to do is attend open days and career fairs, join virtual events and Instagram takeovers in which representatives of the firm are participating, and reach out to people via LinkedIn.

Remember, asking questions that you can find on the first page of Google results is a big no-no. People don’t want to feel like you’re wasting their time or have not been interested enough to properly research the firm.

My mistake in the first application round was not paying enough attention to the importance of commercial awareness. You must take interest in commercial affairs and know what’s happening in the world, especially when it concerns the key operational industries of your dream firm. It all comes with experience, but if you can explain, for example, how post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement can influence the firm's clients in the automotive industry and how the firm can assist in that, you will impress people.

Reading resources like Financial Times and The Guardian that are full of financial terms that sound like magic spells from a Harry Potter book can seem confusing at times, so start off with commercial round-ups, podcasts and articles that are adapted to law students. Your network is a great source of information too.

Visit LawCareers.Net commercial awareness hub, take part in the LCN commercial quiz on Twitter on Mondays, digest the Commercial Question on Tuesdays and read the Commercial news round-up on Thursdays; you’ll be an expert in no time!

While preparing for my training contract interview, I annoyingly called my friends and acquaintances working in the legal profession and asking what’s going on and what problems they regularly come across. Looking back, maybe they might have disliked me for asking so many questions but that’s a story for a different day!

To get a good idea of how to perform your best in a video interview, watch this YouTube video.

Vacation scheme or a direct training contract?

A lot of you will face a battle of deciding whether it’s worth applying for a vacation scheme first and my answer is always yes. Never forget how fierce the competition is and that you might be applying alongside students who are fifth generation lawyers and have been preparing for their training contract interviews since kindergarten. Not always the case, but it might be.

To find out when to apply for a vacation scheme, read the Oracle’s advice: ‘When should I apply for a vacation scheme?

A vacation scheme is a great chance to show not only how good you are on paper, but also that you can absolutely smash it in action. It’s a way of building up your network and learning more about the firm and respective roles of each member of the team. It’s also an opportunity for both you and your chosen firm to understand whether you’re a perfect match. Not to mention a lot of firms recruit mostly, or even fully, from their vacation schemes. Which means only one thing – more chances!

To convert your vacation scheme into a training contract you must make a good impression. Be active and involved, show initiative, make sure you understand what’s required before starting each task and do everything with confidence (but don’t confuse this with arrogance). Nobody expects you to get everything right, it’s your willingness to learn from your mistakes that matters.

Read this LCN Feature for LCN’s top 10 tips for making a great impression when on a vacation scheme and getting the most out of the experience – online or face-to-face.

Use this time to build good connections with people via LinkedIn and in person. It’s important to get to know people, but always remember to stay professional. Try not to say things that you think others expect to hear – people want to see your personality, uniqueness and character. If you show that you’re a great person to work with, you’re halfway there.

Build your brand and believe in yourself

My father has been telling me and my sister that our surname is our personal brand since we were kids. I have only recently realised that he’s right. You and the way you do things will never be identical to someone else and that’s why you have to stop comparing yourself and your experiences to others. The only thing you need to focus on is becoming the best version of yourself.

Read this LCN Says to find out how you can use social media to build your brand: ‘Five ways to use social media to kickstart your legal career.’

You need to know what your strongest points are and have enough confidence to demonstrate them. The moment you do, the only competition you’ll have is your reflection. Try to immerse yourself in the experience and give it your best shot. After all, success only follows those who work hard for it. No matter what happens, don’t give up. If I made it, you’re going to make it too!

Anna Samokhina (she/her) is a paralegal and future trainee solicitor at Gowling WLG (UK) LLP. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.