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Training contracts: how to get them, do’s and don'ts, and a practical approach

updated on 07 July 2020

Having recently completed my Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) with The University of Law, I am taking time to reflect on this past year and what I have achieved, as I am sure many of my peers are doing while enjoying some much-needed sunshine! With the LPC fast approaching, the end to my legal education journey is in sight and with that comes the daunting penultimate step before qualification: the training contract.

I have secured a TC starting in 2022 and with deadlines for applications coming in hot this summer, I wanted to share my top tips for students at any stage who are applying for TCs. Doubtless many of you reading this will have perused countless videos and articles on LinkedIn during lockdown, gathering advice from all levels on this topic. I hope to provide an honest, practical and most importantly, attainable approach which you may find useful for the interview/assessment centre stage.

1. Preparation

Take a methodical approach prior to the interview or assessment. Try to establish from the outset which firms appeal to your skills and interests, and apply to firms that you want to work at. This will make answering questions in interviews much easier, as you will come across as authentic and sincere, and your passion for their business won’t be forced. They are not all the same, so take some time to form and narrow down your personalised list of firms. Applications are a two-way process. In an interview, you are looking to find out if this place and these people are the right firm for you just as much as they are deciding if you would be a good fit for them.  As you are answering their questions, the best way to get noticed and impress is to mention deals that the firm has recently been involved in, and achievements and awards it has received, or simply social or charitable events the firm has hosted that inspire you and relate to your interests. This is all part of the preparation process and anticipating what they are going to ask you.

2. Research and interview technique

If you are successful in the first stage of the written application, ensure that you are fully prepared for interviews and assessment centres. This is usually how the firm will size you up in person and test the contents of your CV and cover letter in a practical way. All that’s left is you, and convincing them why they should hire you as a person, and that you are not just an academic list of grades. Research is not just about reading through the firm’s website and goes beyond your initial preparatory notes.

Check out the Legal 500 for the firm’s rankings in different sectors, what its clients have said and its competitors (as you may be asked to demonstrate how the firm might market itself to stand out from other competitors in the field).

Check out LawCareers.Net for any awards they may have received for trainee retention and satisfaction, and bring any of these points up in your interview where relevant to illustrate your curiosity and research. Has this firm created long-term relationships with its clients? If so, how? To best prepare yourself for complicated questions, research is key. While it might seem obvious, it is also important to remain calm and take a breath and a minute to think about your response. An interviewer will respect a well thought through and potentially conversation stimulating point much more than a short, inaccurate answer for the sake of being quick to fill the silence.

If you come up with any questions during your research that cannot be answered by anyone but an employee of the firm, don’t be afraid to ask. Q&A time at the end of your interview is still part of the assessment, and you will show further interest and commitment if you enquire about things that caught your eye, thereby showing that you have done your homework.

3. Teamwork

Assessment centres will usually involve some form of group activity, such as a group presentation or problem-solving exercise. Note: you may not be given a time limit, so be aware of and pay attention to the detail of exactly what the task involves. In one of my assessment centres, the chief executive gave the candidates a task to solve a simple mathematical problem with numbered cards. The group dived in like those cards were the last chocolate bar on earth! Why was everyone rushing? It was chaos and the next day, as anticipated, we were given feedback that the answer we had given was wrong and we had lacked effective teamwork.

It is important to understand from the outset that working in a law firm is all about teamwork. This means listening as well as occasionally speaking up and taking the lead. Often, being a good leader means being the best team player that everyone looks up to, respects and appreciates, enabling all ideas to flow. There will be plenty of opportunities to complete a task for a client as a team, whether you are a trainee or qualified solicitor, so it is paramount that you are able to display this key skill early on in your career.

4. Don’t let your guard down

They are always watching!

My final point is to emphasise that your behaviour while at the firm will be assessed throughout your time there. I have encountered many candidates who put on their best face and 100% effort into a task when the partner is watching and then transform into a screen slave who refuses to make eye contact with you when they think the assessment is over. You are constantly being observed so don’t make this silly mistake. Talk to the people around you, engage with the other candidates and make connections. Or, if you’re flying solo, chat to other members of staff, or offer to make a coffee with them and find out how they got there. A key thing to remember is that everyone’s opinion matters, no matter where they might sit in the hierarchy of the firm. The receptionist that signed you in before your interview is most likely to be asked by the partners or managers how you acted out of the direct spotlight to get a feel for what you would truly be like to work with on a day-to-day basis.

Make your time at the firm memorable for the right reasons and you will soon see the offers flooding in! Good luck.

Olivia Atkinson is a GDL graduate and is due to start her training contract in 2022.