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What I learnt after three years of applying for a training contract

updated on 22 July 2020

Applying for vacation schemes and training contracts can often feel like a full-time job, especially on top of balancing all your other commitments. This is made even harder when you strike out at the application stage or you reach the final interview only to receive a rejection email a few days later.

I’ve been there – for nearly three years I went through the same old cycle, but I finally secured a training contract and three years later I’m nearly qualified. I have set out five key lessons I learnt during this time, as well as some personal examples so you can see these lessons in action.

1. Find your fingerprint

I realised quite early on that the secret to making an exceptional application was to have something unique that would make graduate recruitment pay attention to you. Put yourself in the shoes of graduate recruitment who spend hours, if not days reading applications –they’ve most likely seen and heard it all and are struggling to distinguish between candidates. Now imagine reading an application where the candidate has done something unique and used that experience to align themselves with the firm and their ambition to be a lawyer. This candidate demonstrates why they are different, and their narrative, crafted correctly, assists graduate recruitment in choosing them over the thousands of other applicants.

I learnt this lesson almost serendipitously. As a non-Russell group candidate, I didn’t possess the pre-requisite requirements to apply for most legal events organised by city law firms. Therefore, to fill my university holidays I applied to business and technology focused opportunities at globally renowned companies. This exposed me to the wider business world and considerably improved my commercial acumen. When it was time to answer the question “Why do you want to be a commercial lawyer?”, I could easily speak of my experience in business and align it with my interests in law. Again, crafted correctly, this can be a potent narrative especially when you can cite that you have gained your business interests by working with leading corporations, which may be a client of the firm you’re applying to. One thing that immediately stood out to me was that no law students were participating in these opportunities. This meant that there was a high chance that graduate recruitment would not have heard or seen similar experiences. I was asked about these experiences in every single interview, which helped facilitate a discussion rather than a formal interview.

2. It's not all about the CV  

When I started applying I believed that work experiences and padding your CV with everything and anything was the key. I soon realised that CV padding is actually more harmful than helpful and that you’ll reach a stage where the CV no longer matters. Just as important as your CV, is your ability to interview competently. It doesn’t matter where you’ve worked if you can’t communicate and effectively describe your experiences at the interview. Interviewing is also a skill and even the best candidate on paper might find interviewing difficult. I highly recommend learning about the hallmarks of a good interview and practising your interview skills.

I remember failing multiple interviews and receiving minimal or no feedback. Rejection is a difficult experience, especially when you don’t truly understand why you haven’t been accepted. However, when I started doing mock interviews, I soon realised what had been holding me back. The more I practised the clearer my errors were and having identified this I could then focus on improving. It is highly likely these were the same errors that had held me back at previous interviews. I firmly believe that if I had recognised this earlier and started to develop my interview skills, I would have been successful much sooner.

3. Get to know graduate recruitment 

Once you start attending law fairs and open days you usually start seeing the same people. This is your chance to add value to your application by getting to know graduate recruitment before you submit your application. When your application is received there may be an internal trigger that alerts the recruitment team to the fact that you’ve interacted with the firm before or even better, they can put a face to your application. Part of the recruitment assessment is considering whether you’re a good fit for the firm and its culture. So if you’ve interacted with the firm and left a good impression, this will put you in good stead.

I firmly stand by this advice as I honestly believe it got me most of my interviews. For instance, for my first ever application, I interacted with a particular firm several times – I attended the open day, met them at a law fair and won a business competition organised by the firm. I recall submitting my vacation scheme application and being invited to interview immediately after. I recently came across my application for this firm and it honestly wasn’t my strongest. This showed me that if graduate recruitment are on the fence about progressing an applicant, they could rely on previous interactions to help make their decision.

4. Go at your own pace

Go at your own pace – this is so important that I wanted to say it twice. Like most of you, I also measured my productivity and merit against the success of my peers, especially on LinkedIn. I implore everyone to stop comparing yourself to others and start competing against yourself. Life is stressful enough without having to compare yourself against other people’s expectations or schedules. As with any success you only see and hear about the highlights, you seldom get to understand what happened behind the scenes. Also, it's okay if you realise that you no longer want to pursue a career in law and you want to explore something else. Even as a law student, you are not wedded to the legal industry. There are a plethora of great careers out there so make sure you know what you want and perhaps your search for something else will confirm that being a lawyer is exactly what you want to do.

On my third application cycle, my online connections had begun securing vacation schemes and later converting them into training contracts. During this time, I became jaded and started questioning whether this was the career I wanted to pursue. However, each time I tried to think about following a different career path I realised how much I wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I then looked back at my previous applications and saw how far I had come. I had improved so much, and I felt like I was incredibly close to finally being successful. From then on, I committed to trying only to be better than I was yesterday, and this is something I follow to this day.

5. Staying competitive 

Staying competitive after being rejected at multiple application cycles is difficult, especially when each year there are additional high calibre candidates coming through, thus increasing competition. However, I wouldn’t view those previous years as wasted, because you will have accumulated so much knowledge and improved, which will have made you a much better candidate than before. In addition, there is no upper age limit to securing a training contract. Therefore, staying competitive is totally within your control. You must ensure that you identify the areas you need to improve on and focus on progressing even if it’s slow progress. Above all else, this requires self-awareness – you cannot stay competitive by repeating the same mistakes or following the same attitude and strategy towards your applications.

I recall seeing a friend who I had previously met at an open day. He was a future trainee and asked me how I was getting on with my applications. I told him that I had been getting through to interview but hadn’t been able to get over the final hurdle. He asked me why I thought this was the case and at that moment I genuinely didn’t know. Following that, I sat down and took note of everything I had and hadn’t been doing well in pursuit of securing a training contract. This allowed me to identify the areas that needed improvement and then create a plan to strengthen these areas. As I explained above, I noticed that I needed to improve my interview skills so I undertook various mock interviews and sought feedback.

I hope these five lessons resonate with you and inspire you to keep going despite the setbacks. Three years is a long time when you’re applying and if you had told me then that I would be writing this article as a trainee, I would not have believed you.

Kishan Mathy is a trainee solicitor at CMS with a law focused Instagram page offering advice and insight into life as a trainee.