Application master class

Come training contract application season, do you want to be drowning in a sea of ill-judged, clumsily worded applications? Or would you rather be creating and submitting carefully planned and credible training contract applications? Read on for detailed advice on how to approach the process and edge ever closer to success.

Thinking of applying to Allen & Overy? You and 2,500 others are chasing 90 places. Charles Russell Speechlys? You are competing with 1,200 others for just 24 openings. Irwin Mitchell? You are vying for one of approximately 50 positions against some 2,200 would-be trainees. It's a similar story everywhere. Using a blunt-edged calculation, you have a one in 28 chance of success with A&O, a one in 44 chance at Irwin Mitchell and a one in 50 chance at Charles Russell Speechlys.

The only way to succeed is to submit flawless, well-targeted applications. These are immensely time consuming and tricky to create, and only those who master the art will succeed. This master class is designed to give you the edge.

Step 1: understand yourself

Only by understanding yourself will you know what to emphasise in your applications. This in turn will help you to select your shortlist of firms. The MySelf tool on LCN is designed to help you unpack and assess your achievements so that you can then use the right examples to demonstrate your suitability for the positions you are applying for. Application forms typically ask competency-based questions: you demonstrate your competency by citing examples of your past behaviour. What you don’t do is come up with a list of great-sounding traits and then claim to have them. Demonstrate through your achievements and your long-term commitments. If you have no achievements or fail to identify them at the right place on the application form, you won’t stand out.

If you have no achievements or fail to identify them at the right place on the application form, you won’t stand out.

Remember: work experience in any type of firm/organisation will be useful when applying for a training contract, even if it was within a different type of legal or business environment. The important thing is to have developed an understanding of what lawyers do, and then to use this understanding to answer questions such as 'Why law?' or 'Why do you want to be a commercial solicitor?' It is no longer sufficient to say that you want a stimulating and challenging career that allows you to use your legal knowledge. What is it that excites you about the law? What appeals about becoming a (business) adviser? You might want to consider concepts such as detail, analysis, argument, word craft, risk management, practical thinking, business facilitation and client relationship building. What experience or understanding do you have in relation to these facets of legal practice?

Step 2: create your shortlist of firms

Only by recognising which firms you realistically have a shot at can you prioritise the most suitable ones and allocate your precious time appropriately. Filling in application forms is a time-consuming activity that will weigh heavily on your mind, even when you are doing other things. Spend your time wisely: pick 10 firms and then choose your five top targets from this list. With your top targets, you will need to spend more than a day on each form - maybe three days if you do extensive research. Think that’s OTT? The candidates who succeed can convince recruiters that they are the ideal match for that particular firm and have something valuable and interesting to offer it.

None of this can be achieved unless you know what a firm does, who it does this for, where it is doing it and what its general tone and ethos are. If you want a sponsored law school experience, you are looking at roughly 200 or so firms. Pick the 5% that represent the best match for you and then halve that for your top-five list. 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.

Only by recognising which firms you realistically have a shot at can you prioritise the most suitable ones and allocate your precious time appropriately.

Away from the firm’s own materials and events, there are independent resources such as The Training Contract & Pupillage Handbook and LawCareers.Net. Don't forget Facebook 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, CityLawLIVE and NationalLawLIVE. Sometimes you need momentary distraction during an application form session and following legal social media can feel like a break, even though you’re still learning.

To shortlist, ask yourself:

  • Where do I want to work? Use the LCN website search function to identify your long list of potential firms.
  • What manner of lawyer do I want to be (eg, international, corporate or niche)? Use the LCN search function to make your long list a bit shorter.
  • Do I have any specialist commercial (legal) experience or academic interests? Use the LCN search function to identify firms with practice groups in your preferred fields.
  • Do I have an interest in a particular area of commercial activity (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 developed any relationships within law firms, for example through meeting people at events?
  • Which presentations or other firm-led events did I attend? The following sentence comes across as a perfectly credible reason for choosing 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. Fluff these and you need a very good explanation, such as the untimely death of a close family member or your own serious illness. "I nearly got a 2.1" impresses no one at a time when many firms are looking for "I nearly got a first". Any academic shortfall must be an exception to an otherwise sterling record, and you probably also need something else that hooks in a recruiter. 

Someone with unremarkable A levels who goes on to give an impressive performance at university will be of real interest to recruiters.

Remember: just because you went to a low-achieving school doesn’t mean that you will be ruled out on the basis of your A-level grades. Someone with unremarkable A levels who goes on to give an impressive performance at university will be of real interest to recruiters. Believe it or not, many firms will be keeping a special eye open for this type of candidate.

Step 3: create flawless and meaningful applications

By achieving a high standard in your written applications, you are already improving your odds dramatically. Submitting anything slightly sub-standard equates to immediate rejection, a waste of your time and a blow to your confidence. A flawless application proves that you are capable of producing flawless work as a lawyer. You must perfect the ability to write well and proofread accurately. You must also rope in 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 be demonstrable; otherwise they are just meaningless words on paper, all of which will have been repeated in hundreds of other 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. One in 24, remember?
  • Wordiness = woodenness. Let your answers flow by introducing a concept (beginning), developing it (middle) and underscoring its relevance (end). Persuasion should be your goal, not using the words that you think firms want to read.

Step 4: create a persuasive covering letter

Ideally, if a firm asks for a covering letter, it will indicate how long it should be: 600 words, or a page to a page and a half, is probably about right. Don’t waste too much time 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 Smartie & Co, having first become aware of the firm at a careers day at the University of XXX, when I spoke with two of its trainees. Our discussion about their experiences at the firm led me to find out more about Smartie & Co’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 Hurricane Katrina. I was visiting with family in the southern states of America at the time of this disaster and gained a degree of insight into the consequences of such a large-scale and disruptive event. 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.

It needs to sell you explicitly, but subtly.

The covering letter is hugely important - as much so as the application form itself. Use it to sell yourself. Just as Mad Men’s Don Draper still agonises over every pitch to a client, despite his many years on Madison Avenue, you too should agonise over each covering letter to a firm. 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. Naturally, if you have shortlisted your firms using a particular theme or strategy, then there will be noticeable areas of crossover. For more on writing cover letters, CVs and answers on application forms, read our guide to formal writing.

Ten top tips for online apps

At a time when everyone should be computer literate, there really is no excuse for submitting a bad application. You should approach an online form exactly as you would a paper form - take your time, carefully prepare your responses and pay attention to detail. Here are our top 10 tips for online apps:

  • Do read through the whole application form before you start, keeping a close eye on all instructions.
  • Do plan where all your main boasts will be made. It would be a shame to work a slightly tangential skill or experience into one answer when you turn out to be questioned directly on the issue on the next page.
  • Don't complete the form with your caps lock on except where specified. It's rude, as it looks as if you’re SHOUTING.
  • Do take care with the layout of your application. Consider writing the longer sections using a word processor and then copying the text over. Remember to check after copying, as some characters and symbols may not transfer properly (eg, bullet points).
  • Don’t succumb to 'copy and paste' fatigue. This opens the door wide to calling the firm by the wrong name - recruiters' most-hated mistake.
  • Do use the spell check, although not the US version, which will let annoying Americanisms through. Firms have been known to discard applications immediately on the basis of basic spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.
  • Don’t be tempted to use email or text talk (eg, ‘It wld be wkd to work 4 u’). Write in full sentences and do not abbreviate words.
  • Do make sure that there is some way of keeping a record of your application. Whereas previously you would have photocopied it, make sure you either save it, print it or copy it into a separate document.
  • Do read through your completed application at least three times before you submit it. Boasting of your 'excellen eye for deetail' will not get you the training contract.
  • Do use a sensible email address that you will be able to access throughout the recruitment period. If you graduate in June, your university email address will be shut down, but firms will want to contact you throughout the summer.

 

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