How to demonstrate the key skills every recruiter wants to see in training contract applications

There are a handful of core competencies that the majority of firms/chambers want to see in their recruits. Here we explain how to identify if you've got them and, if so, how to provide evidence of their existence. Read on for a review of the attributes you'll need to succeed.

All aspiring lawyers should already know that law firms recruit high academic achievers. A good degree classification and strong A levels are often therefore a given; they show that a candidate can process high volumes of information and find solutions to the kinds of problems that clients present to their lawyers. A good record at university is also one of the ways through which a candidate may demonstrate the work ethic and discipline necessary to be successful. However, academic ability is just one of several important characteristics which firms’ recruiters are looking for candidates to demonstrate in their applications. But while the way to do well in one’s studies is no secret and is not something that we would presume to lecture readers on, effectively demonstrating the other key skills that recruiters want to see evidence of in applications is more subtle and difficult. Below we set out the key skills any candidate needs to develop in order to secure a training contract, pupillage or place on a vacation scheme, as well as some pointers on how you might demonstrate these on an application form. 

Communication – written and spoken

A lawyer’s primary job is to advise her or his clients on possible courses of action and help each client choose the best one. On matters such as large commercial transactions or litigation cases, complex law and multiple parties are also likely to be involved. The ability to communicate clearly and persuasively when writing or speaking is therefore essential. Lawyers are often tasked with explaining complex legal concepts and actions to clients who are not lawyers and who are much more interested in how to achieve their aims than in the technical aspects of law. And when members of a team of lawyers are each given a task which feeds into a wider transaction or other legal matter, clear communication between colleagues is crucial.

Having good interpersonal skills is also increasingly crucial in a profession where people win work through forming and maintaining strong relationships with clients.

How to demonstrate it

Good candidates will have examples of when they have used and developed communication skills from their wider activities. If you have worked in a customer-facing role or volunteered at a legal advice centre where you needed to both listen to and advise clients, and produce written documents, you should be talking about these experiences as evidence of your communication skills when you write an application.

Networking – the art of striking up conversations with people you don’t know – is another aspect of communicating which will give you a strong advantage if you have any experience of it, which you can talk about in applications and interviews. See LCN’s information on networking opportunities and advice on conversation techniques for more.

Recruiters will get the strongest indication of your written communication skills through how well you put together your application form, CV and/or cover letter, while employers will get a first-hand sense of your spoken communication skills through phone and in-person interviews, and how you get on during any potential vacation scheme placement. Your applications, including your answers to the challenging questions which might be posed, need to be clear, concise and engaging. LCN has more in-depth advice on writing applications, while if you are not used to the formal style demanded in these sorts of applications you should also brush up on these stylistic and grammatical tips. And once you secure an interview, be sure to prepare well.

Teamwork and leadership

The ability to work well with others is everything for most lawyers. Solicitors work constantly in teams within their own firms as well as with their clients, while many also work closely with lawyers in other jurisdictions. Meanwhile, barristers are often characterised as loners and they do indeed tend to spend a lot of time researching and preparing submissions on their own, but barristers also need strong working relationships with their clerks, while major criminal cases or commercial disputes regularly see teams of barristers assembled, as the work is just too much for one advocate. Throughout the application and interview process, you will be being assessed on your ability to fit into a team dynamic and pull in the same direction as your potential colleagues.

This doesn’t mean that you have to like everyone you come across, but it does mean that you have to be able to work professionally alongside many different kinds of people, some of whom probably won’t have much in common with you.

Your ability to take the initiative and lead the way will also be being considered, but you have to be careful – you don’t want to cross the line between providing ideas and organisation, and being overbearing and unwilling to listen to others. As someone seeking a training contract, pupillage or work experience, trying to come across as a little Napoleon is not a good idea. At this stage, it is more important to show that you are a good team player, but are capable of acting with initiative.

How to demonstrate it

As always, you will need examples to support your credentials as a team player. In terms of extracurricular activities and work experience, the obvious one is to be a member of a sports team. But there are lots of other activities that you can do which involve collaborating closely with others, such as playing in an orchestra or other group, editing a student newspaper, being a member of a debating team, participating in a play or other drama project, being part of a dance group, getting involved in student union politics, working with others on an academic project – the list goes on. And this hasn’t included any jobs you might have had. The same goes for leadership – think about any time that you have taken the initiative, thought of a solution which others had not, or done the organisational legwork to get your colleagues, friends or teammates on the right track.

See our guide for more on using your previous extracurricular and work experiences to demonstrate essential soft skills.

Accuracy and attention to detail

As a solicitor or barrister, you will be working with clients and other lawyers on matters where the stakes are high – whether it’s a high-value M&A transaction or a child custody case, there won’t be room for confusion or error. With expectant clients and partners waiting on your contributions and tight deadlines overhanging it all, you don’t want to miss something or make a silly mistake. Obviously then, attention to detail is very important to cultivate – you’ll need to be able consider every aspect and implication of a given task and make sure that there are no spelling errors or unclear phrasing in any document you are tasked to handle. And if you’re dealing with numbers, they need to be checked and double checked to make sure they are right.

How to demonstrate it

Look back through your previous work experiences, extracurricular activities and academic work. If you volunteered at a legal advice centre, charity or similar, it is likely that you would have had to follow specific procedures in carrying out your work – the same will be true in a law firm. Have you ever been required to proofread documents, input data or create graphs or tables? If you have worked in a business, you might have conducted an inventory check or stock take. All such tasks require attention to detail and make for great examples to present in applications.

Deadlines and competing priorities also require good time management skills, so think about when you have multitasked or had to split your time and attention between different tasks.

Commercial awareness

Above all, lawyers are trusted advisers to their clients. There is much more to being a good lawyer than knowing how the law works – you need to be able to apply that knowledge to your client’s circumstances and recommend a practical solution to the matter, while also anticipating any potential stumbling blocks and setting out ways to get around them. For the many practitioners who serve business clients, this means that knowing all about a given client’s business and the wider sector in which it operates is essential.

A commercially aware solicitor also appreciates how her or his firm works as a business. Clearly, firms have to pay attention to their bottom lines in the same way as other businesses, while different firms may focus on different areas of law as their main strengths. Issues such as turnover or a desire for strength in a certain area of law or place may drive firms to merge, pursue a lateral hire or open a new office. And of course firms depend on solicitors being able to win work based on forming and maintaining strong relationships with clients. When you write an application or attend an interview, you will be expected to show potential in both aspects of commercial awareness – the ability to find solutions for clients based on understanding their businesses inside out, and understanding how your chosen law firm works, what its strengths are and so on.

How to demonstrate it

Training contract or pupillage applicants are not expected to be ready-made commercial geniuses. A nuanced understanding of a firm’s clients will come with experience, but you should be able to demonstrate the basic engagement with the wider world that you will need to not come across as ignorant. It is not necessary to read the Financial Times every day to learn about the business world, but you should follow the news from the worlds of business and politics, and be able to express some degree of informed opinion on, for example, Brexit when asked. At this stage, it’s all about showing that you are engaged (which is best demonstrated by having some conversational knowledge of current affairs) and have the ability to think critically about complex arguments (best demonstrated by using your brain to think about these issues and form your own opinions!). LCN has more guidance on useful sources for developing your commercial awareness, while there is no better dose of lawyer-focused commercial analysis than the Burning Question section, in which a lawyer examines a commercial issue from a legal perspective every week.

And for entry-level applicants, understanding how a law firm works as a business is a matter of research. You should read up on your chosen firm extensively before submitting an application. What are its main practice areas? Where are its offices? Does the firm have an alternative business structure licence? Has it been involved in a merger recently? What do the recent news stories and press releases on the firm’s website focus on? Find out this information and use it to tailor your application to the specific firm in question.

Drive and determination

We also spoke to Gemma Baker, head of employability at Aspiring Solicitors and former graduate recruitment manager in the City, who highlighted the resilience that lawyers need in order to be successful and enjoy their careers. “Law, like other careers, can be tough,” says Gemma. “The days can be long and sometimes people can be difficult. You will need to be motivated to ensure that work is done to the highest standard, within deadlines. Recruiters look for candidates with that drive.”

How to demonstrate it

Gemma points out that a driven person is identifiable through work experience or employment history, or through the pursuit of extracurricular activities. “Many of our Aspiring Solicitors’ members have worked in paid employment for 20 hours a week alongside studying for A levels and their degree,” she explains. “This is always impressive and no mean feat! I have to emphasise that evidence of being strongly driven does not have to be law related; I have spoken to partners who have been impressed by candidates who have undertaken a paper round for three hours every morning before school, or those who have worked in retail environments, increasing their responsibilities along the way. However, it is vital to ensure that your time commitment, responsibilities and successes are all clearly conveyed in the work experience section of each application. More often than not, it is not clear how often candidates have worked and what they achieved during their employment.”

Equally, sustained commitment to an extracurricular pursuit is great to highlight when applying. “Recruiters aren’t looking for someone who has signed up to everything going; it is far preferable for someone to have committed to one or two activities throughout sixth form, university or working life, meaning that they can demonstrate their success in roles of increasing responsibility,” explains Gemma. “An example would be entering a client interviewing competition in the first year of your degree, then helping to judge in the second year and organising (and improving) the competition in the third year.”

All about evidence

Showing recruiters that you have the skills needed to be a good lawyer should always involve looking back through your past experiences for evidence. Every skill you might have developed in a previous job or during an extracurricular activity (eg, perfect punctuality, a good telephone manner or an ability to defuse situations when people are upset) is something that recruiters want to know about, as long as you can show evidence of that skill by referring back to your experiences. If you’re having trouble remembering everything, think carefully about all the responsibilities and tasks that, for example, a previous job involved, and write them down. Then think about the skills that you used to do that job. And if you identify a skill in which you don’t have much experience, then that’s just part of the process, as you will now know about this area of potential weakness and be able to do something about it.

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