“…I refuse to tolerate lists. They’re lazy. And listy.”― Greg Gutfeld.
The competition for Training Contracts (TCs) has always been fiercely intense. Thousands of applicants apply every year for only a limited number of places. It’s important to make sure that your applications demonstrate your strengths and interests as clearly as possible to any recruiter in order to stand out from the crowd. With that in mind, here are my in-depth, top 10 tips to help you try and secure a coveted Training Contract.
1) Choose your route
Firstly, it’s important to take into consideration the many ways you can secure a TC offer. The most commonly referred to ‘conventional’ route would probably look something like this:
Of course, this is a very narrow view of how TC applications function. There are, in fact, a wide variety of routes to securing a TC. A revised diagram of just some of them (not including Paralegal opportunities among many others) might look something like this:
It’s worth taking into consideration which route is most applicable to you based on your levels of experience and education and researching the first steps to starting them.
2) Tailor your application
One of the most important things to keep in mind while drafting your TC application is to make sure you tailor your applications to the firm you’re applying to. Whilst firms can be similar, no two are the same – each have their own culture, clients, strengths and what they’re looking for from their Trainees. Your application should demonstrate specifically why you want to join that firm rather than being a generic and ambiguous copy-paste answer. Recruiters want to see clear motivations as to why their firm appeals to you, as well as how well you would fit in within that kind of firm.
Evidencing these interests can be done in a number of ways, including (but not limited to):
- Highlighting your attendance at events such as open days, law fairs, careers dinners and conferences
- Identifying a specific department/TC seat that you are interested in and referencing the firm’s strengths or recent deals in that area
- Using your academic background (perhaps your module choices, dissertation, or other similar achievement) as evidence of your interest in the firm’s practice areas
- Evidencing your skill set through your attendance at firm-sponsored workshops and courses
3) Be aware of commercial awareness
Commercial awareness is becoming an increasingly expected skill of aspiring solicitors today, alongside many other commercially-focused sectors such as finance or marketing. At its most basic level, commercial awareness is an ability to keep up with the developments of the business world. Why you should have it and how you can develop it further, however, are just as important to know.
Clients need to have faith in their solicitors that they understand the needs of their business. For example, if a client states that they wish to setup a new business in a foreign country, then you (as their solicitor) need to be at least a few steps ahead when it comes to thinking about any relevant and recent changes to the business world which might impact their decision. Has there been a change in regulation, or currency rates, or geopolitical relationships? How will these affect the decision-making of your client?
Alongside this ‘externally’-focused approach to commercial awareness, it is just as important to be ‘internally’-focused as well – i.e., what might impact the operation of the firm you are working for? How do you, as a trainee, fit in the broader picture of a law firm? What are firms doing differently now then they did, say, 20 years ago? What should they be considerate of in the future?
It’s nigh impossible to be able to have a perfect answer memorised for every variation of these questions – but the reality of commercial awareness is almost the exact opposite. It is much more useful to have a developed mindset as to how to view and approach a problem then it is to be able to regurgitate a handful of wildly impractical facts or news articles. Firms will frequently test this at the interview stage of TC applications, so don’t rely on knowing one article word-for-word to get you through – it is much better to be well-rounded across a variety of topics.
4) Identify your Unique Selling Points (USPs)
Whilst typically ‘USPs’ is considered a term for Economics textbooks, thinking of your application as a showcase of them can be a great way to outline what your application needs to say. USPs demonstrate to recruiters what makes you, well, you! USPs could include, but are not limited to:
- Noteworthy academic achievements – essay prizes; final placement in graduation class; notable dissertation topic and grade etc.
- Extra-curricular accomplishments – positions of responsibility in a University society, College or sports team; mentoring; running or coordinating an event or performance with others etc.
- Legal experience – work experience or placements; open days; scholarships etc.
- Non-legal work experience – working in retail, part-time jobs, right through to years of professional experience outside of the legal sector
Your USPs should ideally communicate your ability to:
- Work well with others, in a variety of roles
- Produce effective and consistent results relative to your role
- Seek out challenge with a willingness to learn
- Excellent communication skills, with an ability to adapt to the situation at hand
- Handle responsibility and (if applicable) an ability to delegate it to others effectively
- Go above and beyond what is expected of you
The above are just some recommendations as to how to both identify and outline your USPs. Go back through your CV and see what unique combinations of experience, education, personality and work ethic you can evidence to your employer. Writing down what you believe your USPs to be before you begin your first draft can really help give your application direction.
If you’re wanting to learn more about the ‘USPs’ concept, check out my podcast episode on ‘Trainee Talk’ with The Corporate Law Academy here.
5) Do your homework
As I previously mentioned, it’s important to tailor your applications to the firm you’re applying to through thorough research and planning. Should you be successful in moving on from the initial application stages, its likely you’ll face a combination of aptitude tests, interviews and assessment centres. Whilst firms will update the specifics of what a candidate is tested on – the questions asked in a video interview, or task given for group exercises at assessment centres, for example – you can often find articles or forums online in which previous candidates have described their experiences. These can be invaluable in calming any nerves before your assessment, or give a clue as to what to expect.
6) Network (effectively)
Events such as law fairs, legal conferences, open days and careers dinners offer an inimitable opportunity to network with recruiters and trainees face-to-face. Whilst LinkedIn is an invaluable resource for connecting with individuals, these face-to-face opportunities are much more effective. They present the perfect chance to ask firms your burning questions and get an instant, personal response. Do your best to outline which firms you want to know more about before you go, as well as a rough idea of the questions you want to ask them.
Networking opportunities are not the one-stop shop for securing a TC – recruiters won’t be looking to hand them out on the day to the ‘best-dressed’ or ‘most-keen’ person they talk to that instead. Be presentable, of course, and try to demonstrate your enthusiasm through meaningful questions that you couldn’t obviously Google the answer to. Aim instead, however, to find out what the firm is all about, as well as what they are looking for from their applicants.
Should a recruiter, trainee or other notable contact offer to keep in touch with you following a conversation, take it! So, so many candidates fail to follow up on these opportunities out of fear of embarrassment or lack of interest. Make a note of their email address or name and send a personalised connection request via LinkedIn in the following days with reference to your conversation a few days prior. It demonstrates initiative and interest, as well as being a fantastic contact to have should you need some guidance in future.
7) Recognise TC applications are a two-way process
Speaking to the above points re: networking, it’s important to remember that you might end up working for your firm a long time after your TC is done. When looking into firms to apply for, it’s a good idea to have questions like these at the forefront of your research:
- Is the firm located in where I want to work, and if applicable does it have international offices in cities I’d like to collaborate with?
- What are the firm’s strongest departments/seats? Does it matter to me if they are not leading in the area of law I want to specialise in?
- What is the firm’s working culture like – collaborative, ‘dog eat dog’, diverse, relaxed, or perhaps more traditional?
- What makes me want to work at this firm over any of its competitors?
- Does the firm provide adequate secondment opportunities for what I’m interested in, be they international or client-focused?
- Who are the firm’s major clients?
- Where does the firm want to be in 10 years time? How is it going to get there? What role would I play?
These are also excellent types of questions to ask at the end of any face-to-face interview, just like any internally-commercially-aware questions. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to make sure the firm sell themselves to you as you have to them, but by the same token don’t be assuming of your TC success in your tone before you’ve actually got it!
8) Be your-(authentic)-self
It is surprisingly easy to come across as an ‘overly robotic professional’ throughout the application process, especially given the need to highlight your academic and professional achievements. Firms will also, however, be looking for candidates who will be a good cultural fit outside of the office walls – especially during networking events, or perhaps during lunches/social with trainees and the Graduate Recruitment team. Firms will want someone who will work hard, yes, but also be able to contribute to the social side of working life both inside and outside the office. Make sure you’re able to recognise the difference to respond accordingly between a Partner panel interview quizzing you on your legal knowledge and a casual chat with trainees about the extra-curricular activities they may have been up to whilst working there.
9) Don’t leave it to the last minute
Firms can vary massively in how they conduct their search for their future trainees. Usually, they will set a hard deadline for initial online applications to be in, with a view to then whittle down to the final candidates through a combination of tests, interviews and assessment centres. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that some firms sift through candidates on a rolling basis as opposed to waiting until after the deadline. This makes the timing of your application critical – sending it too late or near to the deadline might mean other candidates secure interviews or assessment centres before yours is even read by a recruiter. Firms also receive an overwhelming majority of their applications in the days leading up to the deadline, as many students will often work they way down a list of TC application deadlines in order of ‘urgency’ rather than ‘importance’ (i.e. not applying to their favourite firm first but rather the one whose deadline is next). Getting your application in before these increased windows of activity might increase the likelihood that the firm will have more time to thoroughly analyse your application – which sounds scary, but is actually a good thing!
10) Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever give up
Perhaps leaving the most important tip until last, but persevere. Training Contracts are coveted, therefore competitive, with thousands of applicants every year. They aren’t the only way in to the legal profession. In other words…
I hope the above tips help you throughout the application process. If you want to get in touch with me to ask any questions, you can do so here.