The risks and rewards of putting all your eggs in one basket - a blog post by a recently successful training contract applicant.
There's no denying that securing a training contract is ridiculously competitive. Like many applicants out there, I worked really hard to put together a decent CV including a first-class degree, business and legal work experience, society positions, awards and scholarships. Loaded with credentials but fearful of competition, I sent off countless copy-paste-tweak applications to I-don't-know-how-many law firms in a desperate attempt to secure that coveted training contract. The more applications I sent off, the better chance I had, right? Well, four years of not even getting an interview suggested I was probably doing something wrong. Not really surprising, given my cluster bomb approach of indiscriminately firing off cliché-filled drivel to anyone who didn't ask for a cover letter.
This year I decided to change tack and submit just one application. I'm ecstatically happy to report that my application was successful and I have since been offered a training contract with a top City firm! I never thought I'd be in a position to write this blog post and I'm delighted to have the opportunity to share my experience and hopefully offer some useful tips to those applying this year.
Choosing the firm was a hugely important decision. I had just one chance this year (self-imposed, admittedly) and if I was, by some miracle, going to land the job, then I wanted to be sure that it was 'the one'. I crave the City life and want the opportunity to work in a commercial firm which is large and reputable enough to attract interesting mandates, while being small enough to offer a high level of responsibility to its trainees. So I decided to restrict my search to highly-regarded, small to medium sized firms, aided by the law firm search on chambersstudent.com and rankings in Chambers UK.
Many firms out there offer a wide and diverse range of legal services, so checking several secondary resources, prior to the firm's own website, is helpful in working out each firm's key areas of expertise. Chambers Student Guide provides a particularly useful True Picture of firms, their strategy and culture, based on trainee testimonial. I read this alongside the firm's graduate brochure and lawyer biographies to check that I was applying to a firm which offered a collaborative and supportive work environment with a relatively healthy work/life balance (yes, I want my cake and I want to eat it).
I was certain that my extensive research, tailored answers and meticulous re-drafting meant that I had produced my strongest application to date.
Thankfully, many firms seemed to fit the bill, so the final cut came down to the most interesting deals that I could find in The Lawyer and the rest of the legal press. I found one firm on my shortlist which had had a particularly interesting year in terms of its work highlights and recent accolades. I already had a good understanding of this firm from my prior research and I felt that talking about some of their recent success would help me demonstrate my passion and interest in joining the firm. I was also free of the embarrassment that my once cookie cutter style application had ever made it to their desks: their application required a cover letter.
While my writing experience includes several essays, dissertations, articles and policy papers, nothing equates to the literary prowess that went into writing this application. Akin to Bruce Bogtrotter's cake in Roald Dahl's Matilda, this masterpiece contained the blood, sweat and tears of several months of meticulous research and re-drafting. I kept the basic facts (work history, achievements, interests etc) fairly snappy, so as to avoid repeating myself when I discussed my relevant skills and experience in the additional questions. In some of these questions, I decided to use one of their recent deals as a case study which demonstrated the reasons why I was interested in the firm and how I had the ability to work on such mandates. Referring to the firm's clients, recent work and growth statistics definitely added more punch to my argument and showed that I had really done my homework. I coupled Orwell's six rules for writing with the rules of deduction I had learnt in logic at university, to construct an articulate, persuasive and succinct argument as to why I was a fantastic candidate. I was certain that my extensive research, tailored answers and meticulous re-drafting meant that I had produced my strongest application to date.
I was invited to an assessment day! I had one week to prepare for what would be my only chance of securing a training contract this year and, while I had been to a number of interviews before, this was my first experience of the unique beast that is a training contract assessment day. I was thankful to my past self for having taken part in a mock assessment day at university, which gave me a really useful insight into how to approach typical interview questions and group tasks. I sought the advice of several friends who had been through similar assessment days and consulted my employer for feedback on my performance in group tasks and interview situations. My remaining days were spent re-familiarising myself with my application, practising interview questions and debating current business stories with anyone who would listen. I took everyone's very sensible advice of getting a good night's sleep the night before and then BOOM, it was here.
It was interesting to see how many applicants chose to wear mini-skirts, crumpled suits, and cardigans covered in cat hair.
I arrived 30 minutes early for the assessment day: enough time to grab a coffee, collect my thoughts and sort out my hair which, post-tube, can only be described as a tribute to Rod Stewart's effervescent mullet of the 70s. Take a hairbrush people! Despite the saturation of advice out there regarding suitable interview attire, it was interesting to see how many applicants chose to wear mini-skirts, crumpled suits, and cardigans covered in cat hair. I spent most of the weekend before the interview marching through a shopping centre chanting 'dress for the job you're applying for, not the one you have', and would recommend everyone to follow suit (pun intended).
The day consisted of a quick succession of writing tasks, group exercises, presentations and partner interviews. I remained friendly and polite to absolutely everyone that I met throughout the day and tried to remember everyone and address them by their names. During group tasks, I offered my role in the group at the outset ('I'll keep time', 'I'll take notes', etc) and made sure to engage with and encourage conversation between my peers. Time was an issue in both the group and written exercises (perhaps intentionally), so make sure to allocate your time between the various tasks you are set in order to give your best and most rounded performance. These may sound like little things, but it's the little things that make the difference.
When it came to the two partner interviews, I tried to focus on staying calm, confident and speaking slowly and clearly. A good lawyer needs to communicate well, after all. Taking several deep breaths on the walk to the interview room helped calm my nerves and I was able to fool my ticker into thinking that this was just a casual chat with a friendly guy in a suit. I tried to answer the questions with confidence, good eye contact and a reasonable balance of seriousness and friendly humour (where appropriate).
I truly believe that being out of law school for a few years made me much better equipped to answer the more commercial and business-oriented questions.
We had to complete a series of tasks prior to one of the partner interviews, so I made sure to make lots of notes and highlight important points which I thought might be discussed. I truly believe that being out of law school for a few years made me much better equipped to answer the more commercial and business-oriented questions. The key to working through these tasks really came down to following the instructions in front of us and having a common-sense understanding of business and commerce. Of course, I didn't know all the answers, but I made sure that when I could argue a point, I did so coherently. The day ended with lunch and I made sure to ask a reasonable number of sensible questions. If there's an awkward silence, fill your fork, chow down and don't forget Plato: 'Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.'
I received a call from the firm later that day with an offer for a training contract! I was absolutely ecstatic and have since accepted the offer to start at the firm in two years. Like many others out there with the hard-fought dream of becoming a solicitor, my ability to qualify rested on sponsorship for the LPC and I feel incredibly lucky and relieved to be able to start my legal career with the support of my future firm. My advice to anyone hoping to secure a training contract is to take your time drafting stunning, tailored applications, heed all the advice and support available to you and use assessment days to demonstrate your ability to look, act and talk like a lawyer.
It's a tough market and the competition is fierce, but there are close to 5,000 training contracts out there, so someone has to get them!
This feature originally appeared in our December 2014 newsletter.