How to get a training contract

True confessions of a training contract applicant - part 1

Part 1 of a recurring blog

Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4


Another year

And so it begins again. That was my first thought when – roughly eight months after submitting my first application and an (agonizing) two months after my one vac scheme had ended – I found out that my first year of training contract applications had yielded nothing.

Or at least that's what it felt like at the time. With hindsight, I gained a lot of valuable experience and learnt a lot about what I want from my hypothetical legal career.

Now I'm another few months on I still don't yet have a training contract but I have identified a number of things that I needed to change about the way I approached my applications.

First, 11pm on 31 January is not the time to be submitting your first vacation scheme application. No matter how busy your summer was with work placements, holidays and (for those needing to earn a living while looking for a training contract) job-hunting it's definitely worth beginning some initial research as early as possible.

Many firms review applications on a rolling basis, not least because sifting through 1000+ forms takes time! Applying early seems to be a trick that most people miss. I asked the head of graduate recruitment at a City firm when she receives most applications and was told that over half arrive on the day of the deadline!

Secondly, when you look at an old application form and can't tell why you applied to that firm or what you wanted them to know about you, it's not surprising that they couldn't tell either.

Finally, the dreaded typo. I can still see the stubborn blank patch where an apostrophe should have been, the absence of which almost certainly cost me one particular application.

These are all mistakes I could easily have addressed if I'd given myself more than just a few hours to draft, edit and submit all my applications.


The year I made contact 

Having spent the summer identifying what had gone wrong the previous year, as soon as application season began (approximately the beginning of October) I set about approaching a new set of application forms very differently.

I began putting together my first application in mid-October and right now (still two weeks before I submitted my first application last year) I am on the way to having 12 submitted by the January deadline. I've also already been through one telephone interview and an assessment day.

Starting early meant I had more time to devote to each application. And while law firms might give an estimate of the time it takes to complete a form in hours, realistically it can take days or even weeks.

Having more time has meant that I have been able to think about each question, identify what the firm is looking for and then tailor my answer to fit the way the firm advertises itself.

In previous years I couldn't find a decent answer to some questions. This year I broke down each type of question and compiled bullet-pointed lists of information that would be useful no matter which firm the application was for.

Unlike last year – when lack of organisation and time were a big problem – I have not copied and pasted between any applications. I've certainly used similar information and given similar answers to similar questions but I have always started typing from scratch. I found that this automatically encouraged me to tailor my answers and made it less likely that I'd miss small differences in wording between questions. 


Pick me! 

Usually questions can be broken down into three broad categories: why should the firm pick you (these are usually competency-based questions about things like teamwork); why have you picked the firm; and how can you demonstrate knowledge of the wider legal and commercial context in which a firm is doing business.

To be able to answer the first type of question – why should the firm pick me – I began by compiling a table of all the work experience, volunteering and extra-curricular activities I had undertaken, matching each up with skills which I thought firms might require. I included everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – you never know what will be useful until you're sat staring at a particularly odd question. I found that when I thought about it I actually had a lot more to offer than I first realised!

Most firms are quite good and clearly indicate the traits they are most looking for. Beyond these all firms usually look for teamwork, leadership and commercial awareness skills. My list meant that no matter how strangely a question was worded, provided I could identify what it was really asking me I had an answer firmly backed-up with practical examples. As far as possible I tried to use an example from a different experience for each question. This is also an opportunity to show off about yourself as much as possible!

It's always worth asking other people – colleagues, friends, family – about your experiences and skills. If you're anything like me, a sketchy memory and slightly dismissive attitude to some of your experiences could be preventing you from formulating a comprehensive list of skills. Getting someone else's perspective on you and what you have to offer can be very helpful, and is always enlightening!


Know your firm

To answer why you have picked the firm, I've found that having the time to really consider what it is about each firm that appeals to me has helped enormously. I contacted members of HR at different firms with questions, approached trainees at law fairs (many of which you can sneak into even if you don't attend the institution) and went to firm open days. Nothing helps answer the question 'why this firm' more than being able to picture the building and a few faces.

But the real trick to nailing the 'why this firm' question is to identify the main impression the firm is trying to give of itself, then use this to shape your answers. The place to identify that 'one thing' is usually the graduate recruitment website, or the firm's website as a whole. Almost every firm uses buzzwords like 'innovative', 'ambitious' or 'dynamic'. However, some stress a particular aspect of themselves above anything else.

If it's difficult to identify anything unique about a firm from its own marketing materials, then the Chambers Student Guide can be very useful. Individuality is what the True Picture features are built around. And if something’s mentioned in the Student Guide that means it's an issue which a majority of trainees agreed on, so it's often a good reflection of the image a firm wants to project of itself.


Beware awareness

To prepare for commercial awareness questions I used all the usual suspects – the Financial Times, BBC News online, The Lawyer etc.

One thing I especially recommend is signing up for a free subscription to the FT online: it allows you to scan snippets of all articles and access a handful of full ones each month. I have found that by being selective I have been able to read the majority of the information I need without having to pay.

Chambers Student, the University of Law website and other legal careers publications currently have very useful articles covering the biggest issues affecting the legal industry and wider commercial world.

Commercial law firms will expect you to know about both the commercial and legal worlds. I'd advise reading a variety of different opinions and then formulating your own. Nothing displays individuality and understanding better than being able to express a personal and well-supported opinion on an important issue.


For the moment my search for a training contract and vac scheme continues. In future newsletters I'll hopefully be sharing more of my experiences as I go through interviews and assessment days.


This feature originally appeared in our January 2014 newsletter.


>>> Read part 2