The Student Guide’s Lauren Long shares her experiences of failure and success in her bid to secure a training contract.
And it doesn’t help when friends and family try to make you feel better by telling you what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. It’s much more comforting to think: screw them, I can do without their training contract, but ultimately you really wanted that offer from a firm, and falling at the final hurdle or indeed any of the hurdles can be crushing.
The key thing, if you still really want that coveted training contract, is to move on and use your time wisely. Law firms, unlike ex-lovers, never use the cliché, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. If you didn’t succeed at an interview then sadly it is you. You have to press the re-set button and consider what it is you need to work on, as knowing where you can improve means you’re one step ahead. My tip: always ask for feedback.
I had my first training contract interview in 2008 at a successful, well-known firm. I looked like an alright candidate on paper: penultimate year of a double law degree, good university, academic prizes, languages, vacation scheme experience, captain of the hockey team… damn was I naïve!
I knew my law but I didn’t know business or how to impress graduate recruiters or, more importantly, partners. I stumbled pretty blindly into training contract interviews the first time round, and it showed. One catastrophic experience lasted only 20 minutes and I left the partners completely unconvinced of my motivation for a career in law, let alone at their firm. I had a lot to work on.
Try, try and try again
I finished my degree, got some more work experience and then set about my second attempt. To begin with I had more questions than answers. Did I send enough applications? Did I sell myself effectively? How could I become commercially aware? What would future assessments be like? How would I overcome my nerves?
The first hurdle is of course the application form. I’d drafted and redrafted mine at least ten times between February and May, as I realised it needed to be less of a polite ‘hello, please hire me’, and more of a ‘you’d be mad not to give me an interview.’ Arrogance won’t get you anywhere, but if modesty is your problem then you need to get used to blowing your own trumpet a little louder. And fast, because if you’re aiming for a training contract at a good firm you’ll need a whole brass band of achievements.
When it comes to the number of applications, the more the better, so long as they are each tailored to the individual firm. You have to set aside a plenty of time to complete application forms, as each one must be perfectly polished.
Start early. There are always some jammy individuals who make one application and land the job, but they are the exception. By the end of July I’d sent 11 applications. By mid-August I had six rejections, three interviews and hadn’t heard from a further two. My best friend sent off 12 applications and only got one interview.
Three interviews meant three chances to impress. It also meant three possibilities of failing again. I’d spent the last year adding to my CV: legal work experience, sport, volunteering, languages, working at Chambers & Partners to keep in touch with the legal market, so I had a lot to talk about. But first I had the assessment centres to contend with.
Partners want to find out if they’ll be happy working with you day in, day out and whether they can trust you to be left with a client without saying something stupid. Staring in to the middle distance like a rabbit caught in headlights and spilling your coffee because you’re trembling so much (happened to a friend of mine) won’t help.
Must try harder
As for myself, I was fortunate that part of my current job involves interviewing people at law firms, so when the role was reversed I was already more relaxed. Going to events and presentations held at universities and law firms, and speaking to the lawyers there, may have the same effect for you.
Some months before the interview season I started picking up City AM every day (free, decent and smaller than the FT) and listening to The Economist podcasts on my way into work. I felt I knew about the major issues and could talk about them in reasonable depth. I knew I also had to break into the interview like Neo in that corridor scene in The Matrix: all guns blazing – figuratively speaking, of course. Enthusiasm and smiling more were also part of my interview mantra, and it worked!
This time round I got a coveted City training contract and I am utterly delighted and hugely relieved to know that I can proceed to the next stage of my long-held and hard-fought for dream to be a practising lawyer. But for every one of my friends who landed a training contract on the first, second or even third attempt, there’s another who is still without.
It’s tough. You will have to work hard and you may have to make compromises. The gods of fate have their part to play, but it’s up to you to use the experience of failure to your advantage and make the most of the time you have to secure that contract next time round. Good luck!
This feature was first published in our October 2010 newsletter.