What to do? You have wanted to be a lawyer since first watching To Kill a Mockingbird (aged 8)/Ally McBeal (12)/This Life (15)/A Few Good Men (last week on Fiver +1), but the market is crowded – there seem to be a million people after the same vacation scheme or training contract as you, and every single one of them has a double first from Cambridge, has work experience at the Hague, climbed Everest solo and was blessed with a godparent who happens to be the managing partner of a Magic Circle firm. Probably best to just give up, no? No, not if you really do want to be a solicitor, there are training contracts out there and you don’t have to have all, or any, of the above in order to get one. You do, however, have to apply, which is not as simple as it sounds.
Everyone has a different approach to making applications, but the careers department at my law school had one motto – qualitas in quantitate (or ‘quality over quantity’ – get used to finding random Latin phrases in the middle of otherwise sensible writing). After nodding in sage agreement, half my GDL group then spent the next two weeks spraying out in excess of 50 applications (I knew someone who sent over 100!). Some of these guys secured interviews but it must be said they were the minority. Personally, I went for a mixed approach. I applied to about 15–20 firms, of which 10 were carefully thought through, clearly reasoned and fully focused applications to firms with whom I felt I would fit in and who seemed to offer everything I was looking for from a training contract – these resulted in five interviews. The rest were sent to firms that had quick and ‘easy’ online application forms, where generic answers could be easily copied with only minor modification – these resulted in zero interviews. Lesson learnt.
So based on my experience securing a training contract, here – for what it’s worth – is my advice on how to complete online application forms:
1. Initial entry requirements
Some forms will start by stating their academic entry requirements and asking if you fit the bill. Firstly, don’t lie and hope the rest of the application will convince them to interview you anyway. If you don’t meet the criteria then read point 3 of this article; if you do meet them, then click ‘Yes’ and continue.
2. Email address
No one would be stupid enough to put down a ‘funny’ email address, obviously… Well that’s not strictly true because, speaking to graduate recruitment honchos recently, it would appear quite a few people still do. This is very simple – don’t. Whilst we all hopefully realise that ‘boozehound@’ is not a good email address, please also note that ‘legallizzie’ or even just ‘jonesy’ etc are not really appropriate either – you are applying to law firms, to be a solicitor. It takes two minutes to register a new email address, so do it right now – just your full name or initials and surname. If you want people to take you seriously, then take yourself seriously.
3. Minimum entry criteria/academic results
Does the firm set a minimum academic entry criteria? Do you meet it? HR departments at most firms will have to sift through literally thousands of applications and will often immediately whip out those which don’t meet the entry criteria (some online applications won’t let you progress with your application if you don’t meet the A level/degree award set). That said, if you have mitigating circumstances or only just fall short then call the HR department in person and ask for their advice. Don’t be afraid to call HR – they are humans and will want to help, but don’t call them every day or flag yourself up for the wrong reasons!
4. The ‘how’ questions
Now for the bit of the form where you put yourself forward – your chance to impress. Online applications will have a series of questions, mostly non-law but occasionally with a legal tint. Don’t be afraid of this part of the form – it is your best opportunity to turn the application into an interview.
First, remember to ‘sell yourself’ – your application is not the place to come over all shy about your achievements, though please also remember that the people reading it aren’t stupid and won’t appreciate extreme hyperbole: getting your dad to sponsor the school football kit is not ‘experience brokering advertising deals with leading individuals and implementing an effective marketing campaign on their behalf’.
Second, remember that (unlike school) the marks in this exercise are not awarded for the answer itself but for the way you communicate it. They want to see how you answer the question. For example, if the question is about ‘your biggest challenge’, then a well written, well structured and relevant piece about saving money for university will be much more appreciated by the recruiter than a badly structured prose detailing your solo Atlantic rowing adventure (although if you have done that, this would be a good place to mention it I imagine). There is normally no right answer to these questions, but they will expect you to show thought, understanding, persuasiveness and clarity (like a solicitor should) in your answers. There is no set formula to answering these questions but, as always, some people seek comfort in an acronym – in this case ‘STAR’:
Situation – set the scene.
Task – what was required, when, where, who, etc.
Action – what did you do about it, which of your many skills did you use?
Result – what was the outcome?
Again, whilst I am not suggesting any of you misremember what actually happened, always keep an eye on what you are applying for and what firms want from trainees. Teamwork with a dash of leadership, commercial awareness, initiative, tenacity, ability to focus on outcomes, attention to detail, dare I say it even ‘creativity’. When giving your STAR answers try not to give the same example more than once, you’ll appear one-dimensional and let’s face it: you’re more diverse than that!
5. The ‘why’ questions
Generally split into two:
As with the ‘how’ questions, remember to structure your answer and communicate it as a solicitor would. Try to be honest and make sure your answer is not generic rubbish couched in annoying marketing speak. ‘I want a truly challenging and rewarding career surrounded by inspirational creative individuals, working together as a team in a goal-driven international environment…’ even if this meant anything significant, it is in no way specific to a legal career. Be original and if possible just be completely honest. I can almost guarantee you will be asked this question again at interview and you will need to have a convincing and relevant answer that you can expand upon and justify. Your answer to this will need to have some relevance to the sort of firm you are applying to, as well as to a legal career. It’s no good talking about your attraction to multi-jurisdictional shipping litigation if you are applying to a probate specialist firm based in rural, and overtly landlocked, Leicestershire.
This is a very important question. Repeat after me: ‘Every firm is different’. Thus your answer must not be the same in any two applications. This is your chance to show what you know about the firm and link that with what you have said about yourself and why you want to be a lawyer. Research the firm in detail: Who are its clients? What type of firm is it? City, niche, etc.? What areas does it specialise in? What areas are trainees currently in? What is its USP? What are its achievements? What are its goals and aspirations – and how do they link with yours? This question – more than any other part of the form – gives an insight into how much you really want to work for them, how suited you are to doing so, and how good you are at researching in a commercial arena and understanding what the firm actually does and who it does it for.
It sounds simple but if you have an interest then make sure you are only applying to firms who will be able to train you in that area. If you want a career advising FTSE 100 companies on M&A, then training seats in Family, Private Client, PI and Residential Property may leave you with a large (potentially immoveable) obstacle blocking your path. If you do know what interests you then get researching which firms are currently strong in that area – use Chambers Guide, Lex100, websites like LawCareers.net, TheLawyer, etc. to work out which firms you need to have a closer look at.
What type of applicant does the firm want? What type of trainees does it have at the moment – some firms will be truly eclectic whilst others are remarkably consistent. Are you what they are looking for? If yes, then concentrate on showing them this. Highlight the relevant bits of your CV and personality. As a trainee you will be expected to spend a lot of time researching and writing concisely – show them you can do this in your application too!
6. Work experience
More often than not you will be required to list your work experience. It is essential, just like the other ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions above, that you present the roles and responsibilities you’ve had in a way that would appeal to those reading your applications and, once again, ‘sell’ you as a future solicitor. Do not simply list the things you’ve done but apply them to reflect the tasks carried out by solicitors on a day-to-day basis.
This section should communicate to the recruiter that your work experience is focused on a career in law, that you have immersed yourself in the industry and know what you are getting yourself into – this means legal work experience. If you haven’t already, you should start getting serious about seeking vacation placements, volunteering for your local legal advice centre, and anything else you can think of. This will let recruiters know you are serious about your future as a solicitor.
7. Interests and achievements
This is a great opportunity to let the firm know a bit more about you. There is very little for me to say here as this section will be different for each and every one of you. Be aware that this is another chance to show off a bit, but also beware of hyperbole. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend going down the route of listing all the societies you have ever been a member (or not) of, and all your positions at school. What have you actually achieved – were you elected to lead any of these societies, did you create something yourself, have you focused your efforts somewhere and reached a goal? If yes, then explain this but let the recruiters decide what this says about you so, ‘I was captain of the 1st XV university’ is an achievement, but they will decide what it shows about you – don’t qualify it yourself with ‘which means I am a natural leader, am used to teamwork, and thrive at whatever I choose to do.’
In terms of interests just be honest – don’t try to come across a certain way as you don’t know what they are looking for and you may be asked about it further at interview. A classic example is a GDL friend of mine who listed ‘tree rings’ as one of his interests and at interview at one of the top firms in the City it turned out his interviewer shared this interest – luckily he truly was into it, so they had a great discussion about it. Don’t feel pressure to conform to ‘standard’ interests; even if it’s obscure, the more passionate you are about something the easier it will be to convince someone reading your application, or an interviewer later on, that you are a well-rounded person and, ultimately, right for them. Plus, if your interest catches the eye of your interviewer, you can spend longer talking about that ‘safe, comfortable, could spend days discussing this’ hobby as opposed to answering the law-related ‘is it just me or is it hot in here?’ questions.
If you feel you don’t have enough to satisfy this section it’s not too late to find yourself a new interest; there are a wealth of activities out there – you just have to find them.
This one is very simple – don’t lie. If you’re fluent say so, if you’re conversational say so, if you can get by then say so but don’t pretend to be better than you are – you will be very quickly and embarrassingly found out.
Only two rules here: ask permission of the person before listing them and make sure they are relevant (e.g. one recent academic tutor and a school teacher or previous employer – not your dad).
10. Finally – don’t let yourself down
There are plenty of things beyond your control – your past results, lack of legal experience, the quality of other applicants, etc., but there are certain things that are within your control. Make sure each application is as good as it can possibly be, make sure it is focused and clear. If possible, ask someone from the Careers Department to read it and give their views, but also ask someone who has nothing to do with law to read it – see how you come across as a person in your application; is this how you want to come across? Finally, make sure all the spelling and grammar is correct; don’t just rely on spell check as it will not pick up some errors.
A good application will make the person reading it want to meet you, when they do meet you a good interview will hopefully leave them wanting to work with you (or at least wanting you to work for them!).