With the application opening dates for training contracts and vacation schemes fast approaching (and already underway for some firms!), it seemed apt to discuss the application process you may be facing over the coming months. No one will deny that the process is a daunting one, with all manner of hurdles for you to overcome before you finally get the offer you were hoping for. Accordingly, as simple as it sounds, preparation and stamina are both key. Broadly speaking, applying for training contracts and vacation schemes are very similar.
Prior to beginning any application, you need to have an idea of the type of firm you wish to apply for. To do this you’ll need to do your research. Make use of the firms’ graduate recruitment websites and other useful sources such as The Lawyer, Lex 100 and Role on Friday. If you can, find out about any networking events, open days or law fairs that you can attend to meet representatives from the firm and to ask any questions you may have. It provides a good basis for your application if you can justify why you have chosen to apply to the firm. Make a note of the competencies each firm look for in potential candidates too and try to reference this when giving your answers on the application form.
You will need to make a decision as to how many applications you intend to make. This can be a fairly controversial point – some people go for quantity and others go for quality. I have heard of success with both approaches. Personally, I feel quality is the more robust approach ranging from perhaps four to eight applications depending on time availability. Equally though, I have spoken to people who received offers having sent off 25–30 applications. It all really depends on how much time you can dedicate to each one and how thorough you want to be.
If you are deciding how to prioritise the applications you make, bear in mind that it may take you a couple of attempts to really feel like you have mastered the art of answering the questions properly and really making the most of your experiences. With that in mind, I wouldn’t apply to the firm I was especially keen on first. Similarly, find out which firms are recruiting on a rolling basis and which firms do not look at applications until after the closing date. Although it will look better if you are able to submit your application earlier, it may be sensible to prioritise based on the firms that will recruit and fill up spaces as applications are sent in to them.
When it comes to starting the application itself, you will be required to provide information across a variety of areas. These will include: personal details, secondary education, university details and grades, competency questions, work experience, languages and references. Alternatively, some firms may not ask competency questions on the application form but require a covering letter instead. Some firms will ask both competency questions and for the submission of a covering letter. The competency based questions, work experience section and covering letter will provide you with a word count. When writing your answers, make sure you haven’t gone over the word count but make your answer detailed enough to ensure you are as close to it as you can be.
Statistically, the hardest part of the recruitment process is progressing from the application form stage to a telephone interview or assessment centre. The large majority of the firms will receive in excess of 1500 applications for each recruitment cycle so it is important to bear the competition element in mind when making each application. The crucial point here is to tailor each application to the firm in question and really demonstrate that you understand their clients, the work they carry out and the type of trainees they are looking for. Furthermore, make sure you can explain why you will be a good fit for the firm.
While making your application, the competency questions will give you a chance to shine. They will often ask you to incorporate any extracurricular activities you have done, positions of responsibility or particular achievements. Those questions provide an opportunity to make yourself stand out from other applicants. When talking about previous experiences, highlight the things you learnt from them and why this will ultimately make you a better lawyer.
Before you submit your application form, check it thoroughly for spelling and grammatical errors and ensure that it flows when you read through it. Ask someone else to check it – the Careers Service at your university should be happy to do this for you.
After submitting the application form, many firms will contact you automatically to ask you to complete one or more psychometric tests. These tend to take the form of verbal reasoning or situational judgment tests. The rationale behind these tests is to assess the way you think and analyse situations. They are usually completed under a time constraint too, which allows the firm to see how you work under pressure. Some people find these tests difficult but there are plenty of practice versions available online, so make sure you have a look at some in advance of completing them properly.
At this stage, some firms may conduct a telephone interview. This will usually be with a member of graduate recruitment at the particular firm. Graduate recruitment will be likely to contact you prior to the telephone interview itself to arrange a suitable time. Once you are aware of the telephone interview, do some additional research on the firm and any recent cases or deals they have been involved in. Also, have a copy of your application form to hand and familiarise yourself with it as they are likely to ask you to expand on certain points you have made during the telephone interview.
At this stage, the firm may decide to invite you to an assessment centre. The amount of applicants invited to this will vary depending on the size of the firm and the number of trainees they recruit each year. Regardless, it is an achievement in itself to reach that stage. An assessment centre will usually involve spending the day at the firm’s office, completing group exercises and interviews. Some firms will employ an independent assessment company to assess individuals against their criteria to ensure objectivity.
The group exercises will require potential candidates to work together in small teams. The task can vary but will be likely to be a negotiation, presentation or commercial awareness exercise. During the group task, the firm will still be continuing to assess you against their competencies so bear that in mind when making an input into the task.
Throughout the morning some firms will also require you to redo the psychometric tests mentioned above, either in a paper or computer format, or sometimes both. This is usually to clarify that the ones completed prior to the assessment day were done honestly by the applicant and not by another individual. I imagine they also may look to see how your responses to this type of task may differ when you are in an unusual environment under pressure. Moreover, some firms may ask you to complete a written or business related exercise in a set amount of time.
After the morning session, some firms will invite all applicants through to the afternoon. Others will send some applicants away based on their morning performance.
The afternoon session will involve interviews. There may be one or two, either with partners, HR or both. Some firms may conduct a solely competency based interview, expanding on the answers you gave in the application form, discussing current issues in the news and the impact they have on the firm and understanding your motivations for wanting to pursue a career in law. Other firms may give you a business exercise and ask you for your thoughts on it to form the basis of the interview. Each firm will vary in their approach to conducting assessment centres, but ultimately they are looking for potential trainees that can demonstrate how they will fit in with the firm.
After the assessment centre, it will usually be a case of waiting until the firm has made their decision based on your performance throughout the recruitment process.
Remember, some firms are currently accepting applications for summer 2016 vacation schemes, to close on 31 January 2016. Most of the training contract applications will close on 31 July 2016.
Best of luck!