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With recent figures showing that there are an average of 65 people competing for every one training contract across England and Wales, candidates now need to strive for excellence in the application and interview process. In the hope of providing some guidance to TSL readers on how to impress, I caught up with a trainee solicitor from a regional firm. She explains how she secured her training contract and offers some tips for the first few days in practice.
For more help with training contracts, including application reviews and practice interviews, be sure to check out the TSL Mentorship Scheme.
When did you secure your training contract?
I secured my training contract in October 2012, having applied for it over the summer holidays between my second and third year at university. This is the earliest time you should apply, as most firms tend to recruit two years in advance.
How many firms did you apply to and how did you pick which ones?
I applied to 15 firms over the summer. The amount of firms you apply to is up to you, but it is better to do fewer applications with solid background research into each firm. You only need one interview to succeed and you are more likely to get one if you spend time on the quality of your applications.
I used www.lawcareers.net to help me pick which firms to apply to. You can search by region with a list of all of the deadlines. Most of the summer deadlines were 31 July, but some of the regional firms are later. I applied to both city and regional firms. I begun the process of trying to find an auto injury law firm in Los Angeles that I could apply to. Sometimes, it’s better to apply directly to firms than through job sites.
What kinds of questions were on the application for your firm and how did you answer them?
The form was an online application with a range of questions, starting with why this firm and why I wanted to be a solicitor. I was then required to provide examples of personal experiences, such as when I had taken leadership and my greatest accomplishment. The careers service at university had advised us not to use academic accomplishment as our greatest achievement, so I made sure to use life experiences instead.
The careers service at university had advised us not to use academic accomplishment as our greatest achievement…
This is because you need to show you have a social side as well as a good academic record. A lot of work at training contract level is networking. If you can show personable qualities, you can demonstrate the potential to bring new clients to the firm in the future. To display this on the form, it is a good idea to have some extracurricular activities under your belt like pro bono and law society involvement.
Try to give the firm a broad insight into your personality. This means giving different scenarios for different questions so as not to come across as one-dimensional. This is particularly important with regional firms because they look for a specific type of personality to fit in with the ethos of the firm.
How important do you think it is to network with the firm prior to applications?
It is definitely not a prerequisite and I personally didn’t network with the firm I am now training with. In terms of larger firms it doesn’t hurt to get your name out there at law fairs and it really helps to do vacation schemes (vac schemes) so that they know you a little bit. I didn’t do a vac scheme at my firm and they had never heard my name before my application. After all, you can only do so many vac schemes and firms are aware of this.
Did you do a vacation scheme/work experience?
I did a vac scheme at a different firm. Gaining experience at a reputable firm looks good on all of your applications and helps you with answering some of the more generic questions. For example, you’re often asked why you want to be a solicitor. For this, you need to show commitment to the profession and vac scheme experience is the best way to do this. It enables you to speak about work you have observed or undertaken to make your application answers more specific.
I really loved my vac scheme and so far I’ve loved my training contract as well. The work hasn’t been too dissimilar. I moved around areas in my vac scheme with some experience in personal injury and some in commercial property. I’m currently doing a seat involving insurance and I’m finding that skills I gained during my personal injury seat are coming in really handy.
In your interview, was there anything didn’t go so well? If so, how did you recover?
The format was a 30-minute interview with a partner, followed by a 30-minute presentation on a given topic and an in tray exercise. I was most nervous about the presentation because 30 minutes is actually quite a long time to speak for, but it in fact went really well. I managed to get a discussion going with the partners regarding their opinions on the topics I had covered in my presentation, which I think bolstered my performance a bit at the end.
During the partner interview, I was asked if I knew about a legal concept that I hadn’t heard of. Instead of just saying no, I asked questions about it and used it as an opportunity to learn about a new field of practice. It’s always a good idea to come across as keen to learn and to demonstrate a genuine interest in whatever topics you are asked about.
With the written exercise, I was told I wouldn’t need specific legal knowledge in the field. I actually had studied the area of law that the exercise was on and added in one or two hints that I was familiar with it, but I didn’t go overboard on legislative provisions. I didn’t want to come across as though I couldn’t abide by instructions.
Do you have any tips to help others with difficult interview questions?
Nobody knows everything and law firms are fully aware of that. If they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, it is better to ask for a moment to think about it rather than just going off on a tangent. Take time to stay composed and gather your thoughts!
What can trainees expect in their first week with a regional firm like yours?
In terms of work, I’m expected to be independent in managing my workload but there are always people to ask and they’re really supportive.
I’ve been on my training contract for three weeks now and I’m definitely not stuck for things to do, the workload is vast. At the moment I am working on my own cases because of the department I’m in. When I go to the next seat I’ll be doing bits and pieces for other fee earners, but at the moment I am the first point of contact for my clients.
Which part of the LPC do you find you have used most in practice so far?
I would probably say the Solicitors’ Accounts module. I underestimated how much we’d have to deal with accounts, but it really is a day-to-day thing in the life of a practitioner.
I’ve been on my training contract for three weeks now and I’m definitely not stuck for things to do, the workload is vast.
The other main module I have found most helpful is the Practical Legal Research and Writing. Often when I’m speaking with a client, I need to tailor my advice to their level of understanding. For example, if they are a director who has dealt with legal issues before, they might already have background legal knowledge, so to explain everything would be a waste of time. In a lot of personal injury claims you often have individuals who have never dealt with the law, so I’ve found that learning to target my audience during that module has helped.
One of the other tools I became familiar with on the LPC was the Practical Law Company (PLC). It’s like google for law. I haven’t used it for this seat but for other seats I definitely will. It’s really good for researching which forms you need and other practical legal tips. BPP definitely have access to it but I can’t speak for the other providers.
Do you have any tips to help people survive the first week of a training contract?
The main ones are obvious:
• Don’t be late
• Be smiley
• Be smart
Everyone wants to shake your hand on the first day, so get practicing a good handshake! If someone gives you a piece of work, always ask when he/she wants it done by. They might come back to you in 15 minutes expecting it to have been completed. Following from that, I’ve found that it’s important not to give yourself unrealistic targets. If you are already doing loads of work for other people, don’t be afraid to ask someone giving you a piece of work if it can be done the next afternoon or when you’ll have more time.
Lastly, enjoy yourself. Most law firms have social activities and networking events, so make sure you get involved!