Simon, Trainee Solicitor at Shoosmiths, shares his tips for training contract application success and how to avoid some common pitfalls.
Simon Chapman, Trainee Solicitor
A training contract is considered the 'holy grail' for those wishing to pursue a career as a solicitor. In today's competitive landscape, receiving an offer can be tough. You might feel like you've been sending off application after application and getting nowhere, or making it through to assessment days and interviews but not quite making it. Don't worry, we've all been there!
I remember speaking to a fellow candidate after an assessment day a few years ago. I asked him how his day went, to which he replied 'I've been applying for a few years now, I think I'll make this my last one. Some people have it, others don't; unfortunately I'm one of those who don't.' I remember thinking this was a defeatist attitude. True, some people are successful straight away, but there is also a third group - those who can learn to have 'it'. Most people fall into this group, achieving incremental improvements through trial and error. This can seem painstaking at times. If this sounds like you, here are my five tips (based around some common misconceptions) to help you get there faster:
1. Do your research: understand which type of firm you want to train with.
Common Misconception: 'Law Firms are more or less the same. I'll send a mixture of applications to international city firms, national firms, mid-size regional firms, high-street firms, even firms specialising in niche areas I know nothing about... it doesn't really matter as long as I get a training contract, right?'
It's tempting to opt for this 'scatter-gun approach' to maximise your chances; looking through potential firms on lawcareers.net and applying to a thin spread of very different firms. However, you don't want to spend two years of your life (or longer) at a firm which doesn't suit your personality or interests. Decide which type of firm you want to develop a career with before you start applying.
Reading through law firms' websites is the best starting point. I appreciate many websites are very similar - of course all firms are going to say they have interesting practice areas, successful clients and a great working culture on their website. The Chambers Student True Picture is a very useful insight into what training at a particular firm is really like. Go to law fairs and speak to as many firms as you can. If you like the 'feel' of a firm, apply there. If a firm doesn't give off such a good impression they may be one to avoid.
2. Take your time with each application - quality is better than quantity.
Common Misconception: 'Securing a Training Contract is a numbers game. I need to send out as many applications as possible and don't have time to devote hours to one application.'
This is a vital one. Although you should apply for a number of firms that interest you, don't compromise on the quality of your applications. Take your time and research the firm using a variety of sources. Each application should be tailored to that firm, it isn't enough to copy and paste template answers you've built up to stock questions and then fill in the blanks for each firm. If a firm clearly has a distinct culture or strategy, or takes certain values seriously then try to base your answers around these. If a firm is proud of a recent award, client win, or prestigious deal then weave these into your answer.
As the popular cliché goes 'work smart, not hard' - don't put in the hours if it's yielding no results; try to plan each application properly.
3. Embrace all opportunities for work experience.
Important though they are, there are only so many examples you can use on your application forms and at interviews from your time working in a supermarket or playing for your local sports team. Try to gain as much legal work experience as you can. This doesn't have to come through contacts. Speaking from personal experience, I received a role as a deeds clerk from sending a prospective letter, a summer internship through receiving a message on LinkedIn and a role as a paralegal from applying following an email alert which could have easily been missed. Keep an eye out for opportunities and create your own good luck. There's no such thing as irrelevant legal experience. One common misconception here is:
'I'd rather apply for training contracts directly than apply for vacation schemes.'
Even if you've finished your studies, vacation schemes are still a great way to make an impression on a firm and can often result in an offer for a training contract. They are also the best way to decide whether you like the firm.
4. Make use of people you know
Misconception: 'I don't want to bother others for advice.'
There's no shame in this; other people are one of the most useful tools you have access to. If you know someone in the legal profession, ask them to cast their eye over your application. University and LPC friends who have already secured a training contract can be great for this; they'll soon tell you if they don't like one of your answers or if you've made any silly mistakes or typos. Ask them what they did to succeed at interviews and assessment centres. There is no magic formula here, but preparation is key - there are several tricks they're likely to have at their disposal which you can use to help you to stand out.
5. Don't give up!
My final tip is be tenacious and don't give up. Even though the application process can be long, frustrating and sometimes demoralising, don't give up like our friend from the assessment day. Someone once told me that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, like a fly repeatedly flying into a glass window, when all it has to do to escape is change its approach and fly upwards out of the open window. If you've been applying the same way for a while, perhaps it could be time to change your approach.