Know your market
Every year, the number of training-contract applicants far outweighs the number of places available. It’s important to understand from the start that there are no guarantees: some people find themselves applying year after year until they finally secure a place.
That’s not to put you off applying, but just to offer some context on the very stiff competition. The sooner you understand the odds—roughly 5,500 training contracts are up for grabs, with an average of 30,000 applicants per year—the sooner you’ll be able to up your game and make your application as strong as possible.
Check your eligibility
If you’re an opportunity seeker who applies for whatever takes your fancy, be warned that your logic might not work when it comes to training contracts. There are a lot of eligibility criteria.
To start with, you’ll need to have a qualifying law degree. It doesn’t matter if your qualifying law degree is an undergraduate LLB or a postgraduate GD, so long as you’ve done the core modules needed to qualify as a lawyer.
The other thing you’ll need before starting your training contract is a Legal Practice Course (LPC): the one-year vocational training course that equips you with the skills needed to qualify as a solicitor. But you can apply for a training contract before you’ve even started your LPC. We’d actually recommend doing this, as many firms will fund your LPC for you if you’ve got a confirmed place on their training contract.
The top law firms usually start recruiting their trainees two years in advance, which means that if you’re a LLB undergraduate student, you should start applying in second year onwards. That way, you might secure your training contract, and spend one year studying your final year of university, and another studying your LPC before starting. For non-law students, you’ll want to apply in your final year. You’d then use the two years to do your GDL and LPC.
Law firms themselves will also have specific eligibility requirements. A 2.1 undergraduate degree is usually a must, and some firms also have specific grade requirements for A levels and GCSEs. It’s always important to check the job descriptions individually, so you’re only applying to training contracts for which you’ve got the grades.
Identify the deadlines
There’s not a single all-encapsulating training-contract deadline; they tend to come in waves—some close at the end of June, others at the end of August, with a few coming much later in the year. The route into some training contracts will be exclusively via a vacation scheme, which means you’ll have a much earlier deadline, most likely in January.
Bottom line: every firm is different. Before you start working towards a hypothetical end-of-summer deadline for all of your applications, make a list of all of the firms that interest you, find out when their deadlines are, rule out any you’ve missed and order the rest chronologically. There’s nothing more obvious than a cobbled-together application submitted a few minutes before the deadline!
Do your research
If you succeed at getting a training contract, you’re going to be working at that firm for two years at least. Researching the firm at the application stage is as much for you as it is for the employer; you want to make sure you’ve got tangible opportunities that appeal to you, the culture works for you and you’re satisfied with the location and office size.
Naturally, your research will flow into your application form. If you’ve consulted the press releases and blogs on law-firm websites, as well as seeing what areas of practice each firm prioritises, you’ll be able to link your research with your interests and produce a personal, tailored application to that firm.
Cull the longlist
If you’ve taken note of the previous point, the likelihood is that you’ve already started to cut down your list of potential firms: your research will reveal that some firms don’t have particularly strong areas of practice in your interest areas, for example, or perhaps don’t have an office in the area that you’d want to work. There’s no use compromising on your ambition and feigning enthusiasm—the firm will see right through this.
Another reason to cull your list of firms is to save time: training-contract applications can take hours, if done properly—it would be impossible to apply to 20 firms without cutting a few corners. You should narrow your list to five to ten firms, to avoid spreading yourself too thinly.
Get to know your application form
Before you start filling out your application form, do a bit of exploring first. Most application forms allow you to flick through each section in advance. If you find it easier to do the more complex, lengthy sections first, get those out of the way before filling out the basics.
Most forms will have an education section, a work-specific details section, including a declaration of eligibility to work in the UK and space for your national insurance number, and then some meatier sections with key questions.
The sections requiring the most input are usually the competency-based questions, commercial-awareness questions and questions about your previous experiences. You’ll be able to identify the questions that require the most work by their word counts: try to organise the time you spend on them accordingly.
Sift the experiences from the competencies
When writing about your previous experiences, simply listing “Worked in a coffee shop for two years” or “Attained Grade 8 on the trombone” isn’t going to cut it. Instead, you’ll need to look carefully at your experiences and figure out the competencies you’ve gained from that experience. For example, working in a coffee shop for two years shows your time-management skills, as you balanced a part-time job with academic study. It also shows excellent people skills, working in a front-of-house position—as well as the occasional problem-solving endeavour when dealing with difficult customers!
While working in a coffee shop isn’t directly related to training to be a solicitor, the competencies you gained from it—time-management, people skills and problem-solving—certainly will be. Make sure you stress these in your application form.
When filling out an application form, you’ll need to have both long-term and short-term commercial awareness. By that, we mean you should have been checking the news and reading business and finance publications for months—if not years—prior to filling out your application form: it should genuinely interest you to do so, otherwise you’re going to find law a very boring career path.
As well as a long-term understanding of business and finance matters, you should also check the news and figure out any hot topics in advance of filling out your application form.
Law firms won’t always make it obvious that they’re asking you about commercial awareness: often, you’ll be required to show commercial awareness in questions about the firm, about the news or about the legal sector in general, as well as when discussing your own interests and career aims.
Check, check and check again
Law firms receive far more applications than they have training-contract places, and the main way they create a more manageable pile of applicants is by culling anyone who makes a spelling or grammatical error in their application form. There’s no room for error when you’re a partner or senior associate, liaising with clients and representing the firm. So, there’s no room now, at the start of the journey.
Read through your application, recite it aloud, get your mum or your best friend to do the same. Write each part in a word document before you send it off, so any errors are picked up. Whatever you do, don’t let the application form go off with an error in it. This goes for spelling, grammar and also facts: using the wrong law-firm name, or talking about an area of practice that doesn’t exist at that firm, are more common mistakes than you’d think.
Don’t lose momentum!
The application game can be a long one, peppered with rejections, and it’s easy to get disheartened. But there are so many law firms out there, each with their own criteria and culture, and the likelihood is that you’ve not yet found the right firm. Keep at it, learn from the rejection and don’t let it stop you from applying to more firms.