Each year a typical corporate/commercial law firm will receive umpteen thousand applications for the handful or so of training contracts that they have on offer. The process is, in short, a vigorous whittling down exercise. Hopefully, this article will help you to be 'whittled down' and not ... er... 'whittled off'.
The vast majority of applicants fail at the application form stage. For some people, this is because their applications are shockingly awful. However, I understand that the majority of people who are culled at this stage are not especially poor candidates, but fall into the "quite good, but a bit boring" category.
To avoid this pitfall when making an online application, I offer the following recommendations:
Extracurricular activities & interests…
When it comes to talking about your extra-curricular interests, you should probably not write that you "enjoy going out with your friends, watching films, travelling and going to the gym". There's nothing wrong with the aforementioned activities; the problem is that these interests will only help you blend in with the crowd. Try to explain why you like a particular activity and tie it in with something impressive that you've done in connection to it.
If you have to write about an important achievement, avoid "passing my driving test" or "getting into the university of my choice". Unless you can argue some special circumstances which should add more weight to these examples, they will not make you stand out from your rivals. It is better to think of something that you have done which is interesting, impressive and relevant to your potential for being a good prospective employee.
If you cannot think of a good example, then this is probably a sign that you need to focus on improving the substance of your CV. Maybe even try getting involved in a new project or finding a new interesting pastime.
Why do you want to work for this law firm?
There is invariably a section in each online application form, which asks you to write about what sets the company (which you are applying to) apart from other similar organisations. An average candidate will be able to put together a nice-sounding yet fairly generic explanation, which could probably be copied and pasted into at least 50 other application forms.
These generic responses will be easily identifiable to the eventual reader and will serve only to show that you do not have any real understanding of the company to which you are applying. Remember, making an application is a long process. Instead, you should persuasively explain what attracts you to that company, and why its values are complementary to your own values.
In order to be able to do this effectively, I would strongly recommend that you attend any graduate presentations/careers fairs which the company puts on in your area. Try to speak with their representatives to get a proper understanding of what the company does and what kind of people they are looking for.
Vacation schemes, the extended interview…
Personally, I got my training contract off the back of a vacation placement. Clearly, the structure of vacation schemes will differ between law firms, but generally they are an excellent opportunity for you to get to know the people and personalities at the law firm and for them to get to know you.
It is an opportunity for that law firm to mercilessly judge all of your actions and words whilst you are in their domain. With this in mind, if you are given a task to do, put everything into it so that you produce a really good piece of work for your supervisor. Try and be yourself whilst you are at the firm, rather than adopt a temporary personality for the week. You'll get found out if you do! Having said that, there is a line between being calm, assured and assertive (good) and being an arrogant so-and-so (bad). So don't cross it!
Face-to-face interviews are perhaps the most nerve-wracking stage in the training contract application process.
On the bright side though, it is likely that you are a decent candidate in order for you to have gotten that far. The key to succeeding in a face-to-face interview is to establish rapport with the interviewers. This can be done by very subtly mirroring the body posture and manner of speech of those who are interviewing you.
Final interviews are typically conducted by a panel of two or more persons so remember to evenly distribute your attention between all members of the panel to avoid alienating one member. Also, do not be surprised if the two members of the panel pull the old 'good cop/bad cop' routine on you. One of the interviewers may push you on the weaknesses in your CV.
Don't take the bait, but instead practise at home on how you can argue that these weaknesses are not as bad as they may seem and in any event, these aspects of your CV can be viewed as strengths for x number of reasons. Remember, you intend to become a lawyer so you should use your intelligence to put across a convincing case to the interviewers as to why you should be taken on as a trainee.