Jun 08, 2021

Written By Robert Greene

Will getting a first improve my chances of getting a training contract?

Jun 08, 2021

Written By Robert Greene

Getting a first-class honours degree is no mean feat, especially in law. But can it help you get a training contract? In this article, we’ll look at what it takes to achieve first-class honours and whether it can improve your chances of getting a training contract.

What is a first-class honours degree?

Undergraduate degrees are classified as follows:

- First-class honours (1st): 70-100%.

- Upper second-class honours (2:1): 60-69%.

- Lower second-class honours (2:2): 50-59%.

- Third-class honours (2:2): 40-49%.

- Ordinary degree (pass).

First-class honours is the crème de la crème and is awarded to students who demonstrate academic excellence. To achieve a first at The University of Law, for example, students must have an excellent ability to correctly identify and apply relevant legal principles to a set of facts and demonstrate a high level of problem-solving skills and make reference to appropriate authority. They must write clearly and accurately, producing well-constructed arguments. 

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How many people get first-class honours?

Achieving a first is notoriously difficult, especially in law. The percentage of students who achieved a first-class honours degree for a higher education (HE) qualification in 2018/19 was 28%. This compares to 22% in 2014/15.

Women are slightly more likely to get a first than men. In 2018/19, 29% of women achieved first-class honours, compared to 27% of men.

The percentage of students who achieve a first in law is even lower. Just 16.9% of students got a first in law in England and Wales in 2019.

Again, more women achieved a first than men: 18.2% versus 14.5%. By comparison, the number of students who achieved a 2:1 in 2018/19 was 48% for all subjects and 55.9% for law degrees.

Will getting a first help me get a training contract?

The majority of law firms require applicants to have achieved a 2:1 or higher. Some firms may accept applications from students who have achieved a 2:2 or who have mitigating circumstances.

There is no requirement that the undergraduate degree be law related, though non-law graduates will have to study the graduate diploma in law (GDL) or Common Professional Examination (CPE).

This means that firms generally accept applications from the top 76% of students (using 2018/19 HESA data). This is still a sizable number of students. Anything which makes you stand out from the crowd (in a positive sense) is likely to improve your chances of getting a training contract – including getting a first. Being part of the 28% of students who achieve such an accolade is impressive.

What’s more, many law firms ask for a breakdown of your grades for every academic year and module of your undergraduate degree. This allows firms to see which subjects you performed best in. Achieving high results across a range of subjects and academic years demonstrates consistency and an ability to master a wide range of subject areas.

It’s important to note that whilst many law firms ask applicants for a breakdown of their grades for training contract applications, grades are unlikely to be as relevant post qualification. At that stage, professional experience is likely to be of more of an interest to employers than academic qualifications.

It should also be pointed out that a first will not get you a training contract in and of itself. If anything, it will help you make it past the first post. Many law firms receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications every year.

One of the criteria they rely on for filtering through applications is academic achievements. Achieving first-class honours could be your golden ticket to the next stage of the application process. However, if the rest of your application does not sing, great grades will not save you.

If you cannot give a convincing reason for why you want to work at a particular firm or you have no work or voluntary experiences that demonstrate your passion for the law, you are unlikely to be invited to the next stage. Albert Einstein may have been a fantastic physicist – it doesn’t mean he would have made a great lawyer!

It is important that you inject as much hard work into your training contract or vacation scheme application as you did to achieve a first. This means conducting thorough research of the firm, writing accurately and concisely, and demonstrating your passion for law and the firm.

There is often a question around extra-curricular activities or achievements. Use this as an opportunity to showcase your personality. What else makes you unique, besides your good grades? Lawyers are humans too, and they deal with humans on a daily basis. It’s important to show the firm that you’re a well-rounded person; someone with a passion for life, as well as the law!

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