Jun 09, 2021

Written By Jan Hill

Online application forms: the basics

Jun 09, 2021

Written By Jan Hill

Application forms can be difficult to get your head around. Here, we take you through the process step by step. 

While some smaller firms might still request a CV, most UK law firms now expect candidates to fill out an online application form for vacation schemes and training contracts. Because online application forms often take longer than expected to complete, you should give yourself plenty of time to finish them. Plan to submit well before the deadline since some recruiters will start to look at applications before the deadline and early submission could give you an advantage over other candidates. Keep copies of everything you provide, since recruiters will most likely use your application as a basis for their questioning during an interview or assessment centre.

Each law firm offers something unique to trainees, and online applications should be undertaken in an equally unique manner. In other words, mass-produced, bulk applications likely won’t get you anywhere, at least not into the top firms in the UK. Most recruiters agree that a generic application with rehearsed answers will be spotted very quickly, and not doing sufficient research on a particular firm is often the downfall of unsuccessful candidates. 

Here is a rundown on the information you will likely be asked to deliver on online applications, and how to best provide it.


Essential information

Law firms accept online applications from candidates who meet the minimum requirements, and any training-contract or vacation-scheme offer will likely be conditional on whether the applicant meets the right to work in the UK for the duration of the contract. Make sure you’ve included all the essential details requested on the application, such as your national insurance number and current contact information.

Languages spoken

Your application should include details regarding any foreign languages spoken—do you have a basic, working knowledge or are you fluent in a language? Studying other languages demonstrates your “global mindset”. It might even offer insight into your ability to adapt to living in a different environment and the perspective you’ve gained on issues in other parts of the world. Mandarin and languages spoken in emerging markets are highly valued by international employers.

Need to prepare for the SQE?

Whatever your background or education, however you want to study, we have the right course for you.

Learn more

Academics and extenuating circumstances

Most law firms take all extenuating circumstances—illness, bereavement and family problems—into account when reviewing academic results. So it’s extremely important to inform potential employers of these mitigating circumstances, particularly if they have affected your academic performance. However, law firms that use automated application screening systems may screen a candidate’s application out should it reflect bad grades due to extenuating circumstances. In this situation, you should contact the recruitment team at the firm you are applying to and ask them how to best disclose this information, so it does not automatically put your application in an unfavourable light.

Work experience

Draw on any legal work experience you have, but don’t rely on your legal experience alone. Instead, provide a broad range of experiences and competencies, and describe what you learned from each. Your work experience should demonstrate as many of the following skills as possible:

- Teamwork

- Problem-solving 

- Judgment

- Leadership

- Dedication

- Time management

- Capacity to flourish outside your comfort zone

- Commercial outlook

- Your personal commitment to the legal industry

Virtually any type of work experience can be used to prove your commercial awareness. Even if your work history involves working in a shop or a pub, you can still use this experience to illustrate how it helped you become aware of costs, budgeting and marketing.

Competency-based questions

Competencies are skills that recruiters specifically look for, and great emphasis will be placed upon them because they often reveal how you can be expected to approach difficult situations and perform in a work environment. When asked competency-based questions such as: “Describe a mistake you once made and how you overcame it,” draw upon recent experiences that will demonstrate your skills across a wide range of workplace situations. 

Whether your answer relates to teamwork or how you handled a challenging situation, providing strong responses to competency-based questions is extremely important.

Commercial awareness questions

Commercial awareness is an understanding of the business world and how things are done. Since law firms are also businesses, commercial awareness is of vital importance for trainee solicitors. 

Questions surrounding commercial awareness will allow you to expand on your knowledge of the legal sector and how the law firm you’re applying to fits within it. When answering such questions, try to provide examples of cases or news stories you have been following that are relevant to the firm, display genuine enthusiasm for the commercial world, and express a willingness to share and defend your opinions.


Selection & Assessment