To apply for a training contract, you will need to identify the law firms that you want to submit an application to. You will need to work out what kind of law firms you want to apply to. For example, are you interested in commercial law or criminal law? Do you want to work for a city firm or a regional law firm?
You will need to do your research. Once you have chosen which law firms you want to apply to, you need to treat every application like an individual project. Usually, you will need to complete a training contract application form and submit a solicitor CV and covering letter to each law firm you apply to.
Five to ten law firm training contract applications are recommended. If you try to apply with too many firms, you risk missing deadlines trying to complete them all. If you only apply to one firm, you risk having no other law firms to fall back on if your application is rejected. You need to apply to just enough law firms, but not too many.
It is no secret that securing a training contract is a difficult process. The odds vary massively between firms. However, at the top end of the scale, at elite US or Magic Circle law firms, you could be roughly looking at a success rate of anything between 20% and 5%.
Firms rarely disclose these statistics publicly, and most estimates are often simply made through word-of-mouth.
Your odds are significantly higher based on a number of criteria, however, including the university you have studied at (Russell Group universities tend to have higher success rates with training contract applications), or the grade you have achieved (e.g. a 1st compared to a 2:1).
These odds are not to discourage you, by any means – rather, they should set realistic expectations for the fact that everyone applying to training contracts is likely to face rejection throughout the process, and you must remind yourself that this is not unusual.
Based on the competitive point above, it is natural to want to apply to a number of different law firms for a training contract. Estimates vary widely between aspiring lawyers, though many will aim to send off somewhere between 5 and 15 applications. Rather than focusing on an arbitrary number, however, you should find an answer to the following question:
‘How many applications can I reasonably submit where my answers are of a high standard and well-tailored to the firm, whilst not sacrificing other important pursuits (e.g. achieving solid university grades)?’
The answer is highly subjective and depends on your individual situation.
You also need to consider which actual firms pique your interest. Shortlisting firms to apply to can be based on a number of factors, including:
Eligibility for training contract and vacation scheme applications can appear a confusing topic at first. The only way to be sure is to check on each firm’s individual website. If the information is not clear at that stage, feel free to drop an email to the firm’s recruitment team.
To oversimplify, larger firms tend to recruit slightly earlier (they have the luxury to do so), and so many Magic Circle/elite US firms will look for penultimate year university students, while smaller firms will often be seeking final year university students for their training contracts/vacation schemes.
Each firm sets their own deadlines for training contracts. Most aspiring lawyers will be applying to vacation schemes in the hopes of receiving a training contract at the end of the scheme, but others (usually those who have already completed relevant legal work experience, as defined by the individual firm) will submit ‘direct’ training contract applications. These two paths will usually have different deadlines.
Broadly speaking, training contract and vacation scheme application cycles roughly align with the first term of the academic year – you’ll probably be busiest with applications between September and November.
It is also worth noting that some firms deal with applications on a ‘rolling’ basis – meaning they will be accepted or rejected as they come in, not once the final deadline is reached (by which point they may have already filled all their places). Prioritise these applications first.
For an overview of dates, you could take a look at The Lawyer Portal’s training contract deadlines page.
Not all training contract applications require a CV. Slaughter and May and Allen & Overy (both Magic Circle firms) have done so in the past, however. Those that do will often use them as a key part of the application process, and so it is important to refine yours as much as possible. These are a few key elements of a solicitor CV to consider – although other sections can also be added (e.g. certifications or skills) as you see fit.
Standing out in your CV does not mean being overly outrageous in your choices of formatting. Stick to safe fonts such as Times New Roman, basic colours (especially black, possibly dark blue if needed for contrast), and adequate line spacing and borders. Avoid any images. Overall, your text itself should do the talking when it comes to your individuality.
In terms of length, most people can adequately fit their relevant experience onto one side of A4. Aim to stick to one side of A4. Two sides of A4 is not a major problem (and many firms will not have an issue with this), but ensure that any excess waffle has been cut before taking this route.
While not compulsory, it can really help your CV to stand out if you are able to include a few personalised lines at the top of the page providing a broad overview of who you are. This could include your current educational institution, a handful of concise, punchy work experience examples, a few adjectives best encapsulating your character or personality, and a particular area of passion within the legal sector that you wish to learn more about. Keep it short, concise, and relevant.
Many aspiring lawyers applying to training contracts or vacation schemes (though not all – career changers are a notable exception) are students or recent graduates. As a result, you are unlikely to have amassed a huge catalogue of work experience. Instead, your educational achievements are likely to shine through the most. Law is generally seen as a very academic career – while grades are certainly not the ‘be all and end all’, they are important.
Provide details of your grades (anything from GCSE or age 16 onwards is often recommended), as well as predicted grades for university study if you have not yet graduated.
Extra details such as examples of modules you’ve excelled in, also go a long way to differentiate your application – are you on track to achieve a solid 2:1, but achieved the top ranking in your cohort in a particular module that may prove interesting to a recruiter? Mention it here.
Any work experience is a great way to differentiate your application from others – the number of students applying with three As at A Level is far higher than the number of students who will have interned at a specific company, for example.
Not all applicants will have relevant legal work experience at this stage. If you do, then you should certainly include it. If not, do not fear – use your unique experiences to your advantage. Retail work develops the ability to work effectively under intense pressure (a skill very relevant to law), for instance. Other easy ways to gain experience with some relevance to law include becoming a brand ambassador. The Lawyer Portal has a shared brand ambassador scheme with law firm Bird & Bird. You can also look out for online virtual work experience programmes.
For each piece of work experience, include the name of the organisation, the name of your specific role, the tasks involved in this role, and the start and end dates.
The ‘tasks involved in this role’ section can be a few bullet points – try to give tangible (if possible, then quantitative) examples of how you excelled and showed initiative in your work – this is a sure-fire way to differentiate yourself from other candidates.
Order your work experience by relevance – the best at the top, then work your way downwards.
A small number of firms will ask for cover letters. This is an excellent chance to personalise your application, since covering letter for law firms are essentially an opportunity to link your personal experiences (from your CV) directly to the firm, and demonstrate how these are closely aligned.
For example, an internship at a green energy company (which you mentioned on your CV) can now be explicitly linked within your cover letter to a specific recent deal that the firm advised on in the renewable energy space (and, for bonus points, linked again to a recent commercial awareness story – e.g. a Financial Times piece on the rapid growth of renewable energy).
For this reason, cover letters need to be very closely tailored to the firm itself – even more so than your CV.
There is no set structure or format for a covering letter for a law firm, but many will choose to follow some of the following guidelines:
When writing your training contract cover letter, make sure it helps the recruiter. Write clearly and plainly. Use short sentences and paragraphs to prevent your key points from getting lost in big chunks of text. Your writing skills will be assessed when your covering letter is being read, so spend time proofreading and checking it contains everything law firms would want to see.
The vast majority of applications will feature a handful of boxes (roughly speaking, anywhere between 3 and 5) asking you specific questions, which you will need to answer in a paragraph or two (a word limit is usually provided). Common questions include:
In terms of standing out, the same points apply from the cover letter tips above – ensure that you use tangible, specific examples to highlight your points. Going more niche in terms of a practice area of interest (or at least in terms of an example of a deal) can often produce more genuinely interesting answers, for example.
The key point to add in terms of differentiating yourself at the interview stage is the fact that your abilities on paper (e.g. educational qualifications, work experience, etc.) have ticked a box. Whether via video call or face-to-face, interviews are your chance to really let your personality shine through. Make sure to come across as personable, engaged and genuinely passionate about participating in a training contract with this firm – this is your best opportunity to do so. Your interviewers may be your supervisors one day – they will also want to see if you will integrate well into the firm’s culture.
Every law firm has a different training contract application process, but you will find that many of the questions give you an opportunity to demonstrate what makes you different from other applicants. Some of the training contract questions you could be asked, and how to answer training contract application questions, include:
If a training contract application asks this question, avoid being overly academic or focusing solely on legal theory. You need to demonstrate how your experiences relate to you wanting to become a lawyer. Make sure your answer is personal, talks about your skills, motivations and relevant experience. You should also cover your short- and long-term career goals.
Avoid giving cliched answers by addressing the specific opportunity being offered by the law firm you are applying to and what they are looking for. You will need to demonstrate how your desire to be a lawyer matches with a firm’s expectations to ensure you are a good fit for each other.
A lot of law firms ask this question to assess your character. To answer this question, make sure you use the job specification to guide you. The job specification usually features the type of characteristics a law firm is looking for. Once you know what a law firm is looking for, you can be specific with your answers.
For example, if you are determined – don’t just say ‘I am determined’ – this adds no value to your application. Instead, give an example of a time you demonstrated your determination to solve a legal problem. It is important that you can back up what you say when answering personality-focused questions.
To answer this question, you must do your research on the law firm(s) that you are applying to. Specifically, you should research the key practice area(s) of the law firm, their training program and their culture. You should answer in a natural and structured way, without giving too long an answer.
Law firms are looking for clear communication so that when they first read your answer they can quickly see how you have linked your career aspirations with what they can offer you. You should personalise your answers because they are more engaging and help law firms to build a picture of who you are.
This training contract application question is designed to assess your commercial understanding, motivation to join a firm and your analytical ability. For this question, you need to fully research the law firm(s) you are applying to for a training contract.
You will need to go beyond the law firm’s website with your research and look at the type of candidates a firm recruits, the skills and qualities the firm values in its people. You should research the firm’s clients, the sectors they operate in, its market position and its strategy.
Once you have researched all this and you have a better understanding of the personality and position of a firm, pick a news article. Look for a topic that gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of a law firm. Recruiters are looking for an answer that reveals what interests you about their firm.
These are just some of the law firm training contract questions you could face. What is important is that you answer questions honestly and avoid giving generic answers. For guidance, you can find plenty of training contract application examples online.
While training contract applications are certainly competitive, tailoring your application can really improve your odds of success. Recruitment teams will skim through thousands of applications each year – being specific (both in regard to yourself and to the firm) is the best way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Unique applications always fare far better than ones which appear to have been mechanically churned out and offered to every firm around.
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