Ahead of Norton Rose Fulbright’s training contract application deadline on 15 July, senior associate Andrew Roycroft shares what he has learned from participating in the graduate recruitment process
1. You probably haven’t done enough research
I can’t over-emphasise the importance of research before completing a training contract application. Certainly, failing to put sufficient time in to researching the firm is one of the most common mistakes made by candidates. Every firm has its own USP. Students need to think about what it is that the firm does differently, and what its objectives are for the future. Who are its clients? Where are they based? What are the significant deals and cases the firm has worked on recently?
For example, Norton Rose Fulbright is one of the most global firms in the world, with over 50 offices across five continents, and has an approach that prioritises sector expertise and legal excellence. But that is obviously just a starting point. Do you understand why we focus on the sectors which we do, and how this benefits our clients?
2. Even though you don’t have any yet, think of the client
Even if the individuals who interview you are interested in hearing your views about major events, applicants who stand out are those who demonstrate that they have considered how these major events could affect our clients. Being knowledgeable about current affairs and then applying that knowledge in a relevant way, by considering what impact it is likely to have on the firm’s clients and, thus, on the firm’s practice, is an important aspect of commercial awareness.
3. Practising law is more down to earth than you think
Students coming out of an academic environment have a tendency to overestimate the role of black letter law to legal practice. It’s a very important part of the job, of course, but only one part.
At its heart, law is a people business. Customer service skills are vital in practising law successfully, particularly in global firms. You are able to draw on some of the same qualities students may acquire when doing part-time or summer work. You might be dealing with people who have a problem which they are not in control of — like the way a regulator is behaving, or in a commercial negotiation — and your job as their legal team is to help them successfully negotiate the obstacles to achieving their goals.
That requires good manners, empathy and a willingness to listen. You will continue to hone these skills throughout your career, but you might be surprised at how much valuable experience you gained from that part-time retail job. Ability to apply the law to scenarios is only part of the skill-set required to practise law, and it is never too early to begin developing the client-facing soft skills which are the other component of a successful practice.
4. Humility, maturity and open-mindedness will take you a long way
Law firms want to recruit people who take the opportunity to learn from whatever task they have to perform, even if it may be difficult to see its direct relevance to the areas they think they want to practise in. You may find yourself as a trainee in a seat that you have limited ambitions to qualify into. It may even be in my own area, tax. A good grounding in areas such as tax is actually really important for lawyers who specialise in corporate deals, and six months gaining an understanding in this area can be very useful.
It takes a certain patience and maturity to realise the potential future benefit of a task that doesn’t appear to have an immediate gain or relevance to your long-term career. An ability to look beyond the immediate task at hand to see how it might be relevant for the future is one of the qualities that firms look to identify in candidates.
5. Show that you can be trusted to take ownership of tasks
From an early stage, trainees at Norton Rose Fulbright are entrusted with responsibility for ensuring that specific tasks are done well. Taking minutes in meetings may seem like a small thing, but ten months down the line it may be vital to know who has said what.
This is one of the reasons that firms are keen on hearing about positions of responsibility that students have held. The key here is not so much what position you held, but what skills you were able to develop in that role — what challenges did you face, and how did you deal with them? Anyone who has organised something — a social event, a training schedule for a sports team or a charitable event — will have learnt a lot in the process and developed experience of taking ownership of tasks.
6. Demonstrate that you are flexible enough to learn
Examples of a student having overcome a challenging situation is a good way for them to show skills which are relevant in practice, such as problem solving. You might be asked to given an example of a situation in which you have made a mistake. This provides you with an opportunity to explain how you dealt with it, and what you were able to learn from the experience. Firms are not necessarily looking for the finished article, rather aiming to recruit candidates who have the potential to develop throughout their careers.
7. Think about subtle ways to make your application form stand out
So many people choose the obvious themes — such as the low-interest environment, the oil price or current political issues — in their response to questions which look to draw out the candidate’s commercial awareness, that it can come as a great relief when a candidate picks something more unusual, yet relevant. Whatever subject you choose, the interviewer is likely to be looking for an explanation of how that development impacts on the firm’s clients, and thus what it means for the kind of legal services which they will benefit from.
8. Write tightly and proof obsessively
It’s surprising how many trivial errors there are in otherwise good training contract applications. Spelling is an issue more frequently than it should be, and many applications would benefit a great deal from having had another pair of eyes look over them before submission.
Lack of succinctness can also be a problem, with some students failing to realise that the word limited longer answer questions are designed to be carefully refined and edited before submission. It also helps to get the firm name correct: Norton Rose Fulbright, rather than Norton Rose.
9. Unfortunately, some rejection is part of the process
Not getting a training contract does not necessarily reflect badly on a candidate. Unfortunately, competition for places is very tough, and you may have to make a large number of applications before you are invited to interview. Please do not take this personally, or let it get you down. Most likely, it is not that you do not have the skills or experience. Rather, it is more likely that the firms you are applying to receive far more applications than they have places. As such, there is an element of chance as to precisely who gets selected and who (unfortunately) misses out. Persistence is important; both in applications and in what hopefully will be a successful career.
Andrew Roycroft is a senior associate in Norton Rose Fulbright’s London tax team. The deadline to apply for a training contract at his firm’s London office is Friday 15 July. You can apply here.
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