Subpar A-levels or my ex-poly uni: What’s preventing me from getting a training contract at a top firm?

I have a first class construction degree and big ambitions

laq

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, one Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) student — who already has a first class degree — wants to why he has so far been unable to land a training contract at a big corporate law firm.

career

I graduated from Coventry University in Building Surveying with a first class degree and an 80+ dissertation focusing on construction disputes. I have over two years worth of surveying and dispute resolution work experience, and more than three years on-site (construction) experience. Though my A-Levels are really subpar (CCD), I do have strong mitigating circumstances to justify these. I am now undertaking my GDL and I really want to get myself recognised by firms. I have sent off a few applications and have been rejected from the majority of them. Is it my A-levels letting me down? The ex-poly university? My limited experience outside of construction? I’ve been provisionally offered a TC with a very small firm outside of London. It’s quite a niche firm, but does offer enough areas for a four-seat TC. Would this be detrimental to my career given that I am aiming for a big firm?

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89 Comments

Anonymous

There are many, many qualified people chasing a small number of training contracts. Take the TC you’ve been offered.

(91)(2)
Anonymous

The fact that you seem to suspect you’re held back by your education suggests the issue may, at least in part, be one of confidence. Okay, you didn’t get the A-level results that, in other circumstances, you might have done; that in turn meant perhaps you didn’t go to your first choice of university. And sure, without anything else to go on, employers might be put off by that.

But this TC is the chance to, as people have said, build yourself up and show what you are really capable of. At a small firm, you’ll be presented with plenty of opportunities to go above and beyond, and really stand out. At a large city firm, you’ll just be one in a large crowd of similarly capable trainees.

Working for a big city firm is overrated. Most of the people I know who went down that route have quit.

(19)(4)
The Honourable, the Lord H blah blah blah

I would advise re-writing your CV, upgrade the A levels to A*s, change the University to an Oxbridge college name but without saying Oxbridge and throw in some Masters degrees (and a PhD or other Doctorate if you can source one on the internet) and fire that off to the MC firms. They will be queuing up with TC offers.

(7)(13)
Anonymous

To get a training contract at a big firm you need constantly stellar academics, a 2.1 or above at a good university, and some interesting extracurriculars. That’s just how it is.

You have shit A-Levels, you got a first yes, but at lowly Coventry University, and your GDL results are pending.

Looking at it that way, you’re not much to look at at all. In fact, I’d say you’d struggle to get a training contract at a high street firm unless you managed to get in there and prove yourself with a few years of enthusiastic paralegal work under your belt.

Look at your competition. There are thousands with better A Levels than you, who went to better universities. Why exactly should you be chosen above them?

(93)(22)
Anonymous

OP should pay attention to this. It’s not overly negative or intended as spiteful, this is just the way it is, and this post is way more helpful than many posts just saying “go for it” or “never know until you try.”

OP, take the TC you’ve been offered, it’s a TC more than many people with 2.1s/1sts from oxbridge (or at least RG unis) have. That TC is your way in to the legal profession

(41)(2)
Anonymous

Got exactly the same A Levels.. got a first from a shit uni and off to an MC firm.

(15)(34)
Anonymous

LMAO – I’m so happy you guys think I’m lying.

More than willing to show you my application and my offer email.

(3)(1)
TheAcresOfFour

Well don’t hesitate.

Redact your name and link us up.

Looking forward to the link by way of reply.

(11)(0)
Shit uni MC TC holder

My internet connection stopped working. Gimme a minute.

(10)(2)
Anonymous

mctc.shutterfly.com/

This is not for me to brag but just to let people know it is tough but it is not impossible. And to let the other people know they should get their heads out of their ….

Original poster, you need to think about wording your mitigating circumstances appropriately and trying to show your passion for the field e.g. extensive work experience. Also, network. If you really don’t want to do the TC at the firm that offered it to you – don’t. You aren’t guaranteed to move up in the industry just because you are a qualified lawyer.

Have a nice weekend x

(30)(0)
TheAcresOfFour

Well if you have genuinely believable and I would guess sufficiently serious mitigating circumstances, then that’s different.

Nevertheless, good for you – and always refreshing when someone puts up.

I would presume your other academic achievements are pretty good?

(4)(1)
Anonymous

Thanks – I felt I had to!

1st in LLB Law – that’s it. I had mitigating circumstances too though.
I was in the same boat as so many other people, thinking I wouldn’t get a TC.

That’s why I only did one application… but that’s a different story for another day.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

Hahaha nice one. Way to put the assholes in their place and congrats on the MC TC offer. I’m sure plenty of people on here are so chippy at the moment.

(19)(0)
TheAcresOfFour

QSP Residual Recoveries LLP TC holder -> For all the good your TC will do you, you’d probably make better money opening a chippy.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

I guess you rode your unicorn there, and Santa was your supervisor?

(3)(1)
AbDab

Which university, which firm and what extracurriculars if I may ask?

(0)(0)
Anonymous

The above comment is blunt, but fair and honest. Mitigating circumstances tend to be cited by people who got an A instead of their expected A*, or a B instead of an A. I would expect HR at top City firms not to read past your CCD A-Level results – either you were never destined to get As anyway, or the ‘mitigating circumstances’ were so bad that someone should have advised you not to take the exams at all and wait a year. That is not a criticism of you by any means, it is simply a reiteration of the above.

Going from construction/surveying to the academic rigour of the law is a massive, *massive* leap and I applaud you for your ambition and stamina. However, I think that to have any shot at any London firm (realistically, you will never reach the City) you would have to really get a strong Distinction on your GDL programme, and then do paralegal work for a number of years (at least two), working your way up the ‘paralegalling ladder’ before having a decent shot at non-high-street London.

Otherwise, accept the TC from the niche firm and enjoy a varied and interesting career, albeit with fewer stress-related health problems and more time to pursue other interests. Your CV suggests that that is the lifestyle which would suit you far more.

(4)(4)
Anonymous

This is the type of attitude that gives the legal profession a bad name. We are not defined by our grades but of the content of our character. Someone with straight A’s may not have the confidence or personality required of an international lawyer. I recently attended a networking event and I met a young man who achieved a 1st in Law from a Russell group university. He was extremely arrogant and spoke to a lady from graduate recruitment with so much disrespect. I’m not saying everyone with straight A’s is like this but I’m just making a point.

(3)(0)
Jones Day Partner

Start low and work your way up, can be done. Seen MC lawyers who have regional backgrounds, sometimes with smaller (outside top 100) firms.

Alternatively send me a picture (dont need your CV), and I’ll decide if you’re good enough for JD!

(53)(3)
Anonymous

Take the TC you’ve been offered. Plenty of people with much better academics would kill to be in your situation!

(17)(0)
Anonymous

You can at least try when you’re making these up Alex. Seriously.

(34)(6)
Emma Lawson

Why do some people have to be so rude in their answers? If you have a answer then just answer the question. Don’t be a dick.

(27)(12)
Ann Dick

What’s wrong with being me? I get loads of attention. I got a TC at Jones Day too.

(33)(2)
botzarelli

Take the TC you have been offered. Working in a Big Law firm is not all that, albeit massively well paid (or overpaid if as a 20 year PQE in house General Counsel you’re being asked to pay the hourly rates sought for a NQ drone who you know is paid more than you are).

You’ve been a grown up in the Surveying profession. At a smaller firm you’ll probably get to be a grown up even in your TC. You’re a long way off from being given any real responsibility or client contact as a trainee in a big City firm. If you’re intending on staying in Construction/Construction Litigation your current contacts and the ones you’ll build up working in a smaller firm will be the book of work you carry through to have the sort of following that will have you walk into a big firm at the mid-senior Associate level on a Partnership track at the point when you’ll be allowed by such firms to have the chance to have close contacts with senior people in the clients. Alternatively, you’ll have a great CV to go for in-house roles.

(16)(0)
Anonymous

It is very difficult because of the competition, you are competing with people with excellent grades including grades on the GDL and LPC, and let me tell you that getting excellent grades on the GDL and LPC is not as easy as many mislead it to be. That said, you need to know what is it that you want, if you go to a small firm because you got a TC offered, good for you, but it would not be easy to jump to a big firm after that. However as somebody said here, you can: “Start low and work your way up, can be done”.

(9)(1)
Anonymous

I cannot speak from a professional point of view because I am currently a student, but I feel that the chance of working for a big firm would be more realistic for you if you were to take the training contract at the small firm, work there for a few years and then try to move to a big firm. If you are a trained solicitor who can demonstrate that you are highly capable of working in a big firm then you obviously have a higher chance of obtaining a place at that firm. At the moment you have nothing to make you stand out from hundreds of other applicants, from better universities and with more experience. A high first from a non-Russell group university is not considered to be as good as a solid 2:1 from a Russell group university- remember that. Good luck with your journey and stay committed.

(4)(4)
Dave

The fact that this chap is even having to ask this question shows he does not appreciate the way the world works and therefore is not suitable to work in a magic circle firm. It is obvious he should take the training contract he has been offered and think himself lucky.

(13)(7)
Anonymous

Here’s a thought: perhaps it is your attitude and sense of entitlement which is failing to land you a training contract.

So you got a 1st? So did plenty other prospective trainees. You obviously think you are too good to work for the smaller firm but I echo the sentiments above and think you should count your blessings, get off your high horse and consider yourself lucky to have the provisional offer of a training contract!

(18)(3)
Anonymous

He got a First in a degree totally removed from the skill-set needed to practise law. No experience of crafting complex arguments, honing his writing skills, mastering nuance of English language. The First is not enough.

(2)(0)
First class hons., first class can't get a TC

I was going to write something really sympathetic until I realised you had a TC offer. TAKE IT! You’re fortunate to be offered a place somewhere and it doesn’t mean you’re stuck there forever. I would say only reject it if the TC doesn’t offer any seats you’re interested in completing. Good luck!

(7)(1)
Anonymous

1) Don’t listen to those above. Taking a TC offer at a firm you are not particularly keen on, just because it is a TC offer is absolute rubbish. It is like wanting to be a mathematics teacher and taking a job as a PE teacher just because it is a job as a teacher. Training and working in a “non-city” smaller firm with no international offices and a limited selection of seats will be a different completely different experience to a city of MC type law firm. The clients will be different. The culture will be different. The experience you get will be different. Your every day working life will be different not to mention the pay grade.

2) Trainees and NQ’s being far off real responsibility at city firms is also a myth. You are often thrown right in the deep end as a junior lawyer with the partner nowhere to be seen or battling the front line when senior colleagues are back late from a late lunch. Granted you might not be running a billion pound deal but you can still be responsible for getting everything in place at the right time and running the smaller just as important details the senior guys won’t have any visibility on.

3) Your mistake is that you assume, because you have some good work experience and a good university degree you should be snapped up by leading law firms. You assume your progress is affected by your education alone. What about the quality of your applications? Have you researched the firm? Do you know what it means to be a commercial lawyer? Do you have and show commercial awareness? What makes a client tick? What are the issues facing law firms and how is the state of the current legal market? These are all just as important factors.

(15)(13)
Anonymous

Yeah great advice. Are you going to repeat that in ten years time when he still has nothing in the City?

(3)(1)
Anonymous

US associate here. Take the small-firm TC, get the excellent experience that this TC should offer you and, if you then want to move later, you should be able to join a larger firm which does the same kind of work. Your career is going to last decades – where you spend your first couple of years will, in the grand scheme of things, be unimportant. You also need to think about law firms not as corporations dedicated to one thing, but as different practices within the one firm – if your experience will get you into one of those practices then you will be fine.

(9)(1)
Anonymous

How on earth can a person with CCD and a degree from Coventry have such an insufferable sense of entitlement?

(58)(9)
High Street and Content (but not special)

Simple case of supply and demand.

You have to have something that really stands out if you want to get ahead.

Life lesson, unfortunately.

Not everyone can be at top firms, and it helps if you have realistic aspirations.

(4)(1)
Anonymous

I wonder what will happen if he gets top grades for GDL. Or may be something like a 2:1. Would A levels matter (im not being rhetorical)?

(0)(0)
Anonymous

Definitely good enough for Shoosmiths. He’ll make equity in two months.

(4)(1)
D. Head

None of the top City firms you aspire to work for is gonna give a rats arse over a flog with CCD at A Level and TC experience at some provincial bucket shop.

Sorry, should’ve tried harder.

(8)(7)
Anonymous

Too many people assume it’s the academic that are the deciding factor.

For some firms it will be – you will get an automated rejection because your grades don’t make the cut (although with ext circs that should be less of an issue) or because your institution name isn’t one they would deem prestigious enough.

But many people whose background isn’t the stereotypical one tend to have other flaws in their application. Whether it’s a badly written form, an unrealistic idea of what the career will be, a lack of evidence of extra curricular/responsibility outside of academia. That’s often where they don’t get the same levels of careers advice, coaching and guidance that your typical Oxbridge, private educated, law student would have.

Some firms will look past the grades and institution name, especially if your experience links to the type of work they do. But they won’t compromise on other things, especially if they have already been willing to compromise on your academics.

(8)(0)
Dave

To have a hope of getting on in the law at the higher levels (eg magic circle or Bar) you need a good degree mark in a good subject from a good university. Only one out of three applies here. And the A level results would reinforce the picture that the application is clearly not good enough. The surveying experience is minimal and would not provide enough real world experience to make up for the poor academics. Firms want to be able readily to identify those to reject, quickly to narrow down the list to consider more carefully those who are potential candidates. This one is clearly a reject.

(2)(1)
Anonymous

Could consider grad recruitment though.

Probably over qualified though.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

I have bad eyesight and poor coordination. I want to be a fighter pilot but my applications are being rejected? Is it because of… zzzzzz

(13)(0)
Dave

The firm who has provisionally offered you a training contract may well see this post, recognise you from the very specific description you have given, and decide that you do not deserve a training contract with them if this is what you really think. If the scenario in this post is real, it was a massive error of judgement to do this public in public in this way. It shows that you do not have the judgement or character to get where you think you should be and may even lose what you have.

(11)(1)
Anonymous

They won’t as they don’t exist. This story is a made up one like most of the career conundrums.

(4)(1)
Dave

I suspect you are right, not least as a building surveyor would be most unlikely to spend time working on construction sites – that is not what they do

(4)(0)
Anonymous

Get an LLM at a better university and see how you go from there? It would be a risk but if you can afford it and you really don’t want this TC then it might be worth a shot, and you won’t be in a worse position for a next round of applications.

(1)(6)
Anonymous

This takes me back to the day I took a phone call from the HR director of a major top 10 law firm following me reaching out to discuss my prospects (I have a similar background). She told me basically to forget it and either find a training contract at a very small London firm or something in the regions, and that perhaps after that I could work my way into a big firm. Disheartening to say the least, but later that day I found an email in my spam folder from a partner at another top 10 law firm who’d been impressed with the letter I sent and invited me down to meet him. A successful internship later – in which I was able to put my non-law skills to good use – and I’d got through their assessment day and secured a training contract. I

Putting it bluntly, you’ll not get through the initial application sift at a major firm with your academic record but if you can somehow circumnavigate that sift in a meritocratic way (i.e. demonstrating your intellectual capacity in other ways and showing the “added value” you bring) then it can be done. Tough though!

(8)(1)
AnonEmouse

I’m over the age of 30, lacking in fitness and any actual skill, but I am the top scorer in my pub league…

Why haven’t I be signed by Barcelona yet?

Sorry to sound harsh, but that’s a pretty good analogy. Take the TC and then when you’ve got a foot in the profession perhaps you can rise above your shaky academics but it will take persistence and a lot of hard work.

(4)(3)
What's my name again?

This is similar to the conundrum I’m in. At 22 years old, I feel like I’m leaving it a tad late to kick off my professional football career haha!

(2)(2)
Anonymous

Not a good analogy at all. You have be special and talented to play for Barca (or any good football team). Lawyers are neither, we are manufactured drones mostly sifting through paperwork. That’s why each of us are instantly replaceable, especially with the high turnover at most firms. Someone just posted above their below average grades and a tc from Freshfields.

(6)(1)
AnonEmouse

A Freshfields TC from when? 1972? I’ve known City partners with piss poor academics, but for BigLaw(tm) the 21st century process of awarding training contracts has become an exercise in sifting down 1,000s upon 1,000s of applications from people with excellent CVs whilst trying to be ‘fair’ and ‘meritocratic’ – the easiest way for HR departments to do so is to look at someone’s academics. Frankly you’d have to do a hell of a lot to convince me that you a smarter and more motivated than someone who has a strong 2:i or 1st in a heavyweight subject from a top 5 university…

Granted there is a clear disconnect between the ‘on paper’ intelligence of TC applicants and their apparent desire to waste their lives in a (comparatively) crapply remunerated ‘profession’ which offers occasional nuggets of mental stimulation buried in bucketloads of monotonous bullshit, but City law still remains a (surprisingly) popular career choice for bright young graduates who (rightly or wrongly) perceive it to be a glamorous/desirable job.

Bankers must p*** themselves laughing at wages that their erstwhile uni friends in law make for selling their souls/health/relationships.

(0)(1)
What's my name again?

I attend a Russell group uni, currently getting high 2:1 or 1st class marks. I also have a pilots licence (didn’t fancy a career in aviation though). But I didn’t do A-Levels, only did a BTEC, as at the time I wanted to do something aviation related which I would enjoy, while I got my PPL.

Will the BTEC completely knock me out of any race to get a TC at a decent firm?

While I’m not completely set on a career in a law firm, I do really enjoy studying law, which is why a career in law is an option I’m considering.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

Flying is so much cooler than being a sweaty paper-pusher at some MC boiler room. Don’t be a bender, go for the career in aviation!

(1)(1)
Anonymous

I’d say a pretty big problem that not many people are pointing out is your degree is not a very academic one. Most people who get TC’s have either done Law or some other rigorously academic subject that involves analytical thinking like Maths or a Science degree, or a degree where you are forming complex arguments like English or History. You already have a Training Contract offer, you should really count yourself lucky. I would love to tell you to keep trying and do your best, but you have unrealistic expectations, there are plenty of decent regional firms and high street firms out there. Stick to them

(5)(0)
Anonymous

I would love to be an engineer or a surgeon, but I can’t because I am studying law. I find it rather ridiculous that the idea of people who have studied some random degree are eligible to become lawyers. Quite ridiculous…

(5)(2)
Anonymous

Agreed. It’s a uniquely British thing too – study a three year degree in photography at some backwater university, take a year to convert: a good lawyer in no time! In the US you at least have to go through an actual 3 year JD degree…

All my mates studying for degrees at France or Germany find this system to be an absolute laugh.

(2)(0)
Anonymous

Just keep going………………………….and on and on like Ariston 🙂

(0)(0)
Anonymous

They’re doing you a favour… You’d be eaten alive. Not smart enough. Not driven enough. Too basic.

(1)(3)
Anonymous

A lot of know-it-all t***s on here who slag of the author and his university. Recent graduates who think the uni they went to is the be-all-and-end-all of life. People who don’t yet have enough perspective to see that life is long and going to uni is only the beginning of achievement. As we’ve seen, people make it to the MC from ex poly unis. My fellow new trainees at Burges Salmon did not all go to top unis. HR depts are subtle these days- grades count, but if you can show that you’re good, they’ll bite. You are eminently sellable. I expect the problem lies in the quality of your applications. Unless you understand the basic of the legal business, can articulate your strengths, and REALLY research the firms you’re applying to, you won’t be in the market. Get up to speed on these things, and I reckon you can sell yourself as a distinctive package. Best of luck.

(3)(1)
TheLolz

Yeah but Burges Salmon’s website looks like someone vomited a rainbow over it and then combined it with clipart. Plus the NQ money is sub-par.

Any firm that will take on a used car salesman however probably deserves a thumbs up on the whole.

The fact that Burges Salmon is an independent shop is also likely to be a significant factor. The increasing consolidation of the legal market is not good news, since the larger firms tend to recruit the same drones with 1 or 2 tokens thrown in the mix. Just look at Linklaters – 110 recruits – 95% of whom comes from the 7% of the population that are privately educated, and the 4% who go to state selective/grammar schools; and these arsewipes have the mendacity to call themselves “Social Mobility Champions”.

(6)(0)
All I want to be when I grow up is a solicitor at a pokey Bristol shop

Burges Salmon…lulz.

(3)(1)
NORMAN

I am a senior associate at a silver circle firm, and am involved in trainee recruitment.

I am afraid that you would not get through the sift with us with those a levels, irrespective of mitigating circumstances.

We do though have a number of assocs and partners with academic backgrounds similar – or worse – to yours. Each started in a small firm and worked their way up, through 3-4 moves, to get to us. I would say that is your best bet.

You may have a chance with some of the MC firms, as their intakes are much bigger, and they do take a small number of trainees who don’t fit their nominal requirements. We don’t, because we don’t have an intake big enough to allow us to take a risk on individual trainees on the basis that it might pan out. But I know FF do (see post above) – and I suspect CC and A&O may too. But you will be up against some very, very stiff competition, and a large pool of candidates from which to differentiate yourself, and you will be aiming at a very small pool of jobs – perhaps 1-2 in each MC intake will be allowed to get through despite falling short in the sift. I am afraid – and sorry to be negative – that I would not bet on you prevailing.

If you are dead set at training at that kind of shop, I would say that your best route would be to get on an LLM programme at an RG uni and knock it out of the park first. Then they will look at you properly. Kings has a good construction LLM that may be worth a look, provided your current degree qualifies you. Otherwise I am afraid the odds against you getting in to a top city firm at TC level are pretty substantial, and in all reality probably insurmountable.

(8)(0)
All I want to be when I grow up is a solicitor at a pokey Bristol shop

Are you by chance a senior associate at the top firm QSP Residual Recoveries LLP? I heard they used to be ‘Silver Circle’ once…

(1)(0)
TrueStory

I am a trainee at a top UK law firm. My grades weren’t good at A Levels; I got a 2.1 graduating but got 2.2 in my first year; have nothing outstanding outside study.

I went straight after graduation into my position now – come to think about it a lot of it is luck. I even need a work permit but my company obtained one for me.

The right firm will find you – if you are the right one.

(4)(0)
Anonymous

Burges Salmon- huge, lovely and swanky offices, far from pokey, great money which goes much further in the region, fantastic work/life balance, Roll on Friday firm if the year two years in a row. Prospects of partnership with pep of 550k.

As you say, lulz.

(1)(0)
TheLolz

Yet their HR department can’t hit reply to the correct post when posting the planted propaganda.

Encouraging.

(0)(0)
LL and P

I’m a solicitor in London. Burges Salmon is one of the best respected national firms and some of the associates in the projects field at least, can move to the City with ease. I put them on a par with Wragge and Co corporate (now diluted by LG and some Canadian mob) who were top notch and very well respect. Maybe (?) Hill Dickinson shipping in Liverpool is at that level too.

(1)(2)
Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(1)(0)
Magic Circle recruitment partner

It’s the A levels. Extenuating circumstances and a stellar CV can bump up disappointing grades (say all Bs) but I’m afraid yours are going to mean you are always screened out at the first pass.

(0)(2)

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