An open letter to training contract applicants everywhere

Being commercial can make up for a lot, but only if you understand what lawyers are selling

Dear training contract applicants,

Speaking to many of you at our events I’m often struck by your patchy understanding about what’s needed to get a training contract at a top City firm. Sometimes you seem inclined to overcomplicate things. Actually, bagging a TC is all about doing the simple things well. I’ve attempted to get rid of the noise and cut to what matters in the following seven points…

1. Be good at law

That requires intelligence. You prove intelligence with the grades you achieved at university and the quality of your application responses. Those of you with middling academics have a chance to redeem yourselves if you can show that you are commercial and appreciate risk (see below).

2. Be commercial

Being commercial means understanding that law isn’t the only thing in business, and grasping that there are other factors which can often be way more important than legal technicalities.

This is a major weak point for people who are good at law, precisely because they tend to cherish the law so much and find it to be a comfort zone. Commerciality is also a quality lacking among middle class people in their early 20s because they usually haven’t had much exposure to being under pressure to make money.

If you are only OK at law, but can genuinely see how it fits into a bigger commercial picture, many law firms will be tempted to take a chance on you. But don’t overplay this card…

3. Appreciate risk

Applicants who think they are commercial, and present themselves as wide-boy wheeler-dealers, misunderstand what corporate lawyers are selling.

One of the main reasons that big companies hire elite law firms is as a kind of insurance. If they have instructed the magic circle on a deal, the company is to a large extent protected from blame if something goes wrong.

Accordingly, it’s important for aspiring solicitors to exude the appropriate levels of caution, good judgement and general wisdom expected of people who only very rarely make mistakes. Those interviewing you will be highly attuned to this.

Combine commerciality with appreciation of risk (and consciousness of the importance of presenting yourself appropriately), and you’ll stand out.

4. Have the right attitude

This boils down to a basic appreciation of the dynamics of the City. Being a very highly-paid service industry, law requires extreme levels of responsiveness. The burden of this tends to fall on the junior members of firms, with one of the most common complaints among rookies being how unpredictable the hours are and how little control they have over their time.

Law firms need people who accept this arrangement without complaint and then keep going, month after month, year after year. The term they use is “resilience”. They are good at spotting the difference between the true grit of a candidate who knows what they are getting themselves in for and the pumped-up enthusiasm of someone just in it for the money and status.

5. Look through the gimmicks

Law is constantly being swept with trends. This year it’s tech, which is creating a pressure for graduates to sell themselves as not only all the above but also as the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Resist this unless you have something genuine to say. For example, if you are converting to law from a science degree, and as a result will bring some proven transferable skills to the firm at a time when it is more than usually focused on technology, this will be worth emphasising.

But if your interest in tech is relatively new, avoid re-arranging your application around the week-long coding course you’re planning to complete. Instead, focus on showcasing which of your human skills will make you irreplaceable by artificial intelligence.

6. Bother to find out about individual firms

Law firms may do similar work but each has its own history, culture and unique quirks. If you can’t be bothered to research them to find out why, you don’t deserve a training contract.

7. Appreciate that this is a numbers game

Too many training contract hunters take rejection personally, become dejected and then fail to make enough quality applications to give themselves a real chance. Some of you are so caught up with yourselves that you forget the people in charge of graduate recruitment are only human. It’s also worth noting that even at very big law firms the graduate recruiters are often just a small team. How would you handle it if every day had to make tough decisions about which excellent candidate to give a job to over someone similarly impressive?

So push on, and remember, as a wise speaker at our recent ‘How to make it as a City lawyer’ event pointed out, you only need one successful application.

All the best,

Alex

Applying for a training contract? The Legal Cheek Firms Most List has all the key figures, from money to diversity stats, plus a scorecard for each firm on key factors like training, quality of work and average arrive and leave times.

48 Comments

Lifelong paralegal

I spent the whole of last summer watching adverts on Youtube in an attempt to improve my commercial awareness. Didn’t get a TC 🙁

(8)(1)
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Anonymous

(A) Fewer.
(B) Other than investment banking, which has its own charming issues, pressures and challengers, please explain which professions will pay you more than £80,000 – £100,000 (plus bonus) after two years for less work than law.

(8)(2)
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Tim NicebutDim

To Moaning Anonymous,

Go and crawl back under the rock of a firm that you currently inhabit and spread your bile elsewhere. If you don’t like it, don’t do it; simple.

Yours,

Chap, bored of cynicism.

(5)(0)
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IP Draughts

Linked to point 3 is understanding what is the purpose of a law firm. The purpose is not to provide a good service, it is to make profits for the owners of the firm. This is achieved partly through providing a good service and through maintaining brand reputation. and through hiring and retaining good staff. Of course, in client-facing communications, the service element is emphasised. In employee-facing communications, the career development elements are emphasised. These are not wrong, but they are means to an end, not the end in themselves. Being clear-headed about this helps to avoid making naive comments in interviews.

(19)(0)
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Anonymous

I totally agree but where I think Alex is coming from is that this article is for the middle candidates who may not have the stellar Oxbridge credentials and connections, has to make it on their own merit and actually put in some real effort and not just submit an application because they’re at Oxbridge.
So your standard Bristol/Liverpool/Sheffield/Birmingham/Southampton/SOAS applicant.

(1)(7)
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Does not know Katie King

Instead, he made a living from writing, then made a further living by taking a risk to set up what became a profitable news website. Both of these things are considerably harder than bagging a TC or pupillage.

(26)(7)
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Anonymous

Difficulty is irrelevant. Becoming a footballer more difficult than landing a TC, but doesn’t mean I would take advice from a footballer on how to get a TC.

(23)(5)
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Footballer

No disrespect to Alex, Katie and Tom, but how many of them would get in a top, top, trainee intake? All you need to know is that at the end of the day, there’s no easy TC applications at this level. At the current time of the TC application season they’re all 6-pointers and you got to literally work your socks off and give 110% in your applications.

(5)(0)
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Hypocrites

Most of it isn’t true unfortunately. If you don’t have the AAA grades and the solid 2:1 complemented with the middle class extra curriculars and obligatory gap year holiday then you won’t be getting a TC at London’s elite I’m afraid. All this nonsense talk about commerciality by grad recruitment is hot air, honestly have you seen the commercial awareness of some of the trainees and students awarded contracts in their 2nd and 3rd year? They will overlook people with a decent interest in commercial matters for someone with top grades, when we all know anyone could be a doc monkey, yet the ability to have a genuine understanding (not just spoonfed “necessary”) of commercial matters in more important. Diversity this diversity that except in the intake 🙂

(30)(3)
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Anonymous

I totally agree but where I think Alex is coming from is that this article is for the middle candidates who may not have the stellar Oxbridge credentials and connections, has to make it on their own merit and actually put in some real effort and not just submit an application because they’re at Oxbridge.
So your standard Bristol/Liverpool/Sheffield/Birmingham/Southampton/SOAS applicant.

(2)(7)
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Anonymous

That’s a good point. Alex is giving candidates TC advice, but we could give him advice on attention to detail. “Doing simple things well” – seems to me attention to detail is fairly simple, yet Alex couldn’t do that well…

(9)(1)
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Anonymous

It’s only a numbers game because of EU free movement and because everyone thinks they can speak English, which law grads in France don’t have to put up with.

Once we’ve left the EU, it will be much, much easier for British grads to find those training contracts!

(7)(29)
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Ashamed Brit

The UK jobs market, including the legal industry, will massively shrink. London will no longer be an economic global hub. British graduates will find far fewer jobs in the UK and opportunities to work abroad (or in some cases even travel abroad) will evaporate. There will probably even be food shortages.

Our country will not eat cake, we will eat gravel and soil. If we are lucky we might receive aid from respectable states like Germany. We will see.

(11)(7)
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Anonymous

after spending a couple of years in law, it seems to be that those studying English as a second language tend to much more proficient in the language than native Brits. pretty sure you’re a grouch that struggled/or is struggling to get a TC?

(7)(1)
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Anonymous

1) have a balanced and well-rounded CV
2) be normal / half-likeable
3) have AAB+ / 2:1 (uni doesn’t matter too much for most firms but by virtue of having AAB it won’t be certain places usually)
4) apply to enough firms to give yourself a chance and be flexible

(11)(2)
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Anonymous

It’s actually irrelevant whether or not the author himself obtained a training contract.

I remember when I was applying for TCs (probably before Legal Cheek was around) spending hours trawling whatever resources were around – Lawyer2B, Chambers Student etc – very few articles of which were written by successful training contract applicants or qualified lawyers. Taken as part of a broader diet of reading material, it was all helpful stuff.

Whilst it is plainly an important quality in any aspiring lawyer to be sceptical, it is equally important to devour whatever information you can , critically assess it alongside other information and derive whatever use from it is feasible. Those quick to shout down this article based solely on the author’s credentials are saying more about themselves than anyone else.

(13)(4)
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Anonymous

I agree with the last bit of the comment above- I think that it is important to realise that even when talking to people who managed to get decent TCs / pupillages they will only be able to advise in relation to what worked for them and often this means conflicting advice. Of course the essentials need to be in place (decent grades, some level of people skills etc.) but there is more than one way to skin the training contract cat.

This cuts both ways, both when you take advice from the MC partner who made it with 2 O levels and a Desmond (i.e. the “you can do it if you want it enough” brigade) or Silk with a double first and a BCL. Listen to all advice and critically evaluate it.

For my own part (and being mindful of what I have said above) the best that you can do as an aspiring lawyer is to make your strongest and best points, attempt to explain away your worst (or explain why it doesn’t matter), in order to advance the best case that you can.

(3)(0)
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Anonymous

‘Commerciality is also a quality lacking among middle class people in their early 20s because they usually haven’t had much exposure to being under pressure to make money.’

Um… what?!

(5)(2)
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Trainee Psycho from Hell

The best way to get a TC is to hold the principal’s wife and children hostage until the TC is ‘bagged’ and said bag left in a cubicle in Waterloo station lavatory at the appointed time and duly trousered. That’s how I got mine.

(5)(1)
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Cockney Geezer

LC has now blagged two “how to get a TC” articles in as many days. When it appears no one at LC has ever obtained a TC.
What’s its game?

(4)(1)
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Captain Walter Mitty-Smithers

Hello. This is your captain speaking. I’ve never flown a plane before, but that is irrelevant as I have written about it…..

Now this is how you become a captain. Actually I’m not a captain either, but I’ve written about that too…..

(4)(1)
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Anonymous

Alex, can you or someone who has not only received a TC, but also maybe been involved with recruitment processes, give a real world example of number 3? This risk point is something no one has mentioned at the various law fairs, law school career advisors, and even firm open days that I have attended. How would one show an appreciation for risk?

(1)(0)
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