An open letter to training contract applicants everywhere

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By Alex Aldridge on

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,


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.