Find your unique selling point
A student recently wrote to me asking what my top tips for getting a training contract were and I wanted to share them with a wider audience. However, I also know many aspiring barristers who may also benefit from these pointers in their efforts to secure pupillage.
Suffice to say that the statistics are against us, over 26,000 people apply to study law degrees, just under 6,000 gain training contracts and even less secure pupillage. I hope these 10 tips are useful and will hopefully give each student reading them the reassurance that they will all become lawyers if they keep putting the effort in.
1. Choose a city
Limit your search to a particular city. This will prevent you being ‘spoilt for choice’ in regard to which chambers or firms you want to apply to. Each city has its own legal market, its own atmosphere and ultimately, its own clients and legal specialities. So, in deciding which city to practice, ask these questions:
– Do I want to work in London? London is undoubtedly the legal centre of the UK. It is best to decide early if this is the right place for you.
– Where would I like to be based? Consider personal factors such as family and support networks. A career in the legal world is stressful, it may be a necessity for some to have their family close by.
– Is this city right for me? Visit the cities you’re considering! Try to get work experience in some of the local firms or chambers.
– Can I see myself here? Everyone is different. Make sure that you can see yourself in that city for the two years of training (at the very least!).
– Is this the best option for me? Working in smaller cities may put you at a disadvantage later down the line, so consider your career progression.
2. Pick five firms or chambers
It is tempting to simply put out as many applications as possible and hope that one of them is successful. Speaking from experience, this is not the right way to go. You may get through to the interview stage with this method, but you will be instantly put at a disadvantage due to the limited research you will have conducted about the firm or chambers.
If you choose five, you can spend far longer researching and doing the application form. This increases the likelihood of an interview and it will be an interview that you’re ready for! In selecting your five, think about the type of firm that suits you (it really is a two-way street). In doing this, ask these questions:
– Global, regional or high street? Do you see yourself at an international giant or a friendly neighbourhood law firm?
– Do the firms specialise in areas of law you are interested in? Ensure that the law firm has areas that you find interesting. This is where work experience will come in handy!
– Do you like the firm’s culture? No two firms are exactly the same. The joy that comes out of working somewhere is usually the kind of people you work with.
– Does the firm have room for progression? Make sure you can see yourself having a career at the firms you’re applying for.
3. Create a research method
When you’re doing applications, have a method. I always went to Legal 500, Chambers & Partners and Legal Cheek’s Most Lists first, putting the key information on a word document. I then went on the firm’s website, researching their culture, finding testimonials and ascertaining what clients the firm has whilst also catching up on the firm’s current affairs.
Only once I had a real grasp on the firm’s values did I begin the application form. In each question, including work experience, I tried to word the application form in a manner that showed how I demonstrated the firm’s values. I know this will be told to you by every career guidance service, but do not simply use a standardised application and change the name of the firm, it is easily spotted.
4. Personal development
Continuously develop your skill base. Attend seminars, join your local Law Society. If you can’t secure a training contract or pupillage this year, apply for paralegal roles in firms where you know there is room for progression (some firms only offer TCs to their paralegals!). Aim for a distinction on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or outstanding on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) to give you a little advantage. Try to get an article published or start a legal blog. To use an age-old expression ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’.
5. Career service
Book regular appointments with your careers service. Get your CV and applications checked by the careers service. If the application progresses, book in for mock interviews. Continuously utilise this service which is provided for by most universities. One grammatical error can see the application you spent months perfecting gone to waste. The careers service could have spotted it.
The reason I finally got a training contract is because I decided to only apply to five firms and those five were carefully selected and I researched the hell out of them, I took months on my applications. This got me in the door at my firm. Once in the door, the key ingredient is enthusiasm. If you manage to get a vacation scheme, work experience or mini-pupillage, show up early, take an interest and put your all into it. Opportunities are rare in such a competitive market, take them with both hands. Remember, legal knowledge is presumed, it is personality that makes you stand out.
7. Paralegal roles/work experience
Any experience you have on your CV will be essential in communicating in an interview that you have the ability and necessary skills to be a trainee solicitor or pupil. Experience can include anything. For example, working in McDonalds demonstrates that you can speak to customers, work under pressure and work within a team. These are all skills used as a pupil or trainee solicitor.
Whilst the phrase ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is no longer an absolute truth in the legal profession, building a professional network is still an absolute must. Lawyers must bring in clients. Clients are found through networking. Therefore, firms and chambers both look for individuals who can network successfully, as their business depends upon it. If you haven’t already, create a LinkedIn account. Attend legal events and for every person you meet, ask to add them on LinkedIn. Once you have added them, try to maintain that connection without harassing them.
Volunteer work is valued greatly by chambers and firms. The reason it is valued is that volunteer work demonstrates your personality. It shows that you are willing to throw yourself into activities and help others. Additionally, most chambers and firms are well established within local charities. It may be worthwhile researching which charities the firms and chambers work for and offer pro bono support to. This will show initiative and allows networking whilst raising money for a good cause!
10. Unique selling point
The most important tip is to develop your unique selling point (USP). What separates you from the thousands of other law graduates? What have you done that sets you apart? How will you add value to the firm or chambers? How do you stand out?
The legal market is extremely competitive and to stand out you must develop your USP. For example, if you have put on an application that you have ‘excellent communication skills’, this forms part of your USP. However, you need to demonstrate this, such as participating in mooting or joining a debating society. Every single person has a USP, the trick is being able to demonstrate it.
Good luck and I hope that you prove the statistics wrong, you all have what it takes!
Joseph Williams studied law at Edge Hill University and is a future trainee solicitor at a law firm in Leeds. Sophie Hill, who contributed to this article, is currently studying the Bar Professional Training Course at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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