A former City partner’s guide to navigating the training contract application process

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By Nick Clayson on


With interview season just around the corner, former NRF lawyer Nick Clayson offers up his top tips and advice to those seeking to enter the world of big law

In the last few months, I have been asked by a number of different students for career advice. Whether it’s – how do I get into in big law? How do I make myself a better candidate? What are law firms looking for from aspiring solicitors?

In this article I cover the approach you might take to making an application and preparing for an interview — rather than getting into all of the various routes to qualification and work experience schemes that are open to you.

Please feel free to add your nuggets of wisdom in the comments or share with anyone that doesn’t have someone to ask.

Can you answer the question: ‘Why do you want to be a lawyer?’

We don’t save the world. We don’t make it a better place — generally. Some would say more lawyers would probably make the world a worse place. Telling an interviewer that you have “always had a passion for shipping finance/LMA contracts” is probably going to be a less effective answer than explaining that you’re interested in “using your brain to navigate rules in order to help your clients solve problems/achieve their goals”.

We know it’s a well-paying, relatively stable job in a typically un-hostile environment. This is probably one of the reasons you want the job. Saying this is probably not going to enhance your chances of being offered the job. Do be prepared to talk about why you want to work in big law.

What’s all this about commercial awareness?

Do not get hung up on this. Everything you do in big law ought to require commercial awareness (i.e., awareness of the context in which you are undertaking the task). It exists everywhere. It’s not a separate skill. It’s an awareness the business reasons behind why you are being asked to do your job.

I used to ask a training contract interview question about vending machine in an office building, tenanted by a law firm, the vending machine being owned by a third-party supplier and maintained by a contractor. The vending machine fails to deliver the can when you inserted the coin. Who do I sue? I never got the “no-one — it’s a can of coke!” answer. It would have impressed me (but I still would have wanted the legal analysis).

Often a client asks for one thing, but needs another. Your training will develop the skills you need to do that — but when answering questions at interview, demonstrating your ability to problem solve, collaborate, communicate is what is being looked for.

Know your application — and control the message

If it’s on your application, it’s fair game to be asked about it. When asked about it at interview, don’t play it down or comment that this particular thing you have spoken about on your application form was not a big deal (or worse that you weren’t actually really involved). You should have enough life experiences to ensure that everything on your application form demonstrates in some why you’re right for the job. You can control this by only putting things you are happy to talk about on your application.

Plenty of law firms will ask you to talk about something in the news or changes in the business world that are of interest to you. Don’t pretend to be interested in things you’re not interested in.

Don’t write what you think a good candidate would say

Think instead about something that is of actual interest to you and write about that but be prepared to talk about it if/when you have an interview. his should be your comfort zone because you may end up talking about something that you know more about than the interviewer — and that would be a good place to be. Giving yourself a fighting chance by actually having some knowledge/interest has to be the approach here. It’s legitimate for you not to care about crypto or blockchain. It’s legitimate to have something to say about the financial fair play system in the football transfer market, the breakaway Saudi-backed LIV golf league or the impact that Space X satellite broadband will have on emerging economies.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen “blockchain” on an application. Yes, it may change the world, but are you confident to talk about how it works and why it might with a partner who has probably been to a number of seminars on the subject? If you are — great, but if you’re not, choose something that puts you in the driving seat.

NB – If the question relates to the practice of law rather than business (which I think is an unfair question, because that’s a law firm management issue), then business issues can still be relevant, because law firms exist only to serve their clients and the business issues of clients is the business of law firms.

Leadership, teamwork and relevant experience

Those questions about teamwork and leadership. Whether you were captain of the England under 18s netball team, you participated in a local frisbee league or organised the university charity jumble sale it does not matter unless you can demonstrate teamwork, hard work and leadership. Your answers need to demonstrate this. Winning five-nil or raising £5,000 isn’t relevant unless you show your working — i.e., pick out the things that you did that made a difference.

It absolutely doesn’t matter that your experience was in a shop or in a pub. These jobs are often tough and are hugely valuable in terms of the experience gained. Don’t try to play those down. Legal experience is very helpful (and shows a desire and interest in the profession), but interviewers will understand that for many people, funding their studies involves a more conventional job. If you do not have experience of working at a law firm (whether an open day, vacation scheme or work experience) do be prepared to explain what interests you about working for a law firm in big law, and the steps you have taken to find out about the day job.

If you are asked in an interview about a difficult situation, the question is not probing you for weakness. It is asking you to demonstrate your resilience, your integrity and your approach rather than for you to identify a failing or something bad that happened. Bring out the positive outcome (or what you learned) rather than focussing on the terrible thing that happened.

‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’

I don’t like this as a question (or series of questions). To me it demonstrates a lack of preparation on the part of the interviewer. If the application form was thorough (which it will have been for a big law training contract), there will be plenty to ask without reverting to this line of questioning.

If you do get asked, don’t say “I’m a bit of a perfectionist” or “I work too hard” or “I care too much”. It sounds awful. Try hard not to say “answering questions like this” or “reverse parking” or “Tony’s Chocolonely”.

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Instead, perhaps focus on an element of feedback you have been given and how you have worked to improve as a result.
Asking about strengths is a similarly weak question but easier to answer. You should have an understanding of what is required by the job. Make sure there is some overlap between your strengths and the job you’re seeking.
How do I find out more about what law firms are doing?

Law firms do their best to differentiate themselves. They understand that there are plenty of lawyers around and they are generally chasing the same clients. They therefore need to retain visibility in the market, not just to attract new clients but also to be seen as industry leaders. They publish lots of articles. You should read some of these (as many as you can handle). Reading two or three articles about the same subject by different law firms will give you greater perspective.

The LinkedIn pages of a number of law firms which will help you understand the issues they think are important to their clients, but also how they communicate them.

Most big law firms will have a graduate recruitment page. They are useful too. They tell you about what it might be like apply and train at the firm. They will give you good insight into “a day in the life”. Remember if you are applying to a firm, it’s the graduate recruitment team that will be initially reading your application. There will be information the graduate recruitment literature about what they are looking for. Talk in those terms. These graduate recruitment sites will also make you aware of open days, work experience, vacation schemes and other programmes.

You should have questions!

The interview will usually include an opportunity for you to ask questions. The worst thing you can possibly do is indicate you have nothing to ask. You are in the room with people who can change your path, so having them enjoy the interaction and talk about themselves is going to help them feel positively about the experience of interviewing you. Prepare a few, because if the point or subject matter has already been covered in the discussion, you’ll perhaps not want to ask it. The interviewers want to feel that you have made an effort to be there. If you have no questions, it sends the wrong message.

Entry requirements

Most law firms will publish their grade requirements and if you don’t have them, it’s going to be tough. Be realistic. If you don’t have the grades, don’t rule out being accepted but you may need to choose an alternative path (for example impressing as a paralegal).

Can someone you know help you?

Thankfully most big-law firms these days operate on the basis that its what you know, not who you know. If you have some good connections, use them to help you practice interviewing or to read your draft applications. They won’t (or ought not to) be able to get you an interview — so ask them to help with the things they can help with.

Don’t pay for help. Successful lawyers do not need to monetise their success by charging would-be trainee solicitors for application and interviewing tips. It’s highly unlikely this would be money well spent. Most people know someone who knows someone that can proof read an application or hold a mock interview.

There are various lawyers forums and legal websites (including Legal Cheek). Seek these out. The discussion isn’t always 100% related to law, but there are plenty of knowledgeable people who will gladly point you in the right direction.

You may know someone who has recently been through the process — or a friend of a friend. And that’s why I’m writing this, as its often people I don’t know directly that have asked me to help someone they know

Nick Clayson is a former partner at Norton Rose Fulbright. He is currently working as in-house head of legal for a luxury hotel operator on a hybrid basis.

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