Created with Norton Rose Fulbright

6 ways candidates who don’t fit the mould can boost their chances of landing a training contract or pupillage

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By Alex Aldridge on

Advice for rough diamonds from Norton Rose Fulbright, Hardwicke and BPP Law School


One question — or variant of — kept coming up during our Facebook careers Q&A on Wednesday: how can you become a lawyer if you don’t quite fit the profile of the consistent high-achiever beloved of law firms and chambers?

We’ve trawled the discussion thread — which is worth reading in full — for the best nuggets of advice for students in this category and highlighted them below.

1. Hustle

If you don’t have top grades, you can’t afford to sit back and let a career as a lawyer come to you. BPP Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) lecturer and careers programme leader Wenying Li recommends “extensive networking” and “calling up a few of the firms you are most interested in with a five-minute pitch aimed at getting them to consider your application”. She continues:

“This has worked for my students before. But I say ‘a few’ because this takes time and energy and the results could be discouraging. In your pitch, you will have to make a concise case for what else is strong about your CV / background that ‘overrides’ your weak A-Level grades.”

2. Emphasise your potential to be consistent

In making said pitch, consider how much law firms — particularly of the large variety — value consistency.

“We look for consistency across all your modules,” explains Norton Rose Fulbright trainee recruitment advisor Jillian Dent. “If there are one or two slip-ups along the way, that won’t be detrimental to your application. But if you consistently go up and down, that would be a cause of concern.”

Accordingly, if your grades fluctuate sharply, you need to compensate by showing that you are consistent in other areas, and present a plausible case about how you are likely to become more consistent in future.

3. If you have bad A-levels, find somewhere that doesn’t care about A-Levels

Some firms and chambers will automatically junk applicants who fail to meet minimum A-level requirements. Others won’t. The same applies for degree results. You need to find the firms/chambers that will look on your CV favourably.

Hardwicke employment law barrister Paul Sterlitz explains:

“As someone who has sifted a LOT of pupillage applications over the years I can say that for my part in the marking process, A-levels are no more than a base line indicator. If someone has an alternative qualification at that level, or the results at A-level were not that impressive, for me that does not count as a ‘negative’.

“Perhaps if I can put it this way; I still invited someone for interview who got three Ds at A Level and a first in their law degree. As I quickly learned from that impressive candidate, A-levels were wholly unimportant when viewed in the round.”

4. Pay close attention to the graduate recruitment cycle

While getting a position with smaller firms tends to be more ad hoc, the securing of a training contract at a big international law firm is a formal process that requires candidates to do certain things at key dates during the year.

That means getting to grips with the graduate recruitment cycle when it begins in autumn and immediately making applications to attend law firm open days.

It is at this point that the barriers to entry are lowest, allowing students to make themselves known to firms they wish to join. This will boost their chances when it comes to applying for vac schemes in December and January. As Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dent explains:

“Open days and insight days held at various law firms are also a good way to show your interest in the legal sector and obtain knowledge about a firm’s people, culture and strategy.”

5. Apply early

Most students leave it to the last minute to put in vacation scheme and training contract applications. Privately law firm graduate recruiters admit that this a) drives them crazy as it leads to a surge in work, and b) reduces students’ chances as some of the places have already been taken by deadline day. Gain an easy advantage by applying early.

“We always encourage an early application as we, like several other firms, look at applications on a rolling basis,” says Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dent. “Hundreds of students apply in the hours leading up to the deadline. For obvious reasons, this is something we actively discourage.”

6. Do clever things to help yourself stand out

Students often complain that they find it difficult to get onto vacation schemes or mini-pupillages without having already completed legal work experience.

To get that first bit of experience, they need to volunteer for pro bono schemes run by universities and law schools, suggests BPP’s Li.

“You can get over the chicken-and-egg problem (how do I get law experience without any law experience on my CV?) by finding pro bono work yourself. Why not approach the lawyer/legal department of charities and religious organisations and ask for some legal shadowing experience,” she says.

Hardwicke’s Strelitz agrees, reminding students that pro bono work can reach appellate level — which is obviously CV gold. He also advises students to give marshalling a go:

“I personally had never heard of marshalling until I was in my first year at university,” he says. “Once I was I wrote to a local circuit judge, told him who I was and what I wanted to do and then asked if I could marshall him for 2-3 days. He rang me the next day(!) and said that he would be delighted as it was such a polite letter and he was always so keen to help out students.”

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