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9 essentials that successful training contract applicants grasp

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By The Careers Team on

It’s often the subtle things that mark out candidates taken on by leading firms


The Legal Cheek Careers team attended a day-long TC application advice session put on last week by Kaplan Law School’s highly-rated careers department. There we learned about all the good things that top wannabe lawyers do — and the traps they avoid falling into…

1. Commercial awareness is your friend

Contrary to popular myth, the accumulation of commercial awareness can be one of the most enjoyable elements of the process of becoming a lawyer. But it all hinges on whether the student can see the human drama beyond the headlines.

At Kaplan’s open day on Wednesday, the 40 attendees — who were largely undergraduate students — were asked to consider Apple’s 2014 acquisition of headphone manufacturer Beats, and then discuss whether they thought it was a good or bad deal.


Was the $3 billion price tag over the odds? Is Beats the real deal or just celebrity marketing spin? What would the late Steve Jobs have thought of the deal?

“The law is brought alive by the often fascinating stories of the deals and cases,” says Kaplan Law School careers chief Lorraine Petheram, adding:

You should never think of law and business operating in silo, instead they are inextricably linked. For a lawyer to add value to their client, their advice must be contextualised according to the commercial interests of their client.

2. Know your DLA Pipers from your Slaughter and Mays

Another aspect of commercial awareness is understanding how the legal profession fits into the world of business.

That means appreciating the difference between the various types of law firms — from magic circle giants, whose practices are heavily slanted to corporate finance; to mid-tier firms, which typically do a wider array of work for a spread of clients in different industries; to niche practices like media law and IP boutiques.

That might mean using something like the Legal Cheek Most List as a starting as a starting point, then following up with weightier research in a publication such as Chambers Student, while occasionally indulging in ‘Which Game of thrones character is your law firm?’-style light relief.

It’s only at this point that students can give a compelling justification for wanting to train with a particular firm, attendees at the Kaplan careers day were told. At which point they need to drill down further, advised Petheram, and use legal directories such as the Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners to find out who are the top ranked partners in these firms. Then it’s all about tailoring your application Petheram continues:

If the firm has merged, talk about the combined strength of the new firm. If you speak the language of a country in which that firm has an office, talk about that.

3. Don’t underestimate the work experience you have

That you need work experience to get work experience is an often-voiced law student gripe. How can you secure a vac scheme at a firm when they want to see some previous commitment to the area of law in which they specialise?


Hannah Blake, a recent Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduate who has secured a training contract with Fieldfisher, was one of a number of Kaplan alumni who answered students’ questions in a Q&A session held on the day. She recommends that TC hopefuls look beyond law firms for their first pieces of work experience.

I managed to get work experience in a County Court and the childcare litigation department of Leicester Council, which I then used to help secure vac schemes,” she says.

And students without legal experience shouldn’t despair. As Pinsent Masons‘ graduate recruitment manager Edward Walker memorably told the Guardian back in 2011 in a statement that would be followed by many top law firms:

A student working on the checkout at Sainsbury’s is more impressive than they often realise. Let’s not forget that companies like Sainsbury’s are law firms’ core clients. Understanding how their business works from the bottom up is very useful.

4. Leaving it to the last minute can reduce your chances of success substantially

Several law firms screen applications in advance of the summer deadline, so that by the time the 31 July application deadline is drawing near they have a comprehensive shortlist. That means the students who apply at the last minute often face much tougher odds than early birds.

Petheram, who has worked in graduate recruitment at both Eversheds and DWF, gives an insight into how the process works:

By the 31 July your benchmark is so much higher. You might be looking at a pile of 200 applications and saying, ‘I need three’.

5. The use of emotional language doesn’t make graduate recruitment teams like you more

Petheram emphasises the importance of being “professional” in application forms. That means using an appropriate email address (not the hilarious one you used as a teenager), being meticulous about spelling and grammar, and avoiding copying and pasting information from previous applications. During her law firm days Petheram reckons that between 15-20% of the applications she saw contained a major error.

Equally as importantly is professionalism of tone, she adds:

No matter how desperate for a training contract you are, avoid emotional language.

6. Write densely

Tight wordcounts on applications forms mean firms are wary of sentences like “I had the opportunity to draft a document” used in preference to “I drafted a document”.

A propensity to pad out responses, rather than write in a tight, dense way, indicates a lack of time being spent on a form — and is a sure way to get your application binned at an early stage.

Applications should be treated like another module on your course,” says Kaplan LPC graduate Holly Watt, who has recently secured a training contract with Maples Teesdale. “It can be really easy to get stuck in to work and let applications slide, so I worked hard to restrict my LPC studies to Monday to Thursday and devoted Friday each week to training contracts.

7. Understand why firms ask about your extracurricular achievements

The chances of getting a training contract aren’t linked to how many countries you went to in your gap year. Rather, law firms want candidates to use examples of their extracurricular interests and achievements as a way of providing evidence of their ability to meet core requirements — like being able to manage time, handle stress and be good with clients. Says Petheram:

It is not just about academics. Law firms want well-rounded individuals too — and these broader strengths can be demonstrated by a wide variety of extracurricular activities. It is all about how they are presented.

8. Complicated doesn’t equal clever

The Kaplan careers day was set up to resemble as closely as possible a law firm training contract assessment centre — and included a couple of instances where individuals were required to present to the group.

Delivering an oral submission without much time to prepare to a group of strangers who you are basically competing with is not easy. And just managing to get on your feet and splutter out some words takes courage.

How to stand out? Observing the students on Wednesday, the best ones were disciplined about what they said, basing their short presentations on three or four key points in a structured way that meant they were easy to follow.

The not so good ones tended to over-complicate, losing the audience in a stream of consciousness of facts and ideas.

9. Leadership isn’t about having the loudest voice

During the negotiation exercise — where students were presented with a series of options about which projects should receive lottery funding, and asked to make a case for some of them — Petheram says that she and her colleagues were looking for “subtle leadership”, explaining:

Often candidates are either too quiet or too loud, trying to win every point. The ones who can suppress their egos and concentrate on achieving the best outcome receive the highest scores.

Take that same measured, yet determined, approach into the partner interviews at the end of an assessment centre and you may well just end up with a training contract.

Kaplan Law School’s training contract careers day took place on Wednesday 24 June. It has further similar events coming up next month and in August.

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