What the law firms don’t tell you
This week I did a Facebook livestream detailing some of the things I have learned about the training contract application process as a journalist writing about the business of law firms.
We titled the short session (embedded above) in a slightly sensationalist manner: ‘What law firms don’t tell you: Training contract application advice live. Ask Legal Cheek editor Alex Aldridge anything about how the top firms really select trainees’.
But that attention-seeking headline contains more than a grain of truth about the discourse surrounding training contract applications — specifically, the disconnect between what law firms say publicly and how they actually behave.
Below I’ve fleshed out some of the points that I make in the video…
1. Even if you are applying on deadline day, it’s not too late
It’s well known that many big law firms fill up training contract places ahead of application deadlines, usually with students who have come through their vac schemes. But going into this weekend, most firms will still have some places — and many will still have quite a few.
Law firm graduate recruitment is all about the battle to secure an elite group of about 5% of applicants. Outside of this bunch of hotshots, applications are numerous but can be very mediocre — and firms invariably have to hire some lesser mortals in order to make up their numbers.
The standard is probably worse than you think. So if you have an OK but not sparkling CV, and several hours to put a decent application together that contains no errors and features properly thought-through responses to the long answer questions, you have a chance.
2. Boost the odds of success by applying for lower paying City firms with lots of regional offices
Don’t be blinded by MoneyLaw. Compared to most industries, the lower-paying law firms still remunerate incredibly generously. And their lack of eye-catching salary rise announcements means fewer students apply to join them. So if you want to boost your chances of getting a TC this weekend, consult the Legal Cheek Most List and apply to these slightly less glamorous firms.
But you can go further than this in moving the odds in your favour. Seek out the corporate firms with lots of regional offices. It’s well known — but rarely mentioned publicly — that firms’ offices in the north (with the possible exception of Manchester) are considerably less sought after among students than their City of London bases. Indeed, some regional offices can be quite hard to fill. Few people finish their careers where they start, and a foot in the door is everything in a competitive job market.
3. The firms which ignore non-Russell Group students may not be the ones you imagine
My experience from dealing with graduate recruitment partners and HR bosses is that, as a rule, the more prestigious the law firm, the more open it is to hiring students from non-Russell Group unis. A browse of trainees’ profiles on LinkedIn tends to support this. (The exception to the rule is some US law firms’ London offices which have scant HR resources and tend to hire almost exclusively from Oxbridge and the top London unis.)
This is the opposite to what most students assume. But it makes sense: if your average magic circle firm spots an impressive student at an unfashionable institution it is usually confident enough — and sufficiently unconcerned about what others think — to snap them up. Your typical mid-tier outfit may, on the other hand, feel a pressure to fills its ranks with solid Russell Groupers and dare not go against the herd by hiring someone with A-levels that miss its minimum requirement.
But — and this is a big but — mediocre degrees from non-Russell Group unis are not tolerated by any leading firm (there are some exceptions made for mature students who have gone on to prove themselves in other ways). So if your uni is poorly ranked, you need a high 2:1 at the very least.
4. Students underestimate the power of human contact
If you have had any interaction with anyone at a law firm, be it though a law fair, work experience or a Legal Cheek commercial awareness event, mention it on your form! If the interaction was with a member of the firm’s graduate recruitment staff, there are decent odds that they will be involved in reading your application as such teams tend to be pretty small.
Chances are, if you have made even a vaguely OK impression on them, that they will subconsciously look a bit more favourably on your form than other students who they have never met. Beyond the branding, law firms are just collectives of people — and they make decisions in very human ways.
5. Be honest with yourself about where you are
Students get training contracts every year without having done a vac scheme, but it’s a less certain route. If you haven’t done work experience, ask yourself why not. Chances are, you’ve lacked the necessary commitment and your hopes of becoming a lawyer may have to wait a year.
That’s no disaster. If you accept this now, you’ll be able to hit the 2016-17 recruitment round running when it opens in October, and do all the open days, events and vac schemes that most successful training contract hunters do. But it’s still worth having a punt in the hours before 11:59pm on Sunday.