‘Help! I can’t secure a training contract’

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By The Careers Team on


Shearman & Sterling senior recruitment manager Paul Gascoyne lends his expertise for a special edition of our Career Conundrums series. Do you have a question for Paul? Pop it in the comments section and he will do his best to respond

On the journey to securing a training contract, rejection is often inevitable.

One student encountering knock-back after knock-back is in desperate need of guidance, and who better to offer it than Paul Gascoyne, senior recruitment manager at Shearman & Sterling.

Regularly sharing top careers tips with his 8,500 followers on LinkedIn, Paul has a wealth of experience in helping students realise their TC dreams.

The student seeking help writes…

“Hello Paul. I’ve applied for quite a few training contracts at commercial law firms without success. I am starting to feel a bit dejected by the whole process and I wanted to know what steps I can take to get back on track and hopefully achieve my goal of qualifying as a solicitor. Thanks.”

First off, it’s worth pointing out that the vast, vast majority of people who apply for training contracts will experience rejection. It can be hard to take, especially if it’s your first real experience of applying for jobs, but it’s not unusual.

Once you realise that rejection is the reality for most candidates, it’s then a case of figuring out how you respond.

My first bit of advice is to step back and see if you are making any progress at all in the recruitment process. Law firms don’t offer training contracts based on an application. There are usually a few stages to the recruitment process — interviews, psychometric tests, assessment centres etc. Even if you are making some progress, but not quite getting a training contract offer, that’s a start and you should view that positively.

Typically, the initial application stage will be where most candidates are rejected. If you are progressing past the initial application stage, then you are doing something right.

If you find that all your applications are getting a rejection, then you will need to make some changes.

Shearman & Sterling LLP UKGraduates

Here are 9 things that I think will improve your application:

1. Show your commitment

If possible, engage with the law firms you are planning to apply to before applying. It will make sense to the people reading your application, plus you will learn more about the firm by doing this. This will help you to tailor your applications to the specific firms you are applying to.

Law firms run plenty of events for you to take part in to learn more. These are often both in-person events and online events. Law firms offer more opportunities now than ever.

Top tip: If you are struggling to be accepted to formal open days, then look at webinars or campus events. These are more likely to be registration-based, rather than application-based, and therefore tend to be easier to attend.

2. Check the basics

I’m always surprised by how many applications contain basic errors. I’m not going to suggest this is ground-breaking advice, but please check your spelling, grammar and attention to detail. It’s why most people find their applications are rejected. If you are using large chunks of the same information across different law firm applications, and that information contains mistakes, you might find all your applications are rejected because you will be copying the same mistakes across each application. That’s definitely something to check.

3. Academics

If you are still in education, maximise your grades. Bumping your grades from a low 2.1 to a high 2.1, or from a high 2.1 to a first, might make a difference.

4. Work experience

Recruiters like to see that you have been researching the legal profession and gaining experience. This can include formal work experience, such as vacation schemes and internships, but also informal opportunities such as work shadowing and online opportunities.

Work experience also doesn’t have to be legal. Any work experience in professional services, or within an in-house legal team (the legal department in a non-law company) will be relevant.

Top tip: Also, don’t forget about pro bono work, law clinics and Citizens Advice. Typically, you can get involved in these projects while at university or law school.

The application deadline for Shearman & Sterling's May Open Day is 21 May 2023

5. Research

Every law firm is different. Making general sweeping statements about firms in your application is unlikely to be specific enough.

To make a successful application, you need to know about the law firm you are applying to. I appreciate it’s hard to know what to research, what resources to use or even how much research is enough, but I’d say you should, at a minimum, feel confident knowing the following about a firm before applying:

• The firm’s main practice areas — specifically in the office you are applying to
• Its growth areas
• Its main clients and the industries and sectors it serves

You can research this information in a number of ways. Speaking to people at events, reading law firm websites, reading legal publications etc.

You should also research some of the work the firm has done recently. For example, some of the transactions or disputes the firm has worked on. You can usually find this on a law firm’s website. But don’t stop there. Having looked into the work, try to explain why this is interesting to you.

6. Make it your own

Good applications are individual. They’re personal. Don’t feel like you need to follow someone else’s application to be successful. It’s easy to think that there is a set way to write applications, but there isn’t. Law firms want to know about you.

I often advise candidates to understand what their strengths are, think about how those strengths are applicable to being a trainee/solicitor and then play to those strengths during the recruitment process.

You should also have your own writing style. I review lots of applications that read like academic essays, but your application should be easy to read. If you’re getting bored reading your own application, so will a reviewer.

7. Answer the questions

When answering the questions in the application form, make sure you’ve actually answered the whole question.

If the question is ‘Why do you want to be a solicitor at XXX firm?’ and you’ve only answered ‘Why law?’ or ’Why the firm?’ that’s not going to answer the question.

8. Get comfortable talking about commercial topics and news stories

If you are applying to commercial law firms, you can guarantee two things: 1. You’ll be interviewed, and 2. You’ll be tested on your commercial understanding. So, it’s best to practise talking about commercial news stories in an interview setting.

There is a difference between reading about commercial topics and discussing them out loud with someone else.
The more you practise discussing these topics, the easier it will be when asked to do this during an interview.

Note: Interviewers won’t be looking to catch you out, but they will be testing how you react to being challenged or being presented with an alternative perspective.

9. Don’t be afraid to re-apply

If you receive a rejection from a law firm, it doesn’t mean that you can’t re-apply. Given the volume of applications law firms receive, you can be rejected on small margins. This doesn’t mean you can’t improve your application and re-apply in the following year.

Personally, I like it when candidates re-apply as it shows to me that they really want to join Shearman & Sterling! That one rejection is not going to stop them.

To sum up…

You may not be able to implement all these suggestions, but if you take onboard as many as possible, your applications will be stronger. Remember, it’s about making incremental changes and improving with each application you make.

Good luck!

Do you have a question for Paul? Pop it in the comments below and he will do his best to respond. And for more training contract application advice, follow Paul on LinkedIn.

The application deadline for Shearman & Sterling's May Open Day is 21 May 2023

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