Competition for training contracts is fiercer than ever and applicants must find a way to stand out from the crowd.
As a new wave of trainees begins work this month, another cohort of aspiring solicitors will be starting to think about training contracts and how to get one. The City continues to be home to the largest number of training contracts, with 10% growth in the Square Mile since 2011-12, while private practice remains the main route into the profession. But with 17,500 law students and 5,000 training contract places, competition is fierce.
Many firms, especially larger and commercial practices, look to fill training places two years in advance. Law students need to start applying during the final term of the second year of their law degree. Non-law students must apply before starting the Common Professional Examination/Graduate Diploma in Law.
‘Some students go through a whole law degree and say they never knew it was a two-year-in-advance thing,’ says Sue Lenkowski, careers consultant at BPP University in Leeds.
Law firms recognise that their recruitment process starts early.
‘We’re not looking for the finished article,’ says Andrew Austin, trainee recruitment partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. ‘We understand these applicants are up to three years out from the start of a training contract. What we’re looking for is potential, which we can then help successful candidates develop over the course of their training contract.’
Most firms expect applicants to have done some form of work experience or internship in the law.
‘Work experience shows that an applicant has an insight into the work they can expect as a trainee solicitor,’ says Max Harris, vice-chair of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division and trainee at Baker & McKenzie. ‘It seems to be the norm in City firms that trainee solicitors have done at least one internship or vacation scheme.’
Indeed, Harris only started applying for training contracts in the three weeks prior to the 31 July submission deadline so that he could apply after he had completed his vacation scheme and could mention it in his application. ‘Without having had that vacation scheme I would not have got my training contract,’ he believes.
Vacation schemes are two-three week internships that take place at Christmas, Easter and during the summer. The application process is usually the same as for training contracts – and as with training contracts competition is intense. Freshfields, for instance, received 800 applications for 6o vacation scheme placements in 2013.
Even if applicants are not able to secure a vacation placement, ‘the more work experience the student can get the better, even if it’s a couple of days in a small or high street firm’, says Lenkowski. Citizens Advice, she adds, ‘are always looking for help’.
Making the grade
Good academic results are a given, with firms generally asking for at least three Bs, and often AAB, at A-level and a 2:1 at university. However not all firms apply the same academic standards.
Freshfields’ application form includes a section to list mitigating circumstances around poor grades. ‘We invite conversations for students to put a context around it,’ says Austin.
Addleshaw Goddard has developed a social mobility programme with BPP Law School.
‘BPP identifies candidates who do not meet our A-level criteria but who have gone on to do well at university and show potential,’ says Aster Crawshaw, partner and training principal. ‘Our HR team discusses the candidates with BPP and about six candidates each year are invited to a vacation scheme. If they do well, candidates attend an assessment centre and, if successful, are offered a training contract.’ This year, around 10% of the firm’s training contract offers went to candidates who came through its social mobility programme.
Law firms have had to respond to numerous changes in the legal market and have had to think more like businesses than firms that just deal with the law. These changes are reflected in the qualities they look for in trainees. Universities and law schools are putting greater emphasis on developing students’ ‘employability’ skills, such as time management and commercial awareness.
‘Academics are still important, but now we look for more well-rounded candidates, assessing team-working skills, commercial awareness and problem-solving abilities,’ says Crawshaw.
The second stage of Freshfields’ selection process includes an analytical interview, where the firm uses a newspaper or magazine article as a springboard to talk about general business issues.
‘Don’t downplay or discount previous non-legal experience you have which either shows business acumen or an understanding of customer service,’ advises Peter Singfield, partner and training principal at south-west firm Foot Anstey.
‘We have had people who have previously worked at Waitrose or done waitressing, and used that as an example in answering questions on our application form. It usually comes across well.’
Kent County Council used Twitter as part of its strategy for testing candidates’ skills and initiative.
‘We didn’t give them a lot of information to go on,’ says Geoff Wild, director of governance and law. ‘We gave them an awful lot of work to find out about us: our work, our terms and conditions and so on. It was like an egg hunt – pick up clues, follow them, lead them to a destination, and put together all the necessary information on which to base their application.
‘We attracted people who weren’t going to throw out an application casually – they were adept at using social media to [locate] the necessary information.’
Standing out from the crowd
With training contract numbers remaining steady but applicant numbers showing no signs of diminishing – Addleshaws receives 2,000 applications a year while Freshfields received 1,600 applications for 80 training contract places in 2013 – applicants have to find a way to stand out.
Developing a personal connection with the firm can help, as Harris proves. ‘I was one of the first students on the Social Mobility Foundation in 2007, which works closely with Baker & McKenzie, among other firms. I attended training at the Baker & McKenzie offices several years before applying for a training contract. By having this connection, I was able to build a rapport with the interviewer. Even better, despite three years having passed, the recruitment team remembered me.’
Says Singfield: ‘The market is now where more good people are trying to go through the same number of places and you need to set yourself apart somehow.’ But, he cautions: ‘Do not feel the need to be crazy and whacky.’
Junior lawyers division
The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society represents LPC students, paralegals who have completed the LPC, trainee solicitors and solicitors with up to five years’ PQE. It engages, advises and acts as an advocate for its 75,000 members. It also provides support to members (and future members) looking for a training contract. For example, the JLD:
- goes to universities to talk about the legal profession and how to get into law;
- has a network of regional JLD committees around England and Wales, such as Hertfordshire, Manchester and Birmingham;
- speaks to LPC institutions and the Solicitors Regulation Authority about the future of legal training;
- holds LPC forums twice a year which are free to attend (one in London and one outside London). These attract around 50-100 students.
Events include CV clinics (where possible, there is a professional CV adviser). The next LPC forum is on 18 October at the Law Society, 113 Chancery Lane, London, from 10am-6pm. For more details, see tinyurl.com/ktgu4of.
Do your research
‘Know precisely what you want (even if you don’t have a clear idea about the exact area of law you want to work in), explaining why you want to be at that firm,’ says Junior Lawyers Division vice-chair Max Harris. ‘Where I fell down in a couple of interviews was not being able to show why I wanted to be at that firm rather than another firm. You need to know about the strengths of the firm and why you are enticed by their culture.’
Use key words
‘People amazingly manage to avoid reference to words like “deal” in an application to a corporate firm,’ Anne Petrie, careers manager at the University of Law, says.
‘I find it much more difficult to interview people who are not open on their application forms,’ Freshfields’ Andrew Austin relates.
Pay attention to detail
‘A common error relates to applications where people say “attention to detail”,’ Foot Anstey’s Peter Singfield warns . ‘The cardinal sin is then to see a typo.’
Use your common sense
‘I used to ask: “You have got a client ringing up, they do not agree with the bill, they ask you to reduce the bill”,’ recalls Sue Lenkowski, who was responsible for graduate recruitment at Irwin Mitchell. ‘You would not believe how many students said they would reduce the bill. As a trainee you do not have the power to do that.’