It’s particularly at the first stage when the odds can feel overwhelming and getting the small things right is very important. What should you bear in mind when completing your training contract applications? Let’s ask our Experts, shall we?
When sending off my initial application, how can I ensure that I stand out from the competition?
Make the most of opportunities to attend Open Days and Careers Events. Introduce yourself to the law firm's representatives, particularly the graduate recruitment officers. Aim to find out as much as you can about the firm and their application process from them. Build up a good rapport with them and they may well then remember you when they receive your application.
When writing the application itself, mention the fact that you have attended relevant events and name the people you have met with. Ensure your application is tailored to the firm by highlighting any experience or knowledge you've gained that could relate to the firm's areas of focus. Articulate your passion and commitment to join that firm in particular. It's an obvious point, but ensure your spelling and grammar are impeccable. If you can communicate your commitment to working for a particular firm and can explain the ways in which you would add value, you will make it easy for a firm to say 'yes' to you!
What are the most common errors in written applications?
One of the most frustrating mistakes on application forms is the misspelling of the firm name! Attention to detail is an important part of being a lawyer, and to ensure your application makes it past the first review, double check it doesn’t contain any spelling and grammatical errors (brush up on your apostrophes and practice/practise!). It goes without saying that you really cannot afford to get the firm name wrong!
Aside from avoiding grammatical errors, the structure of your answers and the way in which you present yourself on paper is crucial in capturing our attention. Open text questions are a chance for you to show off your writing skills (concision and structure), commercial awareness, enthusiasm for the law and interest in Shearman & Sterling. The work experience section needs to bring to life your experience - you should give some context to your previous roles and explain what you learnt, enjoyed or didn't enjoy. The best candidates will tie these experiences back to law and explain how they'll help you succeed as a solicitor.
Lots of people write their applications in draft first but make sure you check the formatting when you copy and paste across as sometimes this can go awry. Finally, give your printed application to a friend to proofread, and proofread again yourself. Don’t forget to ensure everything is written in an appropriate professional tone and all capital letters are in the right place. Press submit and cross your fingers!
Shearman & Sterling
What do all excellent applications have in common?
A superstar application form is thoughtful, relevant, and genuine. Each section of the application form should showcase your unique strengths and personality:
Interest & Achievement Section - Include your best examples to give the greatest impact rather than including everything. Show diversity through these examples, for instance, working as part of team, working individually, one off experiences and ongoing interests so you can demonstrate your ability to be agile and adapt to new environments.
Working Experience Section - Relevant experience is helpful but firms recognise that this is not possible for everyone to have these opportunities. Ensure you include other experiences that can support your motivation to law e.g. attending open days and events. As law is a client led industry so we appreciate diverse experiences that can bring this expertise into discussions with clients.
Career Focus Questions - In these questions we are looking for evidence that you have done your research and you are able to show your passion and commitment to the career path.
Overall Communication - Please ensure your communication throughout your application form is clear and concise as this is a common area where candidates lose marks.
How do you assess training contract applications?
Our training contract application form is in cover letter format and is designed to help you showcase your talents. We ask for information about you and your education, as well as a 1000-word cover letter that tells us why you want to be a lawyer, and why at Ashurst in particular.
When reading your application form we are looking for you to demonstrate the six competencies that we look for, in addition to satisfying our academic requirements of 340 UCAS points at A Level (or equivalent), as well as being on-track to achieve/achieved a 2.1 in your undergraduate degree.
We recruit on a rolling basis and so we take the time to read every application that we receive and offer an interview if the individual is able to demonstrate all competencies that we look for. It is important, therefore, that you take the time to really familiarise yourself with Ashurst as the in-depth research that you incorporate in your application form really will help you to make your form stand out.
How can I make my commercial work experience relevant to a law firm application?
The majority of applicants tend to have some kind of commercial experience e.g. work experience or a university project that is relevant to their application. The tricky thing is how you can communicate that in such a way so that it is relevant to the role.
You need to ensure that everything you include can be seen as useful experience for the job you are applying for. Getting this across in a concise and engaging way is important, especially when you consider there is usually a strict word limit on the application.
Our top tip is to research the facts about the firm you are applying to and list the key skills that you think they place importance on. You can then tailor your application so that it matches what they are looking for. Law firms’ websites are usually a good source of information and the best place to start for any research. You can check if your qualifications and abilities match up to the requirements needed for the job. You can then start building your application and highlight the most appropriate areas of your work experience.
Most work experience will give you lots of transferable skills. In fact, the real skill of the job application process is in deciding which of those are the most relevant to highlight!
In a written application, how can I explain the relevance of my extracurricular university experience?
Involvement in extracurricular activities shows your personality and proactive nature, and we want to recruit creative and interesting individuals. You pick up transferable skills such as team work/leadership from being in a sports team, University society, volunteering for charities or playing in a music ensemble. Make the most of your time at university and sign up to societies, this will also help provide various examples on your application form which you can then expand on at the interview stage.
Norton Rose Fulbright
When writing an application it is important to consider what is the employer trying to find out and what are they looking for in their applicant. Therefore, when describing an extracurricular university experience, don’t just tell a story in a timeline of events, but also include aspects that highlight your personal qualities. This may include how youapproach decisions, how you reacted to scenarios, how you dealt with others and how you thought about elements that are beyond the obvious.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the reader has no prior knowledge about what you are describing. This may seem obvious, but often it is overlooked how something described in writing may not come across as it actually happened. Do not overlook the fact that the reader was not present to understand all the details, such as: the diversity of the people you were engaging with, the external factors influencing your behaviour etc. If you think these details are important, bearing in mind the end goal, then include them and make them clear. Therefore, all applications should reflect a true and honest version of oneself.
How do I get across my personality throughout the application?
Everyone finds it really difficult to embrace the application form as way to let your personality shine through and differentiate yourself against the competition. Being successful in the application process is not purely about just reciting what you feel the employer is looking for, and suppressing who you are as an individual, organisations' really do want to get to know you and your personality.
Firstly, it is worth spending the time assessing what are your attributes, values, strengths, and passions? If you are not sure about these, ask friends or family for help to develop this further. Once these are clear, make sure you thread these key themes throughout your application form to give the employer a clear picture of who you are. It is important to support these themes, with evidence and appropriate examples using your interests and life experiences.
A point of caution, make sure you pay close attention to the question that you have been asked, as well using it as an opportunity to let that personality glimmer through. Therefore, always consider the structure, words used, language and tonality of your answers to make sure you are expressing yourself fully.
How do I best bring up / show the research that I've done about the firm?
The best research will have breadth as well as depth – don't just use our own website (although that will give you an idea of how we present ourselves) but use a variety of resources to understand how we are perceived in the market and what people are saying about us.
A common mistake is to regurgitate blocks of text on the application form or in the interview, which can give the impression that you might have a brilliant photographic memory but you haven't really taken the time to think about what you've read. The best way to show you've done your research is to personalise it; rather than telling us something we already know, talk about how it resonates with you and ties in with your interests and experiences. This will help us to understand why we're the right firm for you and why you might be the right trainee for us!"
As law is extremely competitive, the majority of good applicants will have excellent academics, solid work experience and interesting extra-curricular activities.
What makes applicants stand out from the rest is the research they have carried out on the firm they are applying to and the way they use this research to draw on their own experiences in referencing and talking about the firm.
Every law firm is different and it is your job to find out: where the firm sits in the legal market; who are their main clients; and what are their areas of expertise. This information should feed into the ‘why my firm’ question on the application form / cover letter.
At the interview, you will need to feel confident talking about the research you have done and not be frightened if you are asked any exploratory question. Sometimes, you could be asked for an opinion which may require you to make a quick judgment.
Don't be afraid to have a view and be ready to maintain your stand. The key is to stay calm and answer logically, evidencing from your own experiences and learning."
What is the best approach to presenting my strengths and weaknesses?
There is no such thing as the perfect candidate, so be prepared to spend as much time discussing your weaknesses as you would highlighting your strengths. I always advise students to look at the key skills and qualities which the firm in question really values. You then need to provide credible examples on your application form and during your interview to prove that you have some experience already.
However, don't forget that we are also looking for potential - and we provide a lot of training during the training contract and beyond - which is why it is also important to identify what you need to get better at. Be honest and, where possible, be prepared to discuss why you feel that you can learn the required skill or, even better, demonstrate that you have already started to work on your weaknesses. For example, if you know that public speaking isn't your strength, get involved with societies or activities which will allow you to practice this skill."
When presenting your strengths and weaknesses the recruiter is looking for evidence that you are aware of the areas that you excel in, as well as those areas that you are conscious of a need to improve in.
The key is self-development and research. Research of both the firm you are applying to and yourself. Make sure you understand the competencies that a firm is looking for and if your weakness falls in one of these areas, ensure that you demonstrate to the recruiter why it is important for you to work on this weakness. For example, you may not be the most confident presenter but understand that a legal career will involve pitching to clients. It is, therefore, an area that you will focus on developing through volunteering to take the role of presenter in group tasks at work/university.
It is not a trick question when asked to discuss your weaknesses. Nobody is perfect, we are simply looking for evidence that you are able to push yourself to develop and that you would be successful in an environment where constructive criticism is given in order to help you reach your full potential."
What are your top tips for application-writing?
The starting point should be asking yourself 'What does a trainee do? What does their role involve and what skills would they need?'. You’ll obviously need to do some research at this point – most firms websites and other legal sector media will give you a good place to start from. Think beyond your application to the bigger picture. Consider why we're asking the questions we are, and what they give you the opportunity to tell us.
Depending on how you think and how your mind works, you might want to take a very structured approach or you might want to write TRAINEE SOLICITOR in the middle of a piece of paper and brainstorm! Write down everything you're good at and you've done and then start to narrow it down and link it back to the skills and competencies you would need to display as a future solicitor. This should help you avoid generic responses and individualise your application as you will be working with your skills, strengths and experience, which is what we're looking for.
The final thing is to make sure you've answered the question we've asked, not the question you wish we'd asked! Relevance is key and so is ensuring your answers are succinct, to the point and avoid repetition.
How do you best approach the "Why are you interested in this law firm?" essay question?
All law firms are different. They may not look like it at first glance but I can assure you they are, and this question is asking you to show us what has interested you about our firm in particular. The key is to only apply to firms that actually do interest you and then try to illustrate what it is that sparks your interest. This may be the deals, the clients, the culture, the international spread or a combination of these things and other considerations. Try not to be generic and remember if you can remove the firm's name and replace it with another's then you haven't shown us what it is about our firm that is attractive."
This is a question you should have asked yourself before you started the application so the answer should come easily! Don’t be tempted to edit an answer you have used in an application for another firm – start with a blank page. This way you won’t make the fatal mistake of getting the firm’s name wrong.
Your answer should focus on what appeals to you about the firm – the work it does, the clients it has, the opportunities it offers and how this suits you and your aspirations, your experience and your skills. It should convince the recruiter that you understand what is different about the firm.
You don’t need to impress with your knowledge of the firm, we take it as a given that you will have done your research, so don’t reel off facts and figures or name drop deals and transactions if they don’t have any context – make every word count!"
Which are the most common (and most sensitive) application or CV errors you've run into?
The most common mistakes we see are candidates not proof-reading carefully enough and/or not researching the firm well before applying. Simple errors can occur from relying too heavily on spell-check or copy and paste functions. Lawyers have to be meticulous in their work as an error in a contract can change the meaning. We're looking for people who can demonstrate the same level of care. My advice would be to print out what you've drafted and read it on paper rather than on screen. Your eye is more likely to see the changes required. If necessary, ask someone else to check it for you.
The second main error is not researching firms well and making generic applications. We want to know why you'd like to work here and generic wording, such as "I would relish the chance to train at a leading firm who work on ground-breaking deals such as [insert deal from the news section of our website] isn't likely to answer to demonstrate this convincingly. Good research is likely to lead you to make fewer applications but of far better quality."
The training contract or vacation scheme application form is often the first contact that you will have with a firm and, as always, first impressions count. Needless to say obvious errors such as spelling mistakes or poor grammar detract from your application, but some other common errors that we come across are:
Any of these errors will suggest that you are just filling in a form and are not particularly keen to join the firm that you are applying to. I know it is time consuming to fill in application forms, but it is worth putting the time and effort in as it is easy to spot when applicants have not!"
How can I demonstrate that I am a team player in my application?
The Ashurst application form is in covering letter format providing plenty of opportunity for you to demonstrate that you have this competency – team and interpersonal skills.
You will be joining a supportive and team-based environment and so need to be able to demonstrate that you can play your part. Furthermore, interpersonal skills are essential in building and maintaining relationships not only with the firm, but with our clients. Think carefully about these factors and why we look for this competency before drafting your examples that demonstrate you are a team player.Roles of responsibility show that you are able to take the lead in a team environment, but we are also very interested in hearing about team situations that you are involved in where you aren't necessarily taking the leadership role. These examples can come from a variety of places – perhaps you are a member of a society, have a part-time job that involves a high level of team work, or perhaps played an integral role in a piece of group coursework.
Always remember the importance of demonstrating your role within the team and how you assisted in the situation. It is your application that the recruiter is reading, not your friend at university that you worked on a project with.
Lawyers carry out work and advise clients in teams. The strength of full-service law firms, and those with multiple practice areas, is their ability to draw on a team's knowledge, experience, skill and diversity to provide solutions for their clients.
Each individual will play a role in a team. Some lead, some facilitate, some follow etc. Students should start to understand the role that they play in a team. Maybe you encourage others. Are you a good motivator? Are your skills around project management and making sure deadlines are met? Can you negotiate well? Whatever skills you have that help you work in a team, identify them and be able to explain how these skills helped a team project – ideally giving clear examples of your personal contribution and explaining the results.
Good examples to use include team sports, university projects, extra-curricular activities and part-time jobs. Whatever example you choose to use, it’s best to link it as closely as possible to the teamwork skills required by lawyers and show the tangible results of your contribution.