Training Contract Application Tips – An Essential Guide

There’s no getting around the fact that most training contract applications are designed to be challenging.

There follow some of my best training contract application tips, which have helped many candidates secure training contracts and vacation schemes over the years. Once you understand and apply them I’m sure you too will be able to rise to the challenge.

Preparing for Your Training Contract Applications

With deadlines often looming large, the temptation to jump in feet first with your training contract applications can be great. Yet this is rarely a successful strategy.

Instead, there are a number of vitally important tasks I recommend you do to prepare yourself and lay the foundation for the strongest applications possible.

1. Do your research

You will see the same advice everywhere – “do your research”.

BUT….I still come across way too many candidates who look at one or two law firm directories and law firm websites and think this is enough.

Use all the resources available to research not only individual firms but also the wider profession, different practice areas and how to succeed in the recruitment process.

A lack of genuine, well thought out reasons for pursuing a career in law and applying to specific firms is one of the most common reasons why candidates fail to get past the application stage.

You must, therefore, spend plenty of time doing your research before you even pick up your first application. This includes online research, talking to lawyers and trainees at law fairs and open days, doing legal work experience and anything else that can help you understand your options better.

For more on research, this article is a great starting point: How To Research & Create Your Shortlist of Firms To Apply To

Put significant time aside to gather all the information you need about the law firms you are interested in and what they’re looking for.

If you are serious about showing a law firm that you have what it takes to be one of their trainees then you must find out what they are looking for and then mirror this in your application as best you can.

For more on this see our article on the Inside Track About What Firms Are Looking for in Their Trainees.

When you are researching, you may find it useful to put a spreadsheet together, allowing you to compare one against the other, focusing on factors such as:

  • who are they (size, location, number of training contracts on offer, specialisms, etc)
  • what they want from you (academic criteria, key competencies, recruitment process, application deadlines, etc)
  • what they can offer you (starting salary, training programme, development opportunities, international work, etc)

Don’t forget – this isn’t about making immediate decisions. It’s about collecting the full range of information to then allow you to make those choices. Resist the inclination to write-off any possibilities until you have all the information in black and white, and are able to view it in the larger context.

2. Be selective.

Now with this information at your disposal, you need to use it to play to your strengths. This isn’t just about identifying the firms which best match your professional interest and knowledge areas (although that is, of course, a good start). It’s also about finding the firms that you feel will allow you to shine and excel, in terms of the culture and opportunities they provide, and the competencies which they deem important.

Focus your efforts. As tempting as it may seem to fire off the highest number of applications possible, your chances will be vastly improved by honing in on fewer firms and allowing yourself the time you need to make rigorous and thorough applications.

It’s definitely a case of quality over quantity when it comes to applications. You must remember that you will be competing against other candidates who will have taken considerable time over their applications – so you must do the same.

3. Don’t risk falling at the first hurdle

Applying for training contracts is a time-consuming exercise. Don’t waste your precious time on applications that are set to fail, either because you don’t meet the minimum requirements or because you ignore the guidelines they give.

Use the careers section of their website to gather the information on what they want to see and how they want to see it. You should also always find a way to speak with the firm’s representatives to clarify this further – you can do this at law fairs, via social media or even contact them direct.

All that said, if you don’t meet the minimum requirements but would really like to work at the firm, it can still be worth contacting the graduate recruitment team by email or phone. Explain your circumstances, particularly what else you have done which might make up for you not making the minimum requirements, and ask if they would consider your application.

4. Start Early & Take Your Time

Be sure to start your applications well in advance of the deadlines to avoid a last-minute rush or worse still missing the deadline – this is sure to be a nail in the coffin of your application.

Some firms recruit on a rolling basis throughout the year so you may find your chances are greater the earlier in the year you apply anyway. You should be aware of the timetable for the trainee solicitor recruitment cycle.

You should view each application as a significant piece of work and allocate the necessary time to it. Applications are too important to just try to knock off in a couple of hours.

You are much better to set aside a few days so that you can put plenty of time into it as well as giving time to put it to one side and come back to it with a clear head to review it.

You may be surprised how it reads when you read it back fresh – you will also pick up any mistakes more easily this way.

5. Timetable your actions

The power of planning really kicks in when you plan your time in order to achieve the above. Avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of what lies before you by putting together an application action plan, allowing you to break tasks down into bite-sized chunks. Your action plan should specify when the various sections of your applications will be completed.

Be honest and aware of constraints on your own time caused by other factors – no one is expecting the rest of your life to be put on hold whilst your applications are completed. Share your action plan with someone else (friend, parent, adviser) if you feel the extra sense of accountability will aid your motivation to complete tasks on time.

Let your timetabling be dictated by deadlines – it makes sense, after all, to prioritise those applications with the earliest cut off points – but remember to allow some room for contingency in case emergencies arise and be generous in the amount of time you do allow yourself. These things often take longer than expected.

Schedule in a night out/shopping trip/night off as a reward for deadlines that have been met, and to give you the necessary headspace to keep yourself motivated and to remain focused.

So, rather than allowing the approaching deadlines to spin you into panic mode, take a deep breath, seize control and plan your mission methodically. Haste is waste after all.

6. Beat Procrastination Over Your Applications

I’m sure most of you will have experienced procrastination in some form or another – it’s an unfortunate fact of life for many of us. In particular, it can really come to the fore when we’re faced with the uphill struggle of training contract or vacation scheme applications.

A major reason for procrastination is because we feel the task at hand is too big. Researching those firms, making all those applications and still trying to study and/or work at the same time all seems like too big a mountain to climb – but that’s simply not true.

At the start of your degree if you looked at all the work you needed to do over the next 3 or 4 years you would have felt overwhelmed for sure. However, when your university breaks it down into smaller chunks spaced evenly across the weeks it suddenly becomes much more achievable.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed just remember this famous quote:

You can eat a whole elephant if you take it one bite at a time”.

The same goes for your training contract and vacation scheme applications.

If you really want to understand and tackle procrastination I highly recommend you watch this TED Talk for an entertaining and different way of thinking about it:

Creating Winning Training Contract Applications

So, all your preparation has been done and your application schedule is written. You’ve researched the firms inside out and know which ones you want to apply for and when you need to do it. It’s finally time to start putting pen to paper, so to speak, and pushing forward with the practicalities of writing your applications.

As you will be aware, different firms will be using different application methods. Some will require application forms, whilst others will ask for CVs and covering letters. Regardless of the method, there are several key tips to bear in mind to ensure you are optimising your chances of success:

1) Make your applications easy to read

This is one of my most important training contract application tips and is one of the easier tips to apply.

You have to always remember, recruiters have A LOT of applications to read through. They will prioritise those that they believe are easier to read and digest, so making yours as presentable as possible is going to make them want to review it.

CVs should make good use of white space on the page.

Application form answers should be well structured and formed of concise sentences.

Given application forms usually have boxes for your information, there can be an assumption that you write a single block of text in each box. However, that is not a great way to present your information nor help the reader to review it. Therefore, always break your text up into smaller paragraphs within the boxes. If for any reason the paragraphs disappear once you’ve saved the information, don’t worry as all candidates’ forms will then have the information presented in single blocks of text.

Qualifications and work experience should be listed in a relevant order so that recruiters are not having to trawl through the information to find what they need.

2) Tailor your application

As tempting as it may seem, firing off similar-looking applications to each firm will not get you a fistful of interviews. Similarly, competency answers should only ever be duplicated amongst firms if they are asking for EXACTLY the same thing. A mere word change in the question may mean you need to rethink your example from scratch.

Be aware of the key competencies individual firms are looking for and that you must evidence. Be sure to get across the reasons why you have selected to apply for that firm specifically. Use the knowledge you have gained from websites, brochures, open days and any personal contacts that you have made.

3) Be memorable

Even a first-class honours graduate with direct commercial experience will have problems standing out in the current competitive market place. After reading through thousands of applications the recruiter needs to be able to recall which candidate you are.

But remember – these are serious professional firms. I’m not talking about delivering your application form via a troop of dancing horses. Neither does it mean using gimmicks or fancy fonts.

Instead, focus on highlighting your unique set of skills and attributes by using examples from your own life. Remember they want to know about YOU not just how much you have found out about them.

Take time to think about what might separate you from the majority of other candidates. It may be commercially related, or it may relate to an extra-curricular experience you have mentioned.

4) Get the basics right

Ensure all spelling and grammar is correct. If completing an on-line application form prepare your answers in a separate document first and use spell check to pick up any mistakes before copying across into the form (but don’t rely solely on spell check – its very easy to include Americanized spellings if you do!).

Be sure to stick to any set word limits as anything over the limit may be automatically cut from on-line forms.

5) K.I.S.S It

Always make sure you think “K.I.S.S It” when it comes to your application drafting.

K.I.S.S = Keep it Simple Stupid!

Way too many applicants don’t follow this advice and fail as a result.

Many applicants feel like they have to impress a recruiter with the wording they use in their applications. This can often lead to over-complicated or unnecessary wording. Whilst a recruiter will want to read something that is well written they will not necessarily be impressed with long, fancy words which seem to be thrown in for effect.

They are more likely to be impressed by something that is written in plain English and is simple and easy to read. To communicate your message simply is actually more of a skill than to write long and convoluted paragraphs.

Read and re-read what you have written and remove all unnecessary words. Try to use the least amount of words possible to make the point you want to make.

For example, it is much better to give the recruiter a simple but heartfelt and well thought out reason for wanting to work at that firm than to give a long-winded explanation of every reason you want to work there. They will thank you for having eliminated the waffle and given them the key points in a simple format.

6) Check & check again…then check again

It is essential that your application is mistake-free.

In the legal profession, where so much importance is placed on attention to detail, an application which contains grammatical errors and spelling mistakes will not be appreciated. Even one mistake is one too many.

The presence of any mistake often means an otherwise strong candidate is not considered as recruiters are looking for any reason to be able to whittle down the number of applicants. A lack of attention to detail on something as important as a training contract application is not looked upon favourably.

The good news is that most of these mistakes are easily avoided – see Common Mistakes in Training Contract Applications.

Ensure that you read and re-read every question and request for information.

Ensure you answer every aspect of each question as it is common that parts of questions are not addressed sufficiently, or at all, and this will count against you.

Prepare draft answers before reviewing and editing.

To safeguard against submitting an application with mistakes it’s important to have someone else proofread it too. Our brains are very good at reading things the way they want them to read. We, therefore, become blind to errors that others will easily pick up when they proofread the application for the first time.

7) Keep a copy

Finally, before you submit your application, make sure you have kept a copy. Get into the habit of keeping a paper file or online folder in which you can keep on top of all the applications you have made and refer to them when necessary.

Fingers crossed, you will soon be receiving news of interviews and there is no better way to prepare for an interview than to re-read the initial application that you sent through. So make sure you have it at hand.

Every year I speak to candidates who have forgotten to do this and it becomes a great source of stress at the interview preparation stage.

Matt Oliver

Matt is a former FTSE 100 in-house lawyer, an experienced legal career coach and MD of Trainee Solicitor Surgery. He provides entry level law careers advice to students and graduates through his writing and mentoring. He also offers private one to one coaching to those struggling with training contract, vacation scheme or paralegal applications and interviews. Find out more about Matt's 1-2-1 Coaching >>>>

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