How to win your training contract

Demi Joannides is about to enter the third year of her law degree at Warwick and has successfully converted a vacation scheme into an offer of a training contract at top City Firm Herbert Smith Freehills. She’s also secured a place on their international vacation scheme in Singapore taking place in December. I asked her for her top tips on how to succeed in the application process. Here’s what she said:

The online application

writing application300As with many firms, the online application is in some ways both the most important part and the hardest part of the application process. While many find interviews and assessment centres more challenging, most applicants are unsuccessful at the online application stage and on any online tests. Once you’re invited to interview, the chances of being offered a vacation scheme are statistically higher  as you have already successfully passed other stages of the application process.

Choose quality over quantity.

It’s no secret that this is highly debated. I’ve heard stories about how people applied to fifteen law firms and received fifteen vacation scheme offers. Great. but this is very rare. In reality, those who send off fewer targeted applications which are of superstar quality are far more likely to be invited to interview than those who send off countless half-hearted applications. I applied to four firms and was invited to interview at all four. I ranked the firms in order of preference (making a note of each application deadline) and worked on one application at a time. As a rule, I never started a new application until I had submitted the previous one. This way I was sure that each application was the best it could be and had absolutely no spelling or grammar mistakes!

Demonstrate stellar commercial awareness.

stellar1300The concept of commercial awareness itself is quite abstract and it can be hard to know what law firms actually look for. The best piece of advice that I received was that they are simply looking for an ‘awareness’. Yes commercial awareness is very broad, use this to your advantage. A great place to start is by reading Richard Susskind’s “Tomorrow’s Lawyers” (which can be downloaded for free via the Warwick Library website). Having a general understanding of the issues discussed here will be a great foundation for you to research some topics further. I also used the Commercial Law Handbook by Jake Schogger (a Warwick alumnus) which is great for defining and explaining business jargon.

Show major interest in the firm.

Be sure to mention each and every time you have come into contact with the firm, whether that be at open days, presentations or campus events. Try to name drop (assuming you made good notes at the time!) and show how speaking to person X enticed you into finding out more about the firm. If in doubt, mention the firm’s Campus Ambassadors!

Don’t downplay your interests or achievements.

You may think this is a strange tip, but I have found it concerning to read over applications in which people downplay their achievements. Perhaps we are so used to not boasting in everyday life that it seems strange to have to sell ourselves in applications. In questions like ‘tell us about your biggest achievements’ it’s arguably more impressive to fully analyse how you dealt with a difficult customer at work and what skills you gained from this, rather than how you climbed Kilimanjaro which is restricted to able-bodied people who can afford to do so.

blowing trumpet300Likewise, never be ashamed or embarrassed about your participation in outreach programmes (which are typically for students from non-traditional backgrounds). I was heavily involved in Pathways to Law, Rare Recruitment, Aspiring Solicitors and Pure Potential. Diversity is very important to a lot of law firms and this is one way to show your motivation for a career in law outside of university societies and extra curricular activities.

Save a Word copy of every application you send.

Ok, listen up. This is arguably the most important tip of all. I learnt my lesson very early on. I typed my answers directly into the online application and, once it was sent, there was no way of retrieving my responses. This made preparing for interview very difficult and meant that I could not conduct further research on any deals/cases that I (perhaps?) had mentioned.

The interview

Arrive early and know exactly where you are going.

While this goes without saying, people fall at this hurdle all the time. If the firm’s office is spread across different buildings, know which one you’re going to (Google maps will be your best friend). I arrived at least 15 minutes early.

Look the part.

business dress300I am a big fan of faking it until you make it. Dress smarter than you have ever dressed before, make your shoes shine until you can see your reflection and do some power poses before you go in. I always carried pens, paper, coloured tabs, highlighters (which were a life saver in case study interviews) and a hard copy of my online application.

Be friendly.

For anyone who has endured the stress of an assessment centre, I salute you. Assessment centres are a prime example of how stressful situations alter behaviour. All too often interviewees are so consumed by nerves that they forget to act normally and actually be nice! Remember that your interview starts from the moment you walk into the building. The way you talk to reception staff and other interviewees in the waiting area is all part of the test! Don’t let your nerves mask your approachability and social skills.

Listen to your interviewer.

Believe it or not, interviews are two way conversations between yourself and your interviewer. They are a great way for the firm to get to know you, as well as for you to know a bit more about the firm and its people. In each of my interviews the interviewer introduced themselves, briefly mentioned their career path so far and which area of law they practise. Remembering this information is a great way to form a really interesting question to ask your interviewer at the end. Asking how the firm’s merger in 2012 affected your interviewer when they were a fourth-seat trainee in banking litigation shows a thoughtful and tailored interest in the person sat in front of you, not a pre-prepared generic question.

Back yourself.

interview listen300Ultimately interviews are for you to prove that you are capable of being a fantastic addition to a firm. A key piece of advice that I wish I had known at my first interview is that you’re being judged as if you are a real lawyer talking to a client (who is often played by the interviewer). It’s my natural instinct particularly at interview, to admit I am unsure or completely thrown by a question. In real life situations, clients don’t want uncertainty in their legal advice. While others may disagree, I found that being confident in my views and articulating myself well impressed my interviewer, although it is ok to change your mind, as long as you can explain your reasoning well. In my HSF interview I was asked if buying the shares or assets of the company in question was the safest option. I spent most of the interview demonstrating why I though X option was best, only to be told at the end of the interview that option Y was definitely better. Despite this, my interviewer was impressed with how I formulated a convincing argument and I received a vacation scheme offer as a result.

Good luck with your applications and watch out later in the term for my next post on how to impress on the vacation scheme itself.


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