Vacation scheme and training contract applications – tailor your approach.

In June 2020 Law Careers Net said (4 Step Applications Masterclass) that a TC ‘applicant for Macfarlanes was competing with over 700 others for just 31 vacancies and someone applying to Stephenson Harwood was up against 1,300 applicants for 20 places’.  More recently (April 2021) a recruiter at an international law firm said that vac scheme applications were up significantly on last year (1600 applications for just 20 places).  She said that 60% of these were completely generic and almost certainly to be rejected in the first sift!  The main reason students fail at application (and interview) is lack of research into the firm.  Preparation is key!   

Putting together an excellent application takes time so maximise your chances of success by focussing on firms that align with your interests and are within your scope (i.e. you meet their academic/other requirements).  Be realistic about the time you have and what you can achieve.  Completing 10-15 well-researched and well-crafted applications is more likely to lead to success than 40-50 where you’ve copied information from previous applications.  Use your research to produce answers that are specific to you and the firm you are applying to.  

Getting started

You need to know why you want to be a solicitor, what type of solicitor you want to be (e.g. commercial, criminal, family law etc.), your reasons for this and the sort of firm that you are looking to work for.  Consider factors like location, size, work focus, ethos and culture when deciding which law firms to include on your application short list.  Identify the application process and key deadlines for your target firms.  Plan your approach including scheduling time for research (lots of it) and for drafting, reviewing and re-drafting your application well in advance of the deadline.

Research the firm

The firm’s website is the obvious starting point; other online resources include firms’ profiles on platforms like LawCareers.Net, Chambers Student, The Legal 500, Legal Cheek, business databases like MarketLine Advantage (details on sector, company and country) and specialist legal databases like LexisPSL (updates on developments in specific legal fields).  Follow the firm in the news.  Identify what is unique about the firm and why this is important to you.

Use your research to identify questions you want answers to.  Use events like law fairs, firm presentations, webinars, insight/open days to target firms on your short list.  Make a note of who you speak to and gather information that will help you tailor your application.  Find out about the firm’s business model, practice areas (which make the most money and where you are most likely to work as a trainee), client base, fee-earning work, significant deals, where most of the partners work and the sort of work that trainees get involved in (typical day).  Research a legal issue of relevance to the firm (follow a couple of cases/deal/mergers in the press over a number of months). 

Reflect on your skills and experience

Identify skills your target firms are looking for.   Review your extra-curricular activities/other experience and identify situations that provide evidence for these (identify your role, what action you took, what you achieved and how you developed as a result).  This will help you answer competency-based questions, which require you to focus on a specific situation (e.g.  Tell me about a time when you resolved a conflict, what did you do?)  Law firms often ask about your extracurricular experience in the application (e.g. ‘please describe your involvement in any extracurricular activities, including any positions of responsibility.’) Word count limits prohibit including all your extracurricular activities, focus on the examples most relevant to the firm.  Part-time jobs, which involve working with customers (e.g. retail, bar work) is useful experience for any client-facing job.      

Draft your application  

Work offline until you are ready to submit your application (this avoids sending a half-finished application by mistake – it happens!)  Read the question carefully (highlight key points).  Bullet point information you want to include before drafting full answers.   Keep to the word limit (this is a guide to how much they expect).  Focus on writing clearly and concisely; avoid complex sentences. Start with subjects and objects and use active verbs that highlight your skills.  Avoid fillers and unnecessary words (e.g. basically, just, really, furthermore).  If the sentence reads well without a word then take it out.  Avoid adjectives and adverbs unless necessary and only use 1 at a time. Use Spelling & Grammar check; pay attention to words underlined in red/blue and suggested changes.   

Every claim should have supporting evidence drawn from your research, experience and achievements.  Your answers need to be authentic to you and demonstrate your motivation for the firm and their work based on your research and experience.  Structure your answers – beginning (introduce), middle (develop), end (emphasise relevance).  When answering competency based questions use the STARR technique (situation, task, action, result and reflection) to provide the most relevant information.

When finished set your application aside. Return to it with fresh eyes the next day and review it again critically.  Ask someone else to review you application including booking an appointment with the University’s Job Search Advice Team to get feedback (particularly important if this is your first one). 

Remember preparation is everything.  Good luck.

Valerie Matthews-Lane

Senior Careers Consultant for Warwick Law School


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