How to get a training contract: The application process

The first step of the training contract application process is the application form. Most law firms now use application forms to screen applicants before deciding who to invite for interview.

There’s no getting away from the fact that filling out application forms can be a time-consuming process, but with plenty of preparation and good proofreading skills, you can make sure you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of success.

First impressions count

Hard to believe, but many applicants still fall at the first and most obvious hurdle: spelling and grammar on application forms. You may be heading for a First from a top university and be captain of the rugby team, but if you can’t spell the word ‘liaise’ on your application form, you’ll be drop-kicked straight into the rubbish bin.

‘The reason for most of our rejections is poor spelling and grammar’, says a graduate recruiter at a major US firm in London. ‘As a lawyer, you will want your advice to be trusted by the client; if the first thing they see is a typo, even if the advice is spot on, it will introduce a level of doubt. Attention to detail is a must.’

If possible, download the form or print it off and work on a draft copy. Make sure you spell-check it (by eye as well as using a spell-checker) and then paste it back into the online application. If the form states how many lines / words you can use per question, stay within those limits. If the firm prints off the forms, anything written beyond the word limit may not be read.

Easy as ABC

Probably the single biggest bugbear among recruiters is stating the wrong firm name on the application, e.g. ‘I’d like to work at Slaughter and May because…’ on a form for Irwin Mitchell. It may seem silly but you would be surprised how commonly this occurs, especially when making multiple applications. And the use of cut-and-paste online applications has only aggravated the problem.

Remember that every firm you are applying to wants to see evidence that you have specifically selected that firm as the place where you wish to pursue your career. A graduate recruitment insider at a US firm in London says: ‘If we cannot see why you have applied to us over all of the other London offices of US-based firms, we cannot take your application further.’

It sounds obvious, but one of the most common pieces of advice from recruiters is: read, re-read and re-read your application(s) again. Better still, get someone else to read them – it’s easy to read what you expect to see rather than what is actually there. ‘Spelling and grammar errors are non-negotiable for a law firm and provide recruiters with an easy reason to reject a candidate, regardless of their other attributes,’ cautions a trainee recruitment manager at Norton Rose Fulbright.

Words are a lawyer’s stock-in-trade, and if your written English isn’t up to scratch, you are unlikely to be invited for an interview. The firm may well take the view that if you can’t use words accurately, you simply won’t function in this profession.

It cannot be stressed enough that poor presentation (whether written or verbal) is simply not going to be tolerated by firms. After all, when you do finally make it, clients will take your knowledge of the law as read: you will be judged equally on your presentation skills and ability to communicate.

Problem areas

We know it’s no walk in the park. It’s not easy selling yourself on two sides of A4 or an online form with endless, predictable questions.

The sections which most trouble students are competency questions, e.g. ‘Outline a situation where you have overcome a barrier and achieved a required outcome’. ‘Students tend to be too descriptive and not analytical enough’, says one university careers adviser.

Of course, such self-analysis does not always come easy. Testing life experiences, let alone corporate lingo, are not necessarily going to be at your fingertips as a student or a young professional. But all experience is relevant: think back to that weekend job you had at Tesco working with difficult customers, and you’ll soon realise that there were plenty of instances where you overcame barriers!

Most careers services offer help with preparing CVs and completing application forms, as well as providing general interview preparation. They will usually be happy to read over your application form and offer some pointers as to the style, as well as the content.

Competency questions such as ‘describe a situation where you worked in a team’ or ‘describe a situation in which you solved a problem’ are common in application forms.

‘From memory of being a graduate myself years ago,’ recalls one old-hand in the recruitment sector, ‘I used to be stumped by some of these questions. But don’t think if you haven’t done glamorous teamwork like climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, it doesn’t count. It’s worth looking through all your experiences and extra-curricular activities to analyse what you have gained from them – really think about where you are getting your evidence from.  Also, it’s easy to be short-sighted so don’t just focus on the past six or 12 months. Try to analyse experiences that really mean something to you – it’s easier to sound convincing if you are passionate about your subject – and never make things up – it will be painfully obvious and embarrassing when you’re found out!’

Other problem areas are the obscure or quirky questions, such as ‘which character in fiction do you resemble and why?’ Students commonly assume that these are ‘trick’ questions, designed to catch them out and unveil say, a passion for trashy novels. But firms deny the use or the value of trickery – they maintain that more out-of-the-ordinary questions are just another way of seeking evidence of relevant skills, such as leadership. The bottom line is, if you’re not sure what a question is asking of you, do some research or ask your friends, family members or careers service. If all else fails, contact someone in the relevant firm’s graduate recruitment team. All the recruiters we spoke to would rather you call than answer incorrectly.

It’s crucial to ensure that you answer the question being asked. It sounds obvious, but take a question at face value and answer it as thoroughly as you would an exam question.

Technical glitch

By far the preferred method of recruitment today is via online applications. But that comes with its own problems. Some systems are badly designed, and it is extremely frustrating when candidates are automatically thrown out if they do not have a 2(1) or are non-EU citizens, for example. There is no opportunity for explanations and it gives a highly negative impression of the firm. Most firms’ application forms will have a section where you can add extenuating circumstances or additional information which might help your case. If not, do send an email or make a call to the graduate recruitment team.

The other common mistake is the use by applicants of sloppy or casual language, ie email or text talk. Under no circumstances should you write, ‘I’d like to wk @ Simmons coz….’ The firm will expect the same standard of presentation on the form as they would for a hard copy, so do not be tempted to use a chatty, email style or abbreviated words. Our advice is to adapt each application carefully to the firm you are currently applying to and read through each online application as you would a paper one.

And a bit of a plea on behalf of a graduate recruiter who has to read nearly 3,000 forms a year – ‘Do keep things concise, and make the answers easy to read and interesting!’

Timing is everything

There is a consensus among careers advisers that firms do not fully appreciate the time constraints students are under, and how difficult it is to fit application form filling into a busy academic schedule. It’s understandable that more than a bit of cut-and-pasting goes on.

‘Interviews used to be a friendly chat for an hour or so on campus, end of story. Now firms want students to give up a day or more, at their offices, in term time. But they also want people with a 2(1)!’, comments David Ainscough deputy director of the University of Cambridge Careers Service. ‘We try to persuade firms to interview at the university or during vacations. Students who may be pressured to sacrifice academic work should consult the tutor who will be writing their references. Tutors can often exert influence on firms, and will want to help their pupils to manage their time sensibly.’

Sounds like a little mutual understanding between firms and students is needed. Recruiters: students are under huge pressures these days; cranking up the timetable does nobody any favours. Applicants: less is more; apply to fewer firms but make each application count. Try to find out as much as possible about the firms in advance so you can really target your applications to the firms that appear to suit you.

Helpful hints (from the graduate recruiters themselves)

  • Use the correct name and spelling of the firm and individual to whom you are applying;
  • Check all spelling and grammar;
  • Do use spell check, but guard against Americanisms or words used out of context;
  • Follow instructions to the letter;
  • Give the form the time it deserves, don’t rush it;
  • Use simple and straightforward language – big words can sound pretentious and are unnecessary in application forms;
  • Take questions at face value and answer exactly what is being asked, not what you think is being asked – it’s unlikely to be a trick;
  • Contact the firm if a question is obscure and seek clarification;
  • Guard against sloppy and casual language, particularly when applying online;
  • Draw evidence of your skills from all your experience, not just the past year;
  • Try to be analytical as well as descriptive in your answers;
  • Don’t undersell yourself – giving examples of how you have met deadlines, prioritised matters or how you get along with people is not showing off – it’s important for firms to know these things about you;
  • Don’t get too philosophical – keep your answers relevant to the business of being a lawyer;
  • Find out deadlines well in advance – don’t waste your time, or the firm’s time, by applying late;
  • Always read through the completed form carefully before sending. Better still, get someone else to read it for you
  • Don’t submit the form until you’re entirely happy with it. Most systems will not allow you to recall the form if you have made a mistake.