Feature: Natalie Connor: How to get that job

No comments, posted on January 28, 2013

Natalie Connor, from the University of Nottingham, offers advice on how to successfully apply for Vacation Schemes and Training Contracts.

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REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

I am writing this from the perspective of a law student who did two City Vacation Schemes last summer, endless Training Contract interviews, and eventually came out with two job offers at the end of it all. I’ve come to realise, as everyone eventually does, that there is an art to the application process, and so I’m going to attempt to set out, from my own experiences, what that is.

Getting a Vac Scheme or Training Contract is all about striking a balance between two very important things: Being confident, and being yourself, and this needs to come across on your application form. So what kinds of questions can you expect and how will striking this balance help you to answer them?

First Top Tip: Look at your skills

Well almost every application form will firstly require you to demonstrate some competency-based skills, whether it’s an online form which specifically asks you for these, or a CV and Covering Letter process where you will implicitly be expected to evidence your skills. While the questions may range from ‘give me an example of when you did _____’, to questions which set out a scenario and ask how you would react, they both have a common theme: they want to draw out the skills you possess which compliment that particular firms’ ethos and strategy.

The best thing to do firstly is to sit down with a notepad and list all your previous experiences, whether academic or not, and establish the transferable skills that you have gained from each of them. Even the most unlikely hobbies can provide a wealth of material for your application form, e.g. playing a University sport demonstrates that you are a team-player, and playing an instrument to a high level demonstrates that you are creative and self-aware.

So great! You can copy and paste your answers across multiple applications right?

Wrong. Not only will this dramatically increase the chance that you will refer to the wrong firm in your application (a sure-fire way to send it straight to the bottom of the pile, if not directly into the bin), but also, each firm will value certain skills and attributes more highly than others.

What skills are firms looking for?

The best way to ascertain what those prized qualities and attributes are is to consult the Graduate Recruitment website for the firm you are interested in. Some will very helpfully list what they are looking for in a good candidate. Others will be less explicit, but it should become clear as you read about the type of work they do and the calibre of trainees they recruit, what they value most.

For instance, if that firm has particular expertise in Corporate work, you can probably assume that they are looking for applicants with proven project-management skills, since Corporate teams work in tandem with many of the firms’ other practice groups.

Equally, if the firm you are applying to has a strong international presence, then it may be apt to mention your previous travelling experiences, cultural curiosities, and any language skills you may possess.

By the same token, if you are particularly interested in IP work, then a scientific background is always useful, while a firm who specialises in Criminal Law may appreciate an account of your mooting experiences and court visits.

Second Top Tip: Provide evidence

My next top tip is not to assert that you possess particular skills without being able to provide robust evidence for that assertion. For example, as President of an SU Society, I can demonstrate practical leadership experience. As a successful mooter, I am also a seasoned problem-solver. Moreover, the fact that I can balance these commitments alongside my First-class academic average is a testament to my time-management skills and my diverse range of interests outside the curriculum.

These are but a few of the typical buzzwords which firms are looking for in your application form. To name but a few more:

  • enthusiasm
  • intellect
  • interpersonal skills
  • communication skills
  • entrepreneurial skills
  • team-working
  • professionalism
  • integrity
  • articulacy
  • passion for client care and client exposure
  • relationship management
  • innovation
  • independence
  • assertiveness
  • and even ‘sense of humour’ (believe it or not)

The firm needs to know that they can trust you in an office with other lawyers, or in a meeting room with their most important clients.

The more evidence you present of your skills in practice, the better balance you strike between confidence and honesty. On that note, don’t outright lie about your experiences on your application form. They may slip through the net at the application stage, but it isn’t worth a partner calling your bluff in the interview – they can spot fabrication a mile off.

It is certainly worth noting that unless you are a bona fide genius, most firms will not consider candidates who have done nothing at University besides their degree, so if you haven’t already, take up something new.

Third Top Tip: Commercial awareness

My next top tip is, even if the application form doesn’t specifically mention it; try to incorporate any knowledge you have of the legal marketplace into your answers. If you can go one step further and link those market interests to the particular firm you are applying to, then this, in my opinion, is the epitome of ‘commercial awareness’ – knowledge of which is one of the first things firms look for in a candidate.

For example, the Legal Services Act has brought the issue of value for money to the fore, and firms need to be aware of this and react accordingly. You may therefore be encouraged to apply to a firm who has attempted to ensure their survival and so adapted to these changing market conditions, by e.g. introducing new flexible payment options for their clients, rather than unwaveringly retaining the traditional billable hour approach, which is increasingly regarded as out of date and out of step with the current financial climate.

Other recent developments include the Bribery Act, the after-math of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the new Banking Regulations, the Euro zone crisis, etc. Read newspapers and magazines which are brimming with useful articles about the legal marketplace and the repercussions for law firms, and talk to people.

In demonstrating commercial awareness, it may also be a good idea to investigate the firms’ history and market position:

  • Have they merged in recent years? Why?
  • Why do they have offices doing certain things in certain countries?
  • Who are their most prestigious clients?
  • Who are their main competitors and why?
  • Where is the firm headed?

Commercial awareness is not just about knowing what’s going on in the world, but also establishing why that is relevant to the firm you are applying to.

Final Top Tip: Choose wisely

And so my final top tip is: research what the firm does and how they operate. Nothing is worse than citing your reasons for applying to them as ‘you do commercial work’, or ‘the cross-border work you do is very interesting’. You could be describing any number of firms, either in the UK or anywhere else.

But if, for example, you did some work experience in an investment bank and really enjoyed it, this may be a good reason to justify applying to a firm with a strong financial practice.

Conversely, if you consider yourself to be open-minded about finding your niche in a firm, and are wary of being pigeon-holed too early, these may be reasons for applying to firms who take a more multi-specialist approach at trainee level, or have a greater variety of seat options.

If you don’t have much previous experience to guide your preferences, think about the sort of person you are: If you want to do something different every day and hate maths, then Finance probably isn’t for you. If you’re a real people-pleaser and hate confrontation, then Litigation probably isn’t for you.

On the flipside, if you thrive under pressure and like to feel part of the bigger picture, then a huge Magic Circle firm which recruits hundreds of trainees a year may be the perfect choice. If you really enjoyed your Employment Law module at University then this is also a good indicator of the sort of work you may enjoy at trainee-level and above.

This is another area of the form where you should be wary about copying and pasting answers from previous applications. Each firm is very different, and even if they have the same practice groups as another firm you have applied to, those groups may operate very differently. Your application should serve as proof that you have researched the firm thoroughly and can distinguish them from their competitors.

The main thing is to apply to a firm which you genuinely like, and therefore not waste the firms’ time, or more importantly, your own. A two-year Training Contract can feel like forever if you hate the work you’re doing or the people you work with, so try to attend an open-day with the firm, chat to trainees, ‘network’, ask questions, and so make sure you’re applying to a firm for the right reasons.

Conclusion

All this is just the tip of the iceberg. The real thing to keep in mind and the main thing you want to articulate is:

–          Why do you specifically like this firm?

–          And why should this firm specifically like you?

Finally, if I’ve learnt anything during this whole process, it’s that the 10% rule in business applies to law firm applications: If you’re lucky, you’ll get 10% back of what you put in. I applied to 20 firms for Vac Schemes and got 2, and applied to around the same number for Training Contracts and got 2 offers.

Some firms will like your style, others won’t. Some will have an interview process which suits you, others won’t. Don’t be someone you’re not just to get a Vac Scheme or Training Contract. If you’ve written a smart, honest application form and you’re convinced you’re perfect for one firm and they reject you, it’s probably a sign that they wouldn’t have been right for you anyway.

While I am not advocating applying to a million different firms and making no effort on any individual application, what I would advise is: start applying early, and apply to as many firms which are you are genuinely interested in as you can. You can submit what you think is the perfect application form and still get nowhere, and you’ll probably find that the firm you end up working for isn’t the firm you set your heart on in first year.

It’s important not to take everything you read about a firm as gospel, and even more important not to take things personally. If you fall at the final hurdle, always ask for feedback from unsuccessful interviews so as to improve for next time.

Also, don’t be fooled into thinking there’s a rush to apply. I thought I was the average second-year Vac Schemer, but at both of my firms I was one of the youngest there, even after a post-Sixth Form gap year! You might be in this career for the rest of your life, so don’t be afraid to take some time out, gain some more experience, and figure out what you want to do.

If you are unsuccessful at first, instead of giving up, dust yourself off and try again. It’s ruthless out there, but ultimately, I believe that perseverance, professionalism and positivity ultimately pay off.

For more advice on securing a training contract or pupillage, we suggest From Student to Solicitor: The Complete Guide to Securing a Training Contract by Charlotte Harrison or The Path to Pupillage: A Guide for the Aspiring Barrister by Georgina Wolfe and Alexander Robson. Available from bookstores and on Amazon.co.uk.

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