Updated: Jan 28
It’s now mid-October which means the leaves are turning, the nights are drawing in and it’s finally socially acceptable to don your winter knits. It’s the season to embrace the pumpkin spiced latte and embark on the timeless debate of how soon is too soon to put the heating on. It’s worth making time for something else on your agenda for October: applications and networking.
The milkround has begun, which means law fairs and networking events are in full swing in law faculties across the UK, as firms speak directly to students about what they do and the opportunities they offer. Applications are also open for many first-, second- and penultimate-year applications, as well as postgraduate opportunities. October is a great time to apply – by now firms have gauged a flavour of applications, but still have lots of places to offer applicants on schemes. So, whatever your weekend, half-term or reading week plans, try and make some time to submit quality applications. There’s no immediate rush (the window for applications often doesn’t close until December/January) but put the effort in now whilst you can still commit plenty of time before university revision, research and coursework overtakes you. If you’ve been especially on it (or if you have a few years left of university, make a note for next year) you’ll have corroborated research and information throughout the summer, making applications that little bit smoother and less time-consuming.
Networking - First Year Schemes - Vacation Schemes - Training Contract
The route into law can be beautifully prescriptive, as demonstrated above. This is by no means the only route into law! Among my LPC course mates only about half have done law degrees and many have taken years out to study, work or travel. Among my cohort, there’s a trained patisserie chef, a chartered engineer (I think that’s right!) and the former president of a Students’ Union. Don’t be duped into thinking the above is the only way to access law. On the other hand, why make life harder for yourself than it has to be?! If you’re an undergraduate, of any subject, thinking about a career in corporate law, the above are schemes you can get yourself onto right now. These offer you experience, insight, and usually end in an interview as a gateway to the next step up the ladder. The higher you can climb before you graduate, the better your chance of success getting a training contract, adding that extra special something to your celebrations as you throw that mortarboard into the air desperately trying to teach your parents how to frame the perfect Instagram story.
So, how do you make a solid application?
Which firms and why?
Like any good piece of writing, don’t even think about opening up a word document to draft your application until you’ve seriously researched which firms you want to apply to and why. What kind of law do you think you’d like to practice? What kind of lifestyle and work-life balance are you looking for? Do you want to be a solicitor or a barrister? Corporate, criminal, probate, tax, real estate, employment…? Do you want to go to London or avoid it like the plague? Do you want to go to a US firm or a UK firm? An international firm or something more regional?
If you can get some legal experience behind you to support your answers, this will strengthen your application. This was my tactic and it was helpful for me. I did a range of experience and tried many things I could never do long-term, but it meant that, by the time I was in front of a interviewer, I had a reasonable idea of the work they did and why I wanted to be a part of that.
Opportunities to try:
Pro-bono work – available at most universities, you may have to apply and interview for this but it’s worth trying, it may also open up leadership opportunities and positions of responsibility if you do it for consecutive years.
Regional firms – these follow the above matrix of classic opportunities and online applications will be open for students. These firms typically offer more variety in practice areas than large corporate firms and may offer smaller working groups and a better work-life balance to other forms of law. Sending an email may be sufficient for smaller regional firms to get you some work experience.
Silver and magic circle firms – these are the large UK corporate firms and follow the above matrix of opportunities. Research and apply online. They focus largely on large commercial and financing deals and often require much longer working hours, alongside more international work, teams and opportunities for secondments.
Research – can you do research with any professors over summer or as part of a module? Worth a try for a very different experience and to see what opportunities come up and deepen your understanding of a particular area of law.
Networking – evenings, law fairs and lectures are a good opportunity to ask any questions you have, and meet with people who read applications. These people can offer you some of the best advice on how to improve your applications.
In-house – if you can, it’s worth getting a placement in an in-house legal department to see the difference in practice, variety of tasks, responsibility, commerciality and purpose, and work-life balance. This could be in a company or a bank, for example.
Getting some work experience will give you a little more insight into what work in a particular type of firm, or practice area, is like. For example, working in a large corporate firm, you may not leave the office until the early hours in the morning some days. At worst, you might spend a few days sleeping at the office (most firms have sleeping areas so you’ll have a bed!). This is highly unlikely ever to happen in a smaller firms, and some practice areas. It’s good to know this when you apply – is this something you think you can handle? Many of my friends think I’m mad for even considering a job which might require me to sleep at the office! Find a job you think you’ll love and thrive in, work out your red lines, and go from there.
You don’t need all of the answers yet – that’s why you’re applying for the experience after all! – but try and consider the above in your answer. Try and use your results to narrow your applications down to a few firms, this will keep you focussed and ensure you give each application your best shot.
Research and preparing for questions
Have a think about the following which you are likely to be asked and make genuine, reasoned responses.
What inspired you to choose to study law, as an undergraduate or postgraduate?
If you’re not studying law, why do you think you’d like to do it?
Why do you think you’d like to practice, and not just study, law?
What firms are looking for:
A justified reason that you want to continue in your legal career.
It might be the role of justice, integration in society, the contribution law makes to peoples’ lives. For me, I’m excited by the interplay between politics, economics and law, all of which I found to be important in a corporate law environment, unlike any of the other areas of practice I gained experience in. Don’t let me put words into your mouth, but do let me encourage you to consider these things and what the honest answer would be for you.
An awareness of the job you’re applying for
Demonstrate that you have an awareness of the expectations of a lawyer in the setting your applying to, that you’ve considered what a lawyer does and the skills required, and try to use this in your answer.
What firms are not looking for:
An emotive, elaborate tale about how you’ve always wanted to be a lawyer and now have come of age to make your dreams a reality. Even if this is true (I’ve wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember – once a geek always a geek), it’s hard to support and doesn’t show much awareness of what a lawyer does and why you think that a legal career might be for you.
Why this firm?
Once you’ve started to answer some of the questions above, you should be able to narrow down the scope of your applications significantly to one band of firms or one type of law. Once you’ve decided which firms to apply to, you now have to justify your decision.
What firms are looking for:
Answers unique to the firm
If you can copy and paste your answer into all of the firms you apply to, then you’re not answering this question well enough. Look at the work the firm has done and find examples. Where is the firm investing? What is R&D looking like? What is diversity and equality like? What is the firm culture like? This last one will be a hard one to answer without personally visiting an office and/or speaking to people from an office; ‘culture’ can be simply considered as ‘everything which Google can’t tell you.’ It’s about how receptive the office is to people working from home and flexible working. It’s about whether people are willing to give up time to chat over coffee. Are workers in competition with one another or do they work collaboratively? Is there a sense that you have to be in the office to be seen, or if work is done, do people go home? These things can be hard to gauge but are worth considering, in applications and on visits to firms.
What firms are not looking for:
A summary of how many offices they have abroad – this information just shows you can use a website and lift figures into an application. Why is this important to you and how does this differentiate the firm you’re applying to from others?
A summary of awards the firm has won – again, if it’s applicable to you personally and is genuinely something you’ve been following and are interested in, include this, if not, leave it out.
An ego boost on what a good firm they are. This could be applicable to any one of a group of firms, depending on who you’re applying to. It’s often impersonal and unless you can demonstrate why you want to work at this firm in particular, leave it out.
Key skills for a solicitor/trainee?
You may be asked something like this. There are some generic skills which apply to any legal job you’re applying for, others need to be adjusted slightly according to the role and the firm. Think about what a job entails and the requisite skills to excel. Interweave these skills throughout your application and consider how you want to present yourself as meeting some of these skill-based requirements.
A recent deal…?
Lots of applications will ask you to discuss a recent deal the firm acted on, or something in the news which has attracted your attention. The best way to handle this is to get up to speed on the Financial Times; just have a flick every day over breakfast and listen to the daily podcast on your walk into university. The FT is probably the best resource you have as a law student if you’re thinking about corporate law. But there’s a lot of material on there! My advice would be to choose something you’re interested in, and stick with it! Better to follow one or two areas very keenly and be able to discuss them in impressive depth than to follow everything and nothing because you’re spreading yourself too thinly. If you’re into real estate, look at that, if you’re into corporate law, pick a recent M&A deal, or look at ongoing insolvencies, if you want to go into disputes, think about the big disputes going on at the moment (disputes typically drag on much longer than the other things in this list, so be sure to look back a few years to see what’s been going on in terms of corporate disputes. Whatever you pick, keep it relevant and read as much as possible to make sure you understand that area of law and issue – and keep up to date on that area for any interviews!
Ideas of hot topics (non-exhaustive!)
FinTech – cryptocurrencies (lots on their regulation), IPOs of ‘unicorns,’ regulation of blockchain, legality of smart contracts, ICOs.
Real estate – the ‘tulip’ in London; sale of the Ritz by the Barclay brothers.
Brexit – my best advice would be to avoid this is far as is possible! It’s a topic full of so much uncertainty, unless you genuinely have something novel to say about something. If you’re applying Brexit to something else more broadly, this may be worth a mention.
Corporate – shareholder activism on the rise, corporate social responsibility obligations.
Insolvency – Thomas Cook is the obvious recent example.
Competition – Amazon, Google, Facebook, EU mergers attempt to trump the position of large Chinese companies in the EU market. Look at EU and US perspectives on this.
What will the next 10 years look like in law?
Think about current legal practice and how you genuinely think it will change. What will be the demands and opportunities? What are the flaws in the current business model of firms? How could training be improved? How will clients’ demands change?
Think about the following and the impact they may have on legal practice:
Environmental lobbying and consciousness
The rise of the far-right in may Western states
Name a time you…
These are common questions and are a great opportunity to let your skills shine through. Get a list of what a solicitor should be in your eyes, how you want to portray yourself, and get some varied examples to support yourself.
… overcame a challenge?
Situation - Problem - Action - Result.
This is a good structure to stick with and gets in everything you’ll want to talk about. Now, some of you may have climbed Kilimanjaro, played sport to a professional level, play music to a high degree, or have achieved amazing feats against great odds. I don’t feel that I have. So, how can you make a successful stab at this question? Start by remembering that this isn’t a competition of who’s lived the most fun, expensive, sport- or music-filled lifestyle. When was a good example of a challenge you faced and responded to that challenge? It may be:
Academic life – a poor result which you turned around having done X, Y, and Z.
Personal life – go to town on the Kilimanjaro challenges if you have them, fundraising you’ve done, sporting achievements...
Working life – a difficult relationship in a working context or the need to work part-time to finance study and living away from home.
The best I had to go on was my year abroad, and so I wrote about that. It is a challenge when you can’t speak a language perfectly yet. When study is a fast babble of French legal terminology, market trips are filled with grammatical errors and making friends can be embarrassingly full of ‘can you repeat that please?’ It’s hard when someone steals your belongings and you have to explain to the police in a foreign language what’s happened (true story) or when you’re pickpocketed and have to make it from Paris to Aix with no mobile (true story – thankfully family friends on holiday in Paris were a huge help!).
Remember the question is not a focus on the challenge, it’s a focus on overcoming the challenge. How did I improve my French and confidence? Largely, confidence is a mental thing, you dust yourself off after every grammar mistake, you learn and you throw yourself into the semantic battlefield again, ready to wage war against the temptations to muddle your tenses, mispronounce your vowels, and forget the vocab you know is somewhere deep inside your brain. I took up tennis – much fun was had, tanning was accomplished and French was spoken, but my tennis remains at best basic, if a little better than when I began. I joined a francophone church and met French people regularly, learning about their culture and watching their interactions. All of these things together make for a challenge overcome.
… had a significant achievement?
As above, for many of us, our short lives are not full of photo-frame achievements. These two questions require a little more personality, so make it genuine and honest. Whether it’s a position of responsibility, an award, getting a job and/or working part time alongside studies, travel, or an element of your degree. Justify why it’s been important to you and outline what the achievement was if it’s not self-explanatory (e.g. what did you have to do to win a prize, what did you win, when was this…?).
… worked in a team?
Try and get a variety of sources for your examples. If the others have been from your personal life, perhaps take one from your academic experience, work, or work experience and vice versa. Think about the role you played in the team and be prepared to speak in an interview further on how you find teamwork and your experience in a team.
This is a key stage of an application which we all skimp on if we’re honest and as a result typos and inconsistencies slip through the net. This can be really significant. You’re applying for a job which requires high attention to detail and precision, so be careful. A lack of reviewing has cost more than one student (including me!) success in applications. It’s easy to avoid, so check your work and if needs be ask a friend or family member to check it too.
I’m low-key obsessed with feedback and I’d always recommend asking for feedback on your performance on applications and interviews if possible. When I was offered my training contract, I’d had to complete several written projects, an interview and two seats and this call was my first opportunity to get any feedback. The graduate recruitment worker who called was a bubbly American lady I got on well with but was incredibly different from; whilst she oozed obvious enthusiasm and excitement, I seemed comparatively guarded and cold.
- ‘Good news Kim, we’d like to make you an offer!’
- ‘Thank you, that’s great! Do you have any feedback?’
I hadn’t thought this a strange next-breath follow-up, but she laughed and said she knew I’d ask. Even good news and success leaves much room for improvement, best to get the advice whilst it’s available and improve for next time.
Applications are open, networking opportunities and meetings with your tutors will be in full swing. Don’t hesitate to get in touch and ask people questions, whether your tutors, lawyers, graduate recruitment, or bloggers you come across! Most people will be more than happy to help! Good luck!