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How to get a training contract

Henry Evans (Sc 03-08) is an associate at a Major City law firm. Read his top tips to securing a training contract in our latest careers guide

6 Feb 2020
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Henry Evans (Sc 03-08) is an associate at a major City law firm. After leaving Tonbridge, he read history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford and then completed the GDL and LPC at BPP. Read his top tips for securing a training contract below.

How to become a solicitor
 
What you need in order to get training contract
 
Generally speaking, to become a solicitor at a City law firm (when somebody refers to a “City” firm, they mean a firm in the City of London, which is where the biggest and most interesting commercial law work is done), you will need:
  • at least AAB at A level;
  • a 2.1 degree or higher from a good university;
  • a commendation grade or higher in the GDL and/or the LPC (see below);
  • legal work experience; and
  • to perform well in up to three rounds of interviews.
It is possible to enter the profession without ticking all of the above boxes. For example, a great degree can make up for less-than-perfect A level results and fantastic work experience can mitigate a poor mark on a degree paper. However, to put yourself in the best position you should aim to satisfy all of the above.

The route to becoming a solicitor is in the process of being reformed. Currently, after one has completed one’s undergraduate degree (whether in law or some other subject) one goes to law school. Somebody with a non-law degree will need to spend two years at law school (first, the Graduate Diploma in Law, known as the GDL, then the Legal Practice Course, known as the LPC). Somebody who read law at university will only need to complete the LPC. After law school, would-be solicitors spend two years completing a training contract at a law firm, experiencing a number of different areas of legal practice.

However, in 2021 the GDL and the LPC is set to be replaced by the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) which will be taken at the end of the training contract. The change will not affect anyone who is already reading law at university or in the process of completing the GDL or the LPC before the SQE is introduced in 2021. So far there has only been limited information about what the SQE will entail - the Solicitors Regulation Authority has published some guidance which is available here:

https://www.sra.org.uk/home/hot-topics/solicitors-qualifying-examination/

How to secure a training contract – tips

For many people, the hardest part in becoming a solicitor is securing a training contract. The process is hugely competitive, with thousands of people (many of them with strong degrees from top universities) going after a relatively small number of trainee jobs. Here are some tips that should put you in a good position:

1. Think ahead – training contract applications are made two years before the training contract begins. If you think you would like to be a solicitor, start applying for training contracts while at university, rather than doing it at law school. If you get a training contract before you go to law school, law firms will generally pay your law school fees and some living expenses, which they may not if you apply when you are already at law school. Applying early also gives you more time if you are not successful in your first year of making applications.

2. Get some experience – an excellent academic record is not enough on its own to secure a training contract - you will be competing with many people with excellent academics. Firms want to know that you understand what's involved in being a solicitor and have some aptitude for it, and the best way to show this is through experience. Some of the best ways to show experience are:
  • work experience - law firms are increasingly egalitarian and are generally unwilling to give work experience spots to people just because of personal connections – in fact, some firms are bringing in policies explicitly banning partners from giving work experience on the basis of connections. The legal profession used to be something of an old boys’ network, but it has not been so in the time that I’ve been practicing, certainly not in the top tier firms. That said, it is still possible to get work experience either through family, friends or by writing to law firms directly. If you can, it’s worth getting some of this type of experience, apart from anything else because it can be helpful in deciding whether life as a solicitor is for you.
  • vacation schemes - many of the biggest law firms run vacation schemes, which are effectively formal work experience programs. Firms that run vacation schemes tend to hire a significant number of their trainees each year directly from among those who attend the vacation scheme, as they see it as something of a road test. There is usually a formal application process for a vacation scheme place (like a mini training contract application).
  • open days - many firms that are too small to offer vacation schemes instead offer open days. These are one-day events that let you meet lawyers from the relevant firm, participate in various exercises to test your aptitude and, possibly, include a training contract interview. Again, there is a formal application process and many firms hire trainees directly from their open days.
  • paralegalling - many people work as paralegals while they are in the process of applying for training contracts. It is a great way to show that you can do the job of a trainee as often paralegals are given the same sorts of tasks as trainees. You will usually need to have completed law school, or at least a law degree, to get a paralegal position at a decent firm.
  • non-legal work experience – do not discount the value of non-legal experience. Lawyers work with many different industries and an understanding of another area can be immensely valuable (for example, a good trainee in my team spent a couple of years at an investment bank before going to law school). Non-legal work can also demonstrate vital transferable skills. Hard work is very important in law and if you spent your summer working two jobs, that may well count for more than a week of informal legal work experience.
3. Choose the right firms - many law firms, particularly the big City firms, look similar to each other from the outside. However, getting to know a firm (and what makes it unique) is vital to ensuring your application gets you an interview and that the interview goes well. For example, you won't get far applying to a corporate firm telling them you're set on doing criminal or human rights work, or telling a firm with no foreign offices how much you want to do an overseas secondment. Take your time over each application and really think about the firm involved – do not be tempted to make liberal use of copy and paste, or to adapt answers from application forms for different firms. The application forms are huge and often difficult, you really need to think about them each individually, particularly when they ask questions about why you want to go to a particular firm. You need to put the time in to research the firms to which you are applying, especially any material on their websites in which they talk about the training contract, as anybody interviewing you will expect you to be very familiar with this.

4. Stand out – firms are looking for partners of the future. You want to look like somebody who could eventually help to build up the business and bring in clients. HR departments and partners often have to filter through hundreds or thousands of applications many of which will be very similar. Find something that makes you different. International experience is worth getting – my wife for example worked for a government department in Mongolia for a few months, which looked great on the CV when she was applying for training contracts.

5. Get the little things right – check all your applications thoroughly. If there are any typos, they will be noticed, and your application is likely to go straight into the bin. Again, the big firms receive thousands of applications for a very small number of trainee places - they can easily afford to screen out people who make avoidable mistakes. A really obvious point that people often get wrong is that, if there is an “and” in the name of the firm, you must make sure that you know whether it is the word “and” or an ampersand – some firms use one and some the other (e.g. Slaughter and May uses the word “and”, while Allen & Overy uses an ampersand). If you get this wrong in an application, you are getting the name of the firm wrong, and your application may be unsuccessful.

6. Know your dates – when you are starting to think about making applications, you should also keep an eye on the deadlines for vac scheme and training contract applications – Lawcareers.net keeps a very helpful list of these.

7. Be prepared – Interviews can be unpredictable. However, there are some questions that come up very frequently. You need to have good, genuine answers to the following questions:
  • Why do you want to practise law?
  • Why do you want to work at this firm?
  • What makes you stand out from other candidates?
  • What do you think a trainee does?
  • What areas of law are you most interested in and why?
8. Be persistent – applying for training contracts can be a frustrating process, some people walk into great trainee roles without much effort, while some spend years toiling away as paralegals and making applications. Plenty of good lawyers did not get a training contract at their first choice firm (or any firm) in their first year of applying. It can be very dispiriting to receive rejection after rejection, but remember that it does not necessarily mean you are not good enough or that you will not succeed eventually. Try to learn from unsuccessful applications and be sure to ask for feedback after interviews.

Golden rules

1. Strong academics are a necessary starting point for becoming a City solicitor – without good grades (and ideally very good grades) you are highly unlikely to get a training contract.

2. Start building your legal CV while you are at university. Getting involved in your law society, mooting or debating competitions would be a great start.

3. As well as a good academic record you will need relevant legal work experience. Vacation schemes, paralegal jobs and open days are good places to start.

4. Do your research. Applying to firms that don't suit you, or not knowing enough about the firms you're applying to, is a big mistake. Your application is unlikely to be successful and, if it is, you may end up stuck somewhere you don't want to be. All firms put out a lot of information about what they do and will expect you to have read it. 

5. A great way to know if law is for you is to speak to lawyers. Try to speak to people with different perspectives – seniors and juniors, people practicing in different areas or in different types of firms will all have very different perspectives. If you don't know any lawyers, then please feel free to get in touch with me or speak to the HR department at a firm you're interested in – they will often be happy to put you in touch with trainees or junior lawyers.
 

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