By Whitney Joseph, trainee solicitor at CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP
1. Don’t underestimate the value of time
First things first, it can take a while to research and prepare a quality application, so it is vital that you give yourself plenty of time to complete, check (then recheck) and submit your application or cover letter. Applications can often take a lot longer than expected. Don’t miss out on a vacation scheme or training contract opportunity simply by leaving it until the last minute.
2. Don’t let spelling, grammar or silly mistakes catch you out
You may have prepared the best application possible, but any spelling, grammar or typographical mistakes could cost you an interview. It is easy to miss minor mistakes if you have spent a long time working on the same application, so be sure to use a decent spellcheck or ask a friend or family member to proof read your application for you. Reading your application out loud can also be a useful way of spotting any errors.
3. Think carefully about your content and structure
As tempting as it is to detail every aspect of your previous work experience or interests, it is worth considering what is most relevant to the firm and role that you are applying for. Think carefully about which past experiences best demonstrate your skills and qualities, and be sure to structure your application in a way that is clear and easy to follow.
4. Make the most of your word count
Word count limits are useful guides that can indicate where your answer is possibly too brief (or too detailed). Where possible, try to provide answers that are relatively close to the word count, but remember to only include good quality, relevant content. It is equally important not to exceed the word count. It will be noticed if you go over, and some online applications will simply cut off any words that exceed the stated limit, which could leave your answer incomplete!
5. Research before you write
Most law firms will have a wealth of information available about them online, so firms will expect you to have done your homework before submitting your application. Researching before you begin will help make sure that your application is tailored to that firm. Think outside the box when researching too, try not to stick to the firm’s own website but also take a look at legal publications, press articles, and directories. You can use information that you have picked up at open days or careers fairs to support your application as well.
6. Why that firm?
No application is complete until you have explained exactly why you are applying to that particular firm. So, below are some key questions to think about when answering the dreaded ‘why us?’
What are the firm’s core practice areas and who are their typical clients? How and why do those particular practice areas attract you? Also, what evidence can you provide to demonstrate your interest in those practice areas?
Who are the firm’s competitors and how does it distinguish itself?
Has it won any recent awards?
Are there any significant firm rankings, highly commended individuals or people of interest who work at the firm that has caught your attention?
What initially prompted your interest in that firm? Have you previously met someone from the firm or have you attended a particular event that the firm hosted?
7. Why you?
Equally as important as ‘why us?’ is ‘why you?’ A firm will want to know what makes you one of the best candidates out of the many who apply. This is your chance to highlight all of your achievements and the competencies that demonstrate how you are suited to a career in law. Again, see some key questions to think about when tackling ‘why you’:
Why have you chosen to pursue a legal career?
Why should the firm recruit you over any other candidate?
What skills and qualities is the firm seeking from its trainees, and how have you demonstrated these in the past?
Do you have any interesting or unique hobbies or skills (legal or non-legal) that could help you to stand out?
8. Demonstrating Legal and Commercial Awareness
It is probably not the first time that you have heard the words ‘commercial awareness’ and it is unlikely to be the last. In every application it is crucial that you demonstrate your own knowledge and understanding of the legal sector and the wider world of business. Your application must illustrate that you have a genuine interest in business, how it works and how it can affect the clients that you will be working with.
9. Mitigating circumstances – don’t be afraid to use it
Firms are aware that things don’t always go to plan, which is why most applications will allow you the opportunity to account for any mitigating circumstances that could be relevant to your application. If you encountered a situation that had a genuine adverse impact on your studies then it is important to let your firm know. It may also be useful for explaining any gaps in your CV. Bear in mind, that this should only be used in genuine circumstances where you were put at a serious disadvantage that was beyond your control.
10. Stay positive
Applying to law firms can be both a stressful and daunting task, but stay positive and don’t be discouraged by rejections. There are always more opportunities to apply again, so remain confident and be resilient. You may only be one application away from finding the firm that is right for you!
About the author
Whitney Joseph secured her training contract in 2014 after studying law at the University of Essex. She is now working as a Trainee Solicitor at CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP. Outside of her day job, she works as a mentor for young people and students with Sickle Cell and related disorders at the Sickle Cell Society.