For training contract applicants, both seasoned and novice, 31 July holds special significance as application deadline day for many of the country’s top firms. And with some recruiters dealing with hundreds, even thousands of applications each year, the task of catching the reader’s eye is itself a monumental challenge. You have the grades and the work ethic – but amid the expanding pool of candidates what will really make your application stand out?
Stay true to yourself and show your personality
More and more, firms are asking for something besides the commonplace; more than the society memberships or sporting achievements. While these remain important, this kind of participation has come to be expected. So how might you demonstrate that added colour that no recruiter can simply brush past?
“It’s important to show your personality in order to differentiate yourself from everyone else”, say Travers Smith’s Caroline Edwards and Claire Jutsum. “This can be demonstrated in various ways – and is, of course, something you need to work out for yourself! But remember to be true to yourself and try to avoid being too funny or clever”.
Linklaters’ recruiter Claudine Vega notes that “a large number of the strongest candidates draw upon their international experience from travelling, working abroad or undertaking additional projects during their time at university”.
“Applications which often stand out are those in which a candidate has taken the initiative to do something different”, says Lindsey Thompson, senior graduate recruitment adviser at Herbert Smith Freehills: “…such as starting a new group or society, setting up their own business or initiating a charity project”.
Nowadays a great frustration for recruiters is having to time and again endure the same aged platitudes of why law is the profession of choice. Be warned; the “I always wanted to be a lawyer” pitch is fast losing its currency.
“The applications that stand out for us are interesting, easy to read and authentic”, says Mel Brooking, graduate recruitment manager at Nabarro. These sentiments are echoed pretty much across the board.
“It is crucial that you answer in a very natural, structured manner”, says Alan Demirkaya, graduate recruitment manager at Berwin Leighton Paisner. “Personalise your answers and be sure to avoid the generic, or simply listing your skills. Personalised, thoughtful answers are always more engaging”.
Similarly, for Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co’s Caty Scott, honesty and authenticity are indispensable: “We want to get to know candidates as individuals, so do we look for personality through authentic, genuine answers. All work experience is good work experience. Anything that examples your commitment to a career in law is great, but don’t worry if you are unable to provide lots of examples of work within law firms. Just make sure that you are able to reference some of the many skills transferable to the role of a trainee solicitor, for example; effective communication, commercial awareness…or creative problem solving”
Katie Meer, graduate recruitment adviser at Shearman & Sterling, through seeing no fewer than 2000 applications each year, has developed a sharp eye for those golden submissions: “Show you’ve done your research, and be personal about why you want to do law”.
Meer speaks about the frequency with which law students proclaim their excitement at putting into practice all they’ve learnt at law school. But she encourages a different tack: “I would ask them to go back a step and tell me why they decided to study law. What made them decide to do this course for 3 or 4 years? It really stands out when people are personal about this [and can give] an interesting story about why they want to be a lawyer”.
What qualifies as an interesting, personal story? Meer gives examples including a personal involvement in commercial or perhaps clinical negligence cases, or maybe even in the sale of a local or family business. Really it can be anything that somehow connects you and your passions to the law. What was it that got you started?
…and at all costs, avoid the avoidable.
“In my experience, the applications that have stood out have normally been for a negative reason”, laments Irwin Mitchell’s Nicola Stanley. “They’ve named the wrong law firm, tried to add a funny quote or just simply not bothered to put any effort into the application”.
You can spend hours, days even, on an application. But too often candidates let themselves down with petty mistakes: “Even a seemingly minor error can substantially detract from what is otherwise a good [application] and reduce your prospects of securing an interview”, says Caroline Edwards.
Katie Meer backs this up: “Sometimes candidates will write in ‘text speak’ with their name in lower case. You need to write well to be a lawyer…and attention to detail is very important too; [candidates] will sometimes end up misspelling ‘geography GCSE’…and that looks silly!”
“Attention to detail is key in the role of our trainee solicitors, so there is no place for poor spelling, grammar or punctuation in your application form” says Caty Scott.
Mel Brooking provides sound advice on sidestepping this all too common problem: “Make sure your application is error free…so ask someone to check it for you before submitting it”.
31 July – there’s time yet
So how do you ensure your application stands out? Show who you really are, write about how that passion for this industry first took flight and, always, always avoid making silly mistakes. But today perhaps the greatest, and indeed necessary, attribute is perseverance - Nicola Stanley offers wise words in closing: “Network and take advantage of every opportunity that is available to you, and don’t panic if you don’t succeed first time round. Learn from the experience and ensure you build the missing skills and experience before applying again.”
For more top tips from those in the know, check out our Top Tips for Securing a Training Contract video.
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*A version of this article was first published on FLN on 04 June 2015.