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Nailing that application: How candidates can ensure their application makes the final cut

Nailing the initial application is the essential first step towards the end goal of receiving a training contract offer. Yet, at the same time, it is often one of the hardest parts of the process. With eight years of experience in graduate recruitment and development across both the banking and legal sectors, Verdict caught up with Katie Garman, Graduate Development Manager at DLA Piper, to find out what candidates should be doing to ensure their application makes the cut.

By Editorial Team. 24 November 2021.

Make a lasting impression

Standing out among thousands of applicants is no easy task. For Garman, the candidates she remembers the most are those who show a repeated interest in the firm. For example, Garman tells Verdict how, “If I am at a law fair and a student asks me a well thought out question, and I then later see them at a company presentation, followed by an open day, that candidate will make a long-lasting impression.” Even if it’s subconscious to some extent, the more you attend events, the more likely the firm will remember you when it comes to your written application. From Garman’s experience, students who do this are able to amalgamate their experience into a more authentic, well-researched and tailored application.

Indeed, with events all going virtual, there’s no longer a reason not to attend. Equally, as Garman suggests, make your attendance “more than a one-off too”. This works both ways – after all, the more information you have on a firm, the more you’ll be able to make an informed choice about where you’d like to train. A good candidate will therefore have gone to the firms’ graduate recruitment brochure and websites, attended a handful of events and have a good idea of the ongoing current affairs at the firm.

A well structured answer

Application questions such as ‘why do you want to be a solicitor?’ or ‘why do you want to work at this firm?’ often come with a limited word count. In turn, a candidate’s ability to write concisely and offer a well-structured answer becomes essential. Garman’s number one piece of advice here is to be both specific and honest in your answers. This forces you to really analyse the responses you are giving. For example, how did that particular trainee/partner encourage you to apply? What is it about that practice group in particular that interests you? Ask yourself why you are including something in your application. Often, this is where a second pair of eyes can be helpful.

On top of the above questions, most firms also now require candidates to discuss a current affairs story unfolding in the business world. To excel within these types of questions, Garman advises that candidates go straight to the news/ recent deals part of the firm’s website. This is because it takes them straight to deals the firm is involved in, whereas commercial stories in the likes of the FT or The Economist are often too generalist. Taking Verdict through a model answer, Garman explains: “A candidate might discuss a recent restructuring deal at the firm, explain why this originally interested them, discuss how that has informed their interests going forward, along with any of their own personal experience that would feed into such.”

All experience is good experience

Law-related or not, all experience is good experience. After all, as Garman explains to Verdict “firms have intense training contract programmes that are designed to bring everyone up to speed”. The main thing a candidate needs to be considering is therefore the skillset they have developed across their academic studies and extracurricular activities, and how this aligns with the skills required by the firm.

When it comes to showcasing this experience on a CV, Garman advises candidates to be as economical with their words as possible – “you can have a very good CV that is only one page long – two pages is the absolute maximum”, she tells Verdict. As a result, descriptions need to be proportionate to the experience in question. For example, “if you are mentioning an insight day that you attended at a firm, keep the description to the minimum”. “The same goes for work experience that is self-explanatory, such as part-time retail or hospitality experience done alongside studies,” she says.

Striking the right balance

Shortlisting how many firms you want to apply to can be hard to judge; you don’t want to place all of your eggs in one basket, nor do you want to spread yourself too thin. Striking the right balance is therefore a personal judgement call as to how many applications you can guarantee to be “focused and well-researched”. On what this means exactly, Garman explains, “It’s crucial that you really get to know firms by attending events, and then shortlist and finetune your applications off the back of this”.

Moreover, when looking to submit applications, it’s always a case of the earlier, the better. For firms such as DLA Piper, that recruit on a rolling basis, this is even more integral. Garman tells Verdict how students should plan ahead to see when firms’ events are at the start of the milk round season, and stagger applications around such. Ultimately, “don’t rush, but do try and get it in as early as possible for the best chances of a successful application”.


This article was first published in our Verdict magazine - Read Employability Special, the issue #6 of Verdict magazine