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What makes a training contract application stand out?

Competition for training contracts is fierce. Some recruiters deal with hundreds, even thousands, of applications each year. So how can you make your training application stand out? If it’s not enough to have the grades and the work ethic, you need some extra tricks up your sleeve. 

By Editorial Team. Published 16 June 2016. Last updated 11 January 2023.

Try these training contract application tips from leading law firms, and you could find yourself bagging a few of those all-important interviews.

Be authentic

Firms expect training contract applicants to belong to university societies, or demonstrate sporting achievements. These are laudable activities, but they’re too commonplace to help you stand out from the crowd. So what can you do to grab a recruiter’s attention?

Caroline Edwards and Claire Jutsum of Travers Smith say: “It’s important to show your personality in order to differentiate yourself from everyone else. This can be demonstrated in various ways, and that’s something you need to work out for yourself. Remember to be true to yourself and try to avoid being too funny or clever.”

Claudine Vega, a recruiter at Linklaters, notes: “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.”

Lindsey Thompson, who recruits at Herbert Smith Freehills, advises: “Applications that often stand out are those in which a candidate has taken the initiative to do something different, such as starting a new group or society, setting up their own business or initiating a charity project.”

Imagine reading the phrase “I always wanted to be a lawyer” over and over again. Pity the recruiters who actually have to do that regularly. When it comes to your training application form, ditch the old platitudes for honest and authentic answers.

Mel Brooking, Graduate Recruitment Manager at Nabarro, says: “The applications that stand out for us are interesting, easy-to-read and authentic.”

Alan Demirkaya, Graduate Recruitment and Trainee Manager at Berwin Leighton Paisner, adds: “It’s crucial that you answer in a very natural, structured manner. Personalise your answers and be sure to avoid the generic or simply listing your skills. Personalised and thoughtful answers are always more engaging.”

Similarly, for Caty Scott of Gowling WLG, honesty and authenticity are indispensable: “We want to get to know candidates as individuals, so 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 can reference some of the skills transferable to the role of a trainee solicitor, such as effective communication, commercial awareness or creative problem-solving.”

Katie Meer, Graduate Recruitment Adviser at Shearman & Sterling, sees more than 2000 training contract applications a year. Her tips? “Show you’ve done your research and be personal about why you want to do law. Explain why you decided to study law. What made you decide to do this course for three or four 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 clinical negligence cases, or in the sale of a local or family business. Anything, in fact, that connects you and your passions to the law. What was it that got you started?

Avoid the avoidable

Nicola Stanley, Graduate Manager at Irwin Mitchell, laments: “In my experience, the applications that have stood out have normally done so for a negative reason. The applicant has named the wrong law firm, tried to add a funny quote or just simply not bothered to put any effort into the application.”

Edwards adds: “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, reducing your prospects of securing an interview.”

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.”

Scott agrees: “Attention to detail is key in the role of our trainee solicitors, so there’s no place for poor spelling, grammar or punctuation on your application form.”

Brooking provides sound advice on avoiding this all-too-common problem: “Make sure your application is error free by asking someone to check it for you before you submit it.”

Try, try and try again

If you don’t secure a training contract on your first attempt, don’t despair. Perseverance is key, as Stanley says: “Network and take advantage of every opportunity that is available to you. Don’t panic if you don’t succeed first time round. Learn from the experience and make sure you build up your missing skills and experience before applying again.”

For more help with applications, visit this guide to training contract applications.