This article is brought to you by The Student Lawyer. If you are looking for training contract application help, be sure to check out the TSL Training Contract Surgery for CV, cover letter and application reviews, practice interviews, and more.
The statistics around training contract and vacation scheme applications can make for painful reading. It is not unusual for a firm to receive over 100 applications for each position. These applications will mainly come from students who look similar on paper, coming from similar universities with strong grades and impressive credentials.
The HR team or lawyers who conduct the first review will be looking for easy excuses to say no to an applicant, so that they can quickly cut the applications down to a manageable number. While it is important to make your application stand out from the crowd, it is even more important to make sure you stay in the race by avoiding obvious mistakes that can see your application sent straight to the rejection pile.
In this article we explore some of the most common mistakes that applicants make in their applications. Some of these mistakes are obvious, but some you may not even realise are mistakes.
1. Avoid spelling and grammatical errors
It goes without saying that the quickest route to the no pile is to submit an application riddled with typos. You would be amazed at the number of applicants who boast about their strong attention to detail, but fail to notice basic spelling errors in their application.
When you complete your application, it is a good idea to leave it a day or two before proof-reading it. You are much more likely to pick up any errors with the benefit of some distance. This obviously relies on you having not left the application to the last minute.
With many application forms containing similar questions (why do you want to be a lawyer etc.), it is tempting to copy and paste answers from prior applications. While we would not recommend this, if you are going to do it, make sure you read the pasted text carefully for any errors (the last thing you want is the same typo appearing in all your applications) and to make sure that there is nothing in there that is inappropriate for this application (the most obvious example being the wrong firm’s name!).
2. Avoid convoluted sentences
While those of you who have ever read a contract may think a lawyer needs to be able to write long, complicated sentences in “legalese”, it is much more important to be able to convey a point clearly and concisely. This will be very important when communicating with your clients and colleagues, and when drafting compelling advocacy.
When reading your application form, a firm will be reviewing your writing style just as much as the content of your answers. Convoluted sentences, even if they are grammatically correct, are more likely to see your applications rejected than simple sentences that make your point clearly and forcefully. Here are three things to look out for:
- Avoid multiple clauses and sub-clauses in the same sentence. As a general rule, if a sentence goes on for too long, it can be difficult to follow and will lose its impact. The chances are if your sentence contains multiple “coordinating conjunctions” (and, but, or etc.) or “subordinate conjunctions” (when, while, if etc.), you would be better off splitting it into two or more sentences. You should also avoid putting long clauses into parentheses.
- Use the active rather than the passive voice. Some students believe that writing in the passive makes their writing appear more sophisticated (e.g., “it has been proven by statistics that…” sounds better than “statistics prove that”). This is not the case. The active voice is clearer and more concise. As a junior lawyer, your supervisors will encourage you to write in the active voice, so it is a good idea to start practising this now.
- Avoid “over the top” language. Again, some students may think that adding “flowery” language to a sentence will make it sound more impressive, whereas short sentences sound overly simplistic or childish. Rather than impressing the reviewer, this will look like you are trying to show off. “Moreover, it is abundantly clear from the numerous awards bestowed upon the firm that…” does not sound better than “the firm’s numerous awards show that…”. This is especially important when an application form sets short word limits. Firms are looking for how effectively you can communicate complicated ideas in a short space, so you don’t want to waste words with unnecessary flourishes.
3. Avoid reciting a firm’s achievements back to it
Many applicants do not realise that this is a mistake. They are understandably eager to show that they have done their research on the firm and end up filling their applications with statistics that they have found on the firm’s website. While it is obviously important to show that you have done your homework, the person reviewing your form already knows about their own firm. They want to learn about you.
Rather than simply listing the firm’s achievements, make sure you are linking them back to your own experience and achievements. For example, many applicants might write: “I want to work in the firm’s employment law department, because it recently won [X] award and has many famous clients, including [X]” and leave it that. A better sentence would be: “I want to work in the firm’s award-winning employment law department, because I recently undertook 2 weeks’ work experience in this sector and found it to be a challenging and stimulating area of law.”
4. Avoid painting an unrealistic picture of life as a trainee
Many application forms will ask a question along the lines of “what skills do you have that will make you a good trainee?”. Applicants who respond to this question by writing about winning victories for their clients or negotiating high pressure deals will appear to reviewers as if their only reference points for what trainees do are old episodes of Suits. If Mike Ross had spent his time doing real-life trainee work, viewers would have been treated to less than compelling scenes of an increasingly tired looking man completing weeks upon weeks of document review.
Joking aside, not all trainee work will be this mundane, but, depending on where you work, a lot of it will be. The realities of legal practice mean that someone must carry out these less glamorous tasks and as the most junior and cost-effective members of the team, this work normally falls to trainees. Just remember, you won’t be a trainee forever!
Reviewers will be more impressed if you show that you have a good grasp of what typical trainee tasks entail, and that you have the skills to do them. Organisation, attention to detail, and good basic communication tend to be more valuable skills in a trainee than, say, beautiful written advocacy.
This shows why it is important to get as much contact with lawyers as possible, whether it be at open days, law fairs, or other university events. Try to talk to trainees and find out what they actually spend their time doing. As explained below, backing up statements in your applications with real life examples from trainees you have spoken to will make them stronger.
5. Avoid vague or meaningless statements
Another common error is for applicants to make statements like: “I want to work for X firm because of its high-profile clients” or “private equity seems like a fascinating area”. Although there is nothing wrong with these statements, if you don’t back them up with something more concrete, they are largely meaningless. Every time you make a statement like this, try to link it back to something from your studies or work experience, or something you learnt on an open day or similar event.
You can also use this as a way to let the firm know about your skills and achievements. Let’s say you won a prize at university for a coursework essay you did on IP law, you could say: “I am particularly interested in the firm’s IP department, with its focus on patent litigation. I recently completed an extended essay on patents, for which my university awarded me [X] prize. I found it to be a fascinating area of law that complemented my scientific background.” Obviously, you should only do this when it is relevant to the question being asked. Shoehorning your achievements into answers where they are clearly not responsive to the question does not make a good impression.
We hope this article will be a useful resource, but if you’re still unsure whether your applications are hitting the spot, come find us at the TSL Training Contract Surgery.