The odds of making a career out of being a professional footballer are astronomically low. The competition to turn professional is fierce, and the reality of not making the grade can be somewhat brutal. In many ways, parallels can be drawn between the hunt for a professional contract and the hunt for a training contract. 

Training contracts are immensely difficult to obtain, even polished candidates with perfect academic track-records struggle. This begs the question: How should candidates approach training contract applications and interviews if they have an imperfect academic track-record? 

My background meant that I had to overcome this particular obstacle when seeking a training contract. At school, everyone else was diligently studying for their GCSEs and A levels. Meanwhile, I was plying an entirely different trade. Like so many, I wanted to be a professional footballer and I was fortunate enough to receive the opportunity to represent professional football clubs at youth level during my early academic studies. 

I gave my pursuit of a football career absolutely everything, but this came at a cost: I largely – and naively – neglected my early academic studies as I held a genuine belief that I was going to become a professional footballer. I had also never considered going to university at this point.

But after persistent injuries and a loss of confidence/form, I came to the conclusion that becoming a professional footballer was an increasingly unlikely prospect, so I took the difficult decision to walk away from football and reinvent myself.

I decided to re-take my A levels and eventually went on to read law at university. I chose to study law as the football club I support – Leeds United – had been beset by countless financial difficulties since the millennium, while the collapse of the Lehman Brothers also triggered an interest in the financial world more generally. 

Alex SprakeAfter starting my degree, I became aware of vacation schemes and training contracts, but thought that my imperfect academic background would serve as nothing more than a hindrance in my attempts to secure a training contract. I was determined for this not to be the case, though.

I was mindful of the fact that professional football and law are completely different professions, so I set out to obtain work experience as early as possible. I wanted to see for myself what working in a large global law firm was like before spending time applying for formal vacation schemes.

I also thought that it was important to gage what people thought about my background. Having interacted with a few firms in the first few months at university, I identified lawyers at those firms who practised in areas of interest and – somewhat audaciously – wrote to those lawyers explaining my background and even sometimes asking for informal work experience. 

This was the single most important thing that I did at university as it showed that I held a serious interest in pursuing a legal career. I was fortunate enough to receive positive responses and gained some very useful informal work experience in the process. People were receptive to my entrepreneurial approach as well as my alternative background, which provided a huge confidence boost at the time. 

As I moved into second year, I started to think about vacation scheme applications. I continued to place emphasis on networking and regularly attended law firm recruitment events.  At this point, I had managed to achieve a strong set of first year results and was elected to the position of Treasurer for the law society, a role which gave me additional opportunities to interact with firms. 

Wherever possible, I exchanged details with firm personnel and would endeavour to make contact the following day. Networking heightens the chance of someone from the firm remembering you and this can make a big difference when applying for vacation schemes/ training contracts, especially if you have a slightly complex background that may be difficult to convey on a one-dimensional application form. It is also important as it demonstrates an understanding of how to build relationships, even if on a very basic level. 

Given that it is remarkably difficult to convey a complex background story along with any reasons for underachievement on a one-dimensional application with a word limit, it is important to be as succinct and clear as possible when putting an application together. It is often said that first year results do not count – and while that may be true, for anyone with a history of academic underachievement first year grades are a chance to say “look at what I’m capable of despite my slow start”. This was the very point I sought to make, along with the fact that I was tenacious and resilient enough to bounce back from sporting disappointment. 

Candidates who have done something different also need to show how their non-law experiences set them apart from other candidates and add value to the firm that they are applying to.  Equally, as in my case, if candidates have underachieved or made mistakes confront this and show firms how you have responded. In my first vacation scheme interview, I was reluctant to do this but in later interviews I was far more direct, true to myself and ultimately successful.

After much hard work, I eventually graduated with a first class degree and secured a training contract with a large commercial law firm. With the benefit of hindsight, setbacks can be a springboard to success. My unconventional background actually enabled me to differentiate myself from other candidates.

Alex Sprake is a graduate of the University of Manchester and started as a trainee solicitor at Jones Day in September 2016.