First steps on the ladder

Katherine Minford offers a few tips on how to get onto the first rung of the ladder by winning that all-important training contract. Katherine Minford is a recruitment consultant at Cavendish Boyle Confidential Legal Appointments in Leeds.

Graduates face intense competition in securing a training contract with a law firm. Each academic year there are at least three times as many graduates seeking training contracts as there are positions available. So how do you make yourself stand out from the crowd?

Planning your legal career should begin in the first year of university. Firms regard work experience, as well as involvement in the law faculty, as evidence of your commitment to a career in the law.

Securing a summer work placement provides an insight into the operations of a law firm and raises your legal experience beyond the academic. In this respect some of the new universities have a clear advantage over the traditional red-brick universities, in so far as some offer compulsory one year placements with law firms.

Indeed, many firms make offers of training contracts on the basis of performance during a summer placement. If possible try and gain experience with contrasting firms and in various departments. Remember the names of the partners that you worked with and make notes of the various responsibilities undertaken – there may be a year or two gap before attending interviews for training contracts.

Most interviews for training contracts take place just before the third year at university and at the start of your final year. For those not fortunate enough to secure a training contract prior to graduation, two options present themselves.

Either attend law school, with no guarantee of a training contract, or try to obtain work experience in the hope of a firm sponsoring you through law school.

Successful completion of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) moves you one step up the legal career ladder and differentiates you from thousands of graduates applying for contracts. Even if you are not successful in securing a contract soon after leaving law school, you are in a better position to secure paralegal work.

For many graduates however, attending law school with no training contract on the horizon is not a financially viable option. They should consider the second option – that of working as a paralegal – which may even shorten the length of a training contract. However, choosing the paralegal option with the aim of securing funding for law school depends very much on your commitment to the law. It may prove difficult to break out of the work routine and go back to studying upon the offer of a contract.

Selecting which law firms to approach should be carefully thought through. Before applying speculatively or to advertised vacancies, it is important to determine the type of law firm you wish to train with.

It is also important to be aware that a legal scene exists outside London. It is rare that one's attention is brought to provincial legal centres such as Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, never mind general practice firms.

Your aim must be to make your CV stand out so it is not just discarded. A sound academic background does not guarantee an interview. This is in stark contrast to other professions such as accountancy, where one audit partner of a Big Six accountancy practice said: “Can you imagine anyone with a 2:1 from a red-brick university not obtaining a contract with an accountancy firm?”

A sound academic background is merely a prerequisite in law. However, this can be detrimental to candidates with high “A' levels results, who are prevented from crossing the first hurdle by not having a 2:1 degree. Indeed one corporate partner of a large commercial firm in Leeds expressed concern that good quality candidates are not getting looked at because of their 2:2 result. The 2:1 prerequisite is particularly harsh when one considers that there is a difference between someone with a 2:1 from a red-brick university and someone with a 2:1 from a new university. But, however unjust this is, personnel managers must have a dividing line somewhere.

Your CV should be short, no more than two pages – a factual account of personal details, academic grades and work experience. It is futile to mention personal qualities such as “communication skills” or “people-skills” which cannot be ascertained. These qualities can be raised at the interview and backed up with examples.

A good quality covering letter that is concise and simply drafted, alerts the recruiter's attention to the CV. It is important to state clearly that you are applying for a training contract, and ensure that each covering letter is specifically geared to that firm.

The reader will want to know why you have applied to their firm in particular. It is important that your qualities and ambitions correlate with the firm's strengths and ethos. It may be detrimental to your application, for example, if you stress your modern language skills and the firm does no international work. It is important that your address and telephone number are clearly marked on the letter.

Mention that you will be calling in the next few days to discover the outcome of your application. This indicates initiative. The rule of the game when following up applications is to be persistent. Do not be embarrassed by leaving three or four messages that you have called. Even if you do not manage to get through to the decision maker, a message will be left that you called, and when it comes to the decision maker looking through CVs, your name will be familiar.

Should you make contact with the decision maker and it transpires that your application has been unsuccessful, gain as much feedback as possible.

The most important part of an interview is the preparation. Law fairs provide a good opportunity for obtaining company literature and meeting potential colleagues in an informal capacity. Large commercial firms may feature in the Legal 500 or Chambers, while articles in legal newspapers provide information about recent developments.

It is always worth calling personnel and asking for the name of a trainee who would be willing to meet you on an informal basis prior to the interview.

It has been said that a decision as to suitability of the candidate is made within two minutes of meeting. Presentation is thus of the utmost importance. The legal profession is conservative. The best advice would be to dress traditionally giving an impression of sobriety.

It may be argued that the interview for a training contract could possibly be one of your most difficult job interviews. Your experience has been largely academic. You are an unknown quantity in terms of what qualities and skills could be utilised on a practical level. In this respect questions relating to practical skills can verge on the hypothetical, varying from asking you to give examples of when you last showed initiative, to when you last tried to influence someone. Think clearly before responding.

The most important quality to demonstrate at interview is that you fully appreciate that law is a business. You must demonstrate that you would contribute to the growth and development of the business through both technical skills and general commercial awareness.

At the end of the interview take the opportunity to ask questions about the firm and do not forget to ask what the next step will be. Finally if you have enjoyed the meeting and are keen on the position, emphasise this. After all, selection is a two-way process.

Remember that planning your legal career should start in the first year of university and continue through to retirement.