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KCTL Careers: Common Application Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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About The Author

Krishen Muthoo (Guest Contributor)

Krishen Muthoo is a graduate of LLB Law from King’s College London and Chief Editor at doovice, a website that provides tried and tested career advice for aspiring lawyers.

This piece was written by the Chief Editor of doovice.com, the 'home for law careers advice'.

There’s nothing more disappointing than a bad application from a great candidate, and it happens more often than you might think. It’s easy to get caught up in building great experience only to spray it aimlessly across the page like an overexcited painter. But writing an application, much like an essay, is an art in and of itself – and is often the difference between landing an interview and a receiving a conventional rejection email.

As Chief Editor at doovice, a website that aims to help aspiring lawyers by providing career advice through its articles, I have read swathes of applications and endured my own experiences of both success and failure at the application stage. What becomes clear quite quickly is that a poor application stands out, usually as a result of various textbook mistakes. This article will run through 3 such mistakes and explain how you can avoid them.

Accurate English vs Good English

It goes without saying that correct spelling and grammatical mistakes are indispensable. Writing well is a pillar of lawyering. Nothing more needs to be said on this basic point beyond the traditional dogma: proof-read, then take a break, and proof-read again.

However, there is another English-related peeve that tends to separate good applications from poor ones: accurate English written badly. Even if you haven’t made any grammatical or spelling mistakes, there are ways in which sentences can read poorly, leaving the reader irritated or - perhaps worse - bored.

Long and winding sentences are commonly used when applicants want to pack in a lot of information, even if it’s not necessary, just to bulk up a point, which may be slightly relevant but isn’t always and which takes up lots of space and could easily be summed up in one short sentence which would be much less frustrating to read. Right? Don’t do it. As a potential lawyer you will be expected to write succinctly and fluently, so demonstrate to the firms that you can do so already.

If long sentences are your natural way of writing, don’t fret. Very few people will write flawlessly on the first attempt, particularly when in a stream of consciousness. A good practice is to go over your application after you’ve written it and ask the question – ‘can this sentence be made shorter whilst still making the point?’ – for every sentence. If it can be, shorten it.

It might seem important to include lots of facts in your paragraphs to make them appear smart and bulky. After all, strategically including key names and numbers in an answer gives it an air of credibility. However, remember that facts are not as important as your writing ability. It’s better to have fewer facts in a brilliantly written application than to have a huge mess of words with a gazillion references. Those facts may be meaningless tomorrow, but your innate competencies last. What's more, anyone can look up and copy down facts; demonstrating an aptitude for writing, on the other hand, is not something one can steal from a news article.

On a related note, try to avoid unnecessary words. Words have a specific meaning and shouldn’t be used just to start sentences. A popular victim of this is ‘therefore’. Often the word is used to start sentences even though the point it introduces doesn’t follow logically from the last – which is how the word is meant to be used. Another common situation where this happens is with exaggerative and emotive words - ‘really’, ‘incredibly’, ‘actively’. Words like this often don’t make a difference to the point. Try to use these words sparingly, and only when they add something to what you’re saying.

Relevant research vs aimless facts

In most applications there will be a question about why you want to work for the specific firm or company you are applying to. This is a good opportunity to display all the research you’ve done, but don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that’s the end goal. The crucial part, which is often forgotten, is to ensure you are citing facts about the firm in a way which links back to you.

I’ve seen applications that talk about how high up in a certain ranking a firm is for finance, only to say that this makes the firm appealing to you. But why does that make the firm appealing to you? A good way to assess whether your answers to this question are relevant is to ask:

‘Does this point I’ve made specifically relate to me, or could it apply to anybody who has done nothing but read the firm’s website?’

You should be drawing on your own experiences and interests to explain why certain elements of the firm suit you specifically. For instance, if you cite the fact that a firm has a reputable private equity practice, go on to explain that you’ve developed an interest in that area from your experience at XYZ, for example. This way you are demonstrating a validated interest in the firm, rather than just an ability to research effectively.

You can link these facts to anything that shows a genuine connection to the firm - it doesn’t have to be work experience. Maybe you wrote a blog on an industry the firm has a presence in, or perhaps you have experience trading in your spare time and developed an interest in the stock markets. So long as it connects the firm to you specifically, that’s fine. The idea is that you want to show the reader you have a sincere interest in their firm over others, which suggests you are likely to enjoy a career with them. Firms are not going to be interested in shelling out the large costs of training you if it's clear from your application that you intend to jump ship after the 2-year training period in order to take your talents elsewhere.

Answer technique and mathematical proofs

Answer technique, that old chestnut. The reality is that many people understand the concept of how to answer competency questions but find it difficult to put it into practice. Application questions are often answered in creatively written paragraphs filled with examples of experience. This is partly right. The best way to approach it is like you are writing an argument, or a mathematical proof.

In a mathematical proof you go logically from one point to another, eventually arriving at the conclusion, which provides a solution to the initial question. Approach these questions similarly. What are you trying to prove? This is important to get right before you start typing. You are not just trying to prove that you have done lots of relevant experience. You are trying to prove that you are competent in the specific qualities that firm is looking for. These are usually listed on the firm’s graduate careers page. Once you know these, the paragraphs should be formed like an argument, directed towards these ends.

Let’s take team working ability as an example. Introduce the experience you will discuss in a relevant way. For example, you may start like this:

During my time at ABC I worked with four other interns on numerous litigation projects.

Go on to give a specific example, explaining what you had to do and how you did it. Here you should give details of the actual teamwork undertaken.

Once you’ve done this, you must remember to provide the final proof. Explain how you succeeded in that example, incorporating the exact competency they want to see in their candidates. For instance, you may say that as a result of your ability to work well with different team members you managed to coordinate everyone’s tasks on time and submit the project successfully. Don’t forget to use the word ‘team working’ (or whichever quality they have cited) in your examples.

It’s important to remember that you are not trying to flatter a firm and say that you’d love to work there. You are trying to show that you’ve done serious research and believe you deserve a chance to build a career there. Prove and persuade, don’t plead and praise.

Writing a good quality application takes time. If it means you submit fewer which are up to standard, so be it. With the competition for places at firms being so high, and the general similarities in grades and types of experience, the actual application itself is equally important to get right. Don’t stress about it, just make sure you read it over and over until you’ve removed silly mistakes, it flows nicely, and makes a well written case for your potential as a lawyer at their firm. Rejection is commonplace (and is in no way limited just to the legal industry) so don’t let it dishearten you. Just persist with producing well-written applications and you’ll find yourself closer to your career goals in time.

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Tagged: Legal Careers

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