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Law Firm Application 101: Maximising Your Return

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About The Author

Chris Bridges (Executive Editor)

Chris is an IT and Data Protection solicitor at a top 20 full service firm and the founder of Keep Calm Talk Law. He also contributes to Computers and Law and other sector specific publications.

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At times, law firm applications can feel like somewhat of a lottery. What is it that sets two applicants apart, who at face value are both worthy of a vacation scheme or training contract?

This question is not an easy one to answer definitively; yet with vacation scheme application deadlines fast approaching, I have put together some advice based on my experience of securing a training contract.

This article is broken down into four areas, which can be browsed to directly with the links below:

Application & Online Assessments
Assessment Day


Given that the process of applying to law firms can feel like a lottery, nobody can blame you for thinking that the best way to maximise your return is to throw in as many applications as possible in the time you have available.

Whilst this is true to some extent, it is really applying the infinite monkey theorem: if you allow a monkey to hit random keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, he/she/it will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare.

This is of course very farfetched; yes, it could happen, but in reality, it will not, or if it does, you and your bloodline will most probably no longer exist. Nevertheless, it is a useful metaphor to apply here.

How do you avoid being a monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter?

Choose wisely.

There is little point in applying to a law firm to which you feel no connection whatsoever. Whilst you may think you can fake passion for the firm by reciting their Corporate Social Responsibility goals, human resources will in more cases than not see straight through this at application stage. If you do fool them here, it will undoubtedly come through at first round interview, and definitely will by partner interview.

Spend a day or two before starting your applications combing through law firms. Start with the ones you are familiar with. This may, for example, be a firm you have spoken to at a career fair and really enjoyed speaking to.

Alternatively, think, what is your personality like? Would you be happy working somewhere that the trainees all seemed like disinfected whiteboards? Certain firms have a reputation for being very black and white. If this is you, then apply to these firms first. If it is not, it is probably best to avoid these firms.

I learnt this the hard way, when I was criticised for turning up to an assessment day/interview wearing a non-white shirt. It was pale blue, with a very thin white stripe, by no means a loud Hawaiian number. I have nothing against white shirts, but I would not want to work somewhere where the slightest bit of colour is considered too much personality, so in that regard, I am glad they pulled me up on it. However, it was wasted time and effort.

A connection with a firm could be a little more indirect. Is there a particular case, settlement or deal you have been interested in? Who instructed the counsel involved, or who negotiated the deal or settlement on behalf of the successful party?

These things, whilst small, give you something to build on. There is no substitute for genuine passion. One of the most common compliments I receive is my radiant passion for Keep Calm Talk Law. You want this same effect for the law firm you are applying to. It will go down a treat at interview.

Hopefully you managed to identify four or five firms that you have a genuine passion for. I shall call these your ‘optimum firms’. Be sure to do these applications first, and be sure to put a good deal of effort into them. If you finish it in half a day, you should probably go back over it.

If you have time, apply to few more. However, take just as much time and care over them, and try to find a genuine reason to like them. If you find yourself despondently applying to firms, it is probably time to stop, at least for now. Take a few days’ break from applications, and find that passion before starting to type again.

Do not become resolute on a certain practice area

Unless you are applying to a very niche firm, it is not advantageous to focus on one practice area. Full service firms like trainees with open minds on where they want to qualify.

This is not to say you cannot show a passion for a particular area of their work, but be sure to show interest in a few of their other practice areas.

I also learnt this one the hard way, receiving similar feedback from a number of firms. This was a waste of an entire ‘season’ of applications.

The Application

There is little to say here without repeating what is stated in numerous other locations on the internet. I do, however, have one point to add. Be sure to attend an open day or at the very least speak to someone from the firm, particularly for your ‘optimum firms’. This may give you that extra edge in figuring out what the firm is about and what they are looking for.

Alternatively, look out for interactive sessions on social media where law firms have your questions answered, by either human resources, or current trainees.

Commercial Awareness

This is worthy of an entire article in itself, and to that end, be sure to check back in December for an article entitled ‘Commercial Awareness: defining the undefinable’. It may be worth signing up for a free subscription so you do not miss it.

An important note: commercial awareness is just as important for applicants aiming for non-commercial firms. A non-commercial firm is a business as much as any other firm and you will be expected to have a grasp of fundamentals.

Online Assessments

Assessments are a key part of a number of firm’s application processes. You will quite likely sit assessments online as part of the first sift, and again when you attend an assessment day.

You may well be thinking, ‘but there is nothing I can do but try my best’. Wrong. There are things you can do to maximise your mark, even if by a few percent. It is worth it. Most firms will invite less than 10% of applicants in for second round (whether that be interview or an assessment day). If your assessments are below the 90th percentile, you will be marked down (or not up, where other applicants are).

Whilst these assessments are trying to benchmark your intelligence, there is, as always, a certain degree of procedure to them. Therefore, familiarity pays off. If you have practiced something several times, you could be at a significant advantage to the applicant that just does the one readily available practice assessment.

This could be the difference between negative marks, and several marks in your favour.

So, what do you do?

There are resources available at very reasonable prices that are well worth investing in. Job Test Prep is one of the leading providers of practice assessments. The most common tests are typically verbal reasoning and numerical reasoning tests, which are particularly worth practising. These particular tests bought together from Job Test Prep come in at under a pound a test, for 50+ tests.

Some firms also ask you to sit situational judgment tests and Watson Glaser Tests, the latter of which is also particularly worth practising if you have to sit one. If you decide you want practice at either of these as well as the verbal and numerical reasoning, it may be worth purchasing the full package.

This is a relatively small investment for the difference it could make. Do not leave assessments to chance. Be sure you are well practised. This advice is relevant even if this is not your first round of applications; a refresher could make the difference between proceeding to the next round or not.

The Assessment Day

As well as re-runs of tests sat online, or additional aptitude tests, you will have to conduct a number of other assessments designed to assess your ability to perform in a law firm.

This will vary from firm to firm, and would be impossible to cover each. However, I can give some general advice as to how to maximise your chances.

Keep a cool head

One of the worst assessments for me personally was being passed a great big bundle of documents, and being asked to provide a note of advice based on these documents in just 40 minutes. We were told that shortly after this, we would have to present our findings. It was clear that there was far more material than you could possibly consider in full. It was enough to make your brain melt; and this was half of the assessment.

Assessments such as this are designed to find out a number of things, including:

  1. Can you quickly identify pertinent bits of information and prioritise them given the small amount of time available. This is intended to imitate practice, and in a business setting is partly to do with commercial awareness;
  2. Can you keep a cool head when working under pressure, or do you get frantic, and end up doing a shoddy job?

If you go to an assessment day expecting something like this, you will be ahead of the game. If you start this assessment knowing in the back of your head that the volume is not a big deal if you take a methodical and common sense approach, you will be even further ahead.

Take five minutes to browse over the documents, and flag those that you believe are most important. You will not get marked down for undoing the staple, by the way. A simple tip, but a useful one nonetheless.

Do not be a loud mouth

It is quite likely you will have to take part in some kind of group activity. When you are asked to work as a team, this is what they are expecting. Do not be the guy or girl that tries to get one over on the rest of the team; if you do you are going to fail that assessment. Work collaboratively. Yes, provide the group with your opinion, but put it across in a measured way, and listen to others.

Compromising is not failing in these assessments. Coming to a measured group decision is the expected outcome. Coming to a group decision in an amiable manner, but more in favour of your propositions, you have nailed it.

On the other hand, if you come across too quiet, you are unlikely to achieve highly in this type of assessment. It is about finding the balance between putting across your opinion, and listening to others.

Not being a loud mouth applies equally to adversarial debates. Be courteous to your opponent. A well thought out question that he or she struggles to answer after his or her submission will do a lot more damage to their argument than a snide remark. Besides, it is just plain rude, and on the whole would not be tolerated in the work place, despite what the hit US TV series ‘Suits’ might suggest.


An interview with human resources may be rolled into your assessment day; your assessment day may come after a human resources interview. You may have an assessment day, and then proceed straight to partner interview on another day without passing go and collecting £200, or you may have assessments, human resources interviews and partner interviews all on the same day. This all depends on the firm.

Regardless of format, the same advice applies.

Know your worth

You have convinced the firm that you are 90%+ better than other applicants. So why be nervous? If you go into an interview paranoid about saying the wrong thing or not being liked, you will not be focused. Everyone gets interview nerves, and they are often healthy, but make sure they are not excessive.

I find that for any face-to-face pressured situation the best thing to do is to tell yourself that you are not too fussed about the outcome, at least to begin with, or right up to the moment the door opens. You have other applications pending, you may well have other opportunities. This is one of many. If not this ‘season’ then next.

This helps me find my feet in the first few minutes. Once I am comfortable, my passion starts to come out.

Everyone has different coping mechanisms. I believe this to be a particularly strong one; it has always worked for me, despite previous anxiety issues, which I am glad to say I am now over.

You must remember that if you are still at university or a recent graduate, you are competing with people many years your senior. If you are committed to law, do not be afraid of waiting a year or two extra. That said, if you land a training contract in second year, job well done!

Be passionate

This is where my opening remarks about finding right firms really come into their own.

Know the firm, and know why you want to work for them. This almost certainly should not be their corporate social responsibility schemes. By all means, mention them so they know you have done your homework, but do not make them the reason you are applying.

How measured you are will depend largely on the firm and your audience within that interview. This is for you to gauge.

Get this right, especially in a partner interview, and the rest of the interview will go swimmingly.

Make a connection

Whilst human resources interviews are generally very procedural and competency based, partner interviews offer an opportunity to show your personality.

Make a connection early on, and you will more likely that not have the partner on side. It is often said that an interviewer makes up his mind, perhaps without knowing it, within the first few minutes of a conversation.

Work the room

If it is a panel interview, do not focus on one panellist. Even if the others seem to be mere observers (with one doing all the talking), get your body language right. Pay equal attention to each of them. Flick between each of them when you are giving your answers.

It comes back to the above: you want a connection. If a panellist feels ignored, this does not bode well.


Leave the interview on a good note. Ask some interesting questions, preferably that have arisen from conversation rather than rehearsed, and be sure to thank the interviewer(s) for the time they have given. If the weekend is approaching, wish them a happy weekend. Personal touches.

The interview is not over until you have been seen out of the room. Just before or as you leave presents one last chance to ‘seal the deal’. Show your interest, even if it is just by saying you look forward to hearing the result.

Next Steps

I wish you the best of luck with your applications, and I hope this advice has been useful. Be sure to check out Job Test Prep for practice assessments, and to sign up for a free email subscription to Keep Calm Talk Law; we will be publishing a number of articles on applications over the coming months, including the aforementioned article on commercial awareness.

Have something to add, or a question to ask? Please comment below or tweet to @KeepCalmTalkLaw and @chrisjbridges.

Further Reading

Commercial Awareness: Defining The Undefinable

Oil Prices and Your Commercial Awareness

The Many Forms of A Law Firm

The Biggest Challenges Facing The Legal Profession In 2015

For the latest articles straight to your inbox, you can subscribe for free. Alternatively, follow @KeepCalmTalkLaw on Twitter or Like us on Facebook.

Tagged: Legal Careers

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