Haven't got a training contract yet? 5 common application mistakes that you could be making

Advice from Kaplan Law School's Head of Careers and a personal perspective from a student
Applications and interviews

Getting a training contract is a competitive process and it's not unusual for good candidates to fail initially to win a place at a law firm. But that's not because they don't have the potential to do so. Rather, it's likely to be because they're making one or more of a few common mistakes.

Gemma Baker, Head of Careers at Kaplan Law School, who helps scores of students to training contract success every year, told us what these are and how she helps students overcome them.

The top 5 factors that stop good candidates from getting a training contract

1. Not applying to the right firms

Thinking carefully about where to apply, "is really key," says Gemma. If you don't meet a firm's minimum academic criteria, "there's little point in applying," she says. "You need to apply to a firm that wants you."

The good news is that there are probably plenty out there who do. "Students need to look further afield," says Gemma.

"It's not magic circle or the high street - there are a wealth of really fantastic firms in the UK top 200 that many students ignore."

2. Lack of enthusiasm about a firm in an application

"It's absolutely essential to do proper research and display the results of that research on your application forms," says Gemma. She recommends you make sure you meet firm representatives in person at graduate recruitment events and law fairs, and ask intelligent informed questions to gather in-depth information.

Then use that information on your application form to express real enthusiasm about the firm. "If your form is a bit lacklustre," she says, "why would the firm invest in you?

"Instead, your form needs to be overflowing with well-researched information, and reasons why these aspects of the firm are relevant and meaningful to your career aspirations."

3. Not giving evidence for what you say about yourself

It's not enough to demonstrate in your application that you know what experiences and personal qualities law firms are looking for in a candidate - you also have to show that you have them.

"Often I read applications," says Gemma, "that say 'I'm innovative' or 'I'm organised', but there's no evidence to back it up - it's important to always give examples to prove everything you say about yourself."

She recommends you seek advice from careers advisers and graduate recruiters about the best examples from your personal academic and career history to use.

4. Not preparing enough for interviews and assessment days

For common interview questions, "make sure you have a structure and a strategy for your answer," Gemma suggests. "Plan in advance what you want to mention and practice out loud - it's very rare that you sit down for 30 to 40 minutes to talk about yourself, so you have to put effort in beforehand."

Preparation is also key to success in assessment days, says Gemma. "Often they come down to understanding the nature of the day, knowing what's coming up, and the confidence these bring.

"I would recommend seeking detailed advice from careers advisors and other students about assessment days specifically at the firms you're applying to."

5. Not using the feedback process properly

"If you haven't got through an application process, always ask for feedback," says Gemma. "The vast majority of firms are willing to give it to you."

But once you have feedback, "don't argue with it," as some candidates do, she adds. "You've got to accept that the feedback has been well thought-out as a result of assessing you against other candidates."

And, most importantly, "don't make the same mistakes next time."

How Kaplan can help

GDL and LPC students who arrive at Kaplan Law School without a training contract can access extensive advice and assistance from the careers service there.

In the 2013/14 academic year, 67 students consulted the careers service at Kaplan Law School on a regular basis. Of these students:

  • 36 per cent have a training contract
  • A further 31 per cent have at least one vacation scheme place
  • A further 18 per cent have reached assessment centre or interview stage

Here's how Gemma and the rest of the careers team work with students to achieve these results:

CV and goals review

"The first thing I do is go through their CV with a fine-tooth comb, and generally I find lots of things they haven't put on their applications that they should be talking about.

"I then examine where they want to go and why, and we work out what's achievable."

Employer-led workshops and other events

"Here we have various different talks from firms who come in and talk about their practice areas or application skills.

"I, and other staff in our careers service, also give careers advice talks ourselves."

Ongoing meetings to review applications

"The students I advise sit down with me for an appointment generally every week or every fortnight.

"We go through their applications together until they're absolutely perfect."

Interviews and assessment day preparation

"We offer practice assessment centre exercises, interview preparation, and full mock firm-specific interviews.

"We sometimes video these so students can see their performance."

How I got my training contract

Despite having an excellent academic record and CV, Kaplan Law School student Jenna Plush didn't manage to get a training contract while at university. Here she explains how things changed at Kaplan.

I first met with Gemma in the summer before I started at Kaplan. What really stood out for me in her advice was that she pinpointed exactly where I was going wrong: not targeting my applications enough to the firms I was applying to.

One of the first things I did with her was to think carefully about where I was applying and narrow down the number of firms on my list. I felt Gemma looked at me as a person, was honest about my CV and the firms I was interested in, and gave me lots of insights to help me decide where I might be happy.

Applying to fewer firms made the whole process so much easier because it cut down the research I had to do, so I saved a lot of time and could do more research into the firms that I was really interested in.

Having a clearer strategy about where I was applying and why also helped me write really targeted cover letters. I chose things that I thought made the firm I was applying a cut above the rest and related them to my own career goals.

So I'd say something like, 'I'm really interested in one of your departments and I've recently read about a deal that it's just closed, which was particularly interesting to me for this reason".

My new strategy also meant I was very clear and confident later in interviews when asked why I'd chosen the firms I applied to, and I think that was a really important factor in how I was assessed.

I had a full mock interview at Kaplan, including being videoed. It was awful having to watch myself back, but I did realise what I did from a body language point of view that I needed to be careful of.

Interview training at Kaplan also helped me give more structured responses to questions. By the time I got into real interviews I felt almost at ease!

I also attended an interactive workshop on group exercises at Kaplan that reminded me of important basic points like not talking over or interrupting people.

It also helped me with getting the balance right between not being the really loud person in a group exercise while also not being the one that doesn't say anything.

When I got my training contract, I was elated. I'd worked incredibly hard to get it, so when I did I was over the moon.

Image: Andraes Cappell www.flickr.com/photos/cappellmeister/