Law firm applications: written applications

Charlotte Hannan, Recruitment Officer at Shearman & Sterling explains what large commercial firms look for in a written application
Applications and interviews

The competition to get into large commercial law firms is tough, and only the very best written applications will win assessment day or interview places.

We asked Charlotte Hannan, Recruitment Officer at global law firm Shearman & Sterling, for her advice on how to make your CV and cover letter, or application form, stand out.

Before you apply

Don't make too many applications

Some students will apply to three firms while others might apply to 16 - there's no hard and fast rule, but you need to be aware that completing a good application does take a considerable amount of time!

Interviewers will ask you where else you've applied and expect you to be able to explain how you've made your shortlist. They want to see you're committed to pursuing a career at a particular type of large commercial law firm, so will look for logic and consistency in your approach.

Start to become commercially aware

Commercial awareness means understanding the financial and business world and how different elements affect each other.

So, in a legal context, commercial awareness doesn't just mean knowing there's been a debt crisis in Greece but is also about understanding the global effects of that crisis and what it means for a law firm and its clients. We need to see evidence in your application that you'd be able to learn to discuss in detail with clients anything that might affect their businesses.

You can start acquiring commercial awareness as a student by reading relevant publications, particularly the Financial Times and the Economist.

When you're reading articles, don't just scan the information but also think about how it will impact other events you've read about, and the impact it will have on the law firms you're applying to and their clients. Commercial awareness is about using a wide range of different sources, putting pieces of information together, processing them and forming your own opinions.

The application

Good grades, work experience, and a clear writing style

You need a consistently good academic record. First year grades count because law firms often recruit students in their second year.

Include all your work experience, not just legal work experience. It's great to see you've worked in a shop or pub because it shows you have customer service experience and good interpersonal skills.

Also put down your extracurricular activities, even if they're non-legal. We like to see your hobbies and interests - it shows you're making the most of your time at university, getting experience of teamwork and building your communication skills.

They're also an appropriate way to show us a bit of your personality. For example, if you're in a white water rafting society it could be a good talking point in an interview that will help you build a rapport with your interviewers.

Finally, your writing style needs to be clear because expressing yourself well in writing is crucial for a lawyer.

Don't make silly mistakes

Being able to write well is hugely important in the legal sector, but students often overlook errors in their applications. I see five or six applications every year with another firm's name or with "Shearman & Sterling" spelt wrongly. We won't consider these applications any further.

We might overlook one or two minor errors elsewhere, but if an application's riddled with mistakes we'll be put off because it's doubtful you have the attention to detail solicitors need.

Focus on the firm and show a real interest in being a lawyer

Applications focused on the firm stand out (see below). The candidates who make these describe in detail what it is about Shearman & Sterling in particular that makes them want to work here, and will have different reasons for each firm they apply to.

Applicants that demonstrate a real interest in working in law also catch my attention. They write about their experiences in a way that shows they're thinking about the skills lawyers need and how they've demonstrated them.

For example, they might give an example of a situation where they improved their teamworking or communication skills, and then link it to their future career as a lawyer.

Why are you applying to Shearman & Sterling?

Here are some ideas for answering this important application question

The clients that I'll work with

As a leading global law firm, Shearman & Sterling has a fantastic reputation across the world and acts for many major international companies and financial institutions, including Barclays, Nokia and Manchester City FC.

I'm interested in finance and corporate law

Shearman & Sterling's London office is regarded as excellent in both of these areas, and you're guaranteed to get plenty of experience of high-level and high-profile work of these types. Project finance is a particular speciality of the London office.

I want to work for a large global firm, but in a smaller office

As a UK trainee at Shearman & Sterling you'll be part of one of the world's biggest law firms, but will also reap the benefits of training in an office of around 70 rather than 700 lawyers, which means more responsibility and more opportunities to get to know colleagues across the office well.