Winning a training contract: applications and interviews

Discover how you can stand out from the competition
Applications and interviews

Are you filling in an application form, updating your CV, preparing for an interview, or expecting to do so in the near future? We know you're a top candidate who's serious about getting a training contract, so you'll have all the basics nailed - you'll check for spelling mistakes, arrive at the interview in plenty of time, and get the firm's name right (yes, it does happen). But doing these things only means you're not going straight onto the reject pile - reaching the winner's podium rather than the also-ran zone is more tricky than that.

Because we want to help you get up there, we thought we'd find out from some of our contacts at City law firms what you should do to ensure you make the cut. We were keen to find out what they don't like to see in the applications they receive or when they interview people, how you could best answer their favourite difficult questions and, most importantly, what makes an exceptional candidate stand out.

We've considered what they told us, added some observations of our own, and now we present our advice for you to bear in mind when you're completing an application or called up for an interview. Consider these points along with the application basics you know all about, and we think you'll be a medal prospect. Good luck!


Keep your application simple

Diana Spoudeas, recruitment manager at Jones Day, values applications which are easy to read and to understand: "The CVs that stand out for me are relatively short - everything is neatly summarised and clear." Exactly the same principle applies to application forms - keep your answers concise and to the point. Remember this is not just any old application form - you're applying to be a lawyer at a City law firm, and in this job the ability to express yourself lucidly is essential.

Answer the question

It sounds obvious, but make sure you read the questions on an application form carefully and answer them exactly. Don't answer the one you were hoping to see or, worse, paste in an answer from that other application form you did last week. Alison Peyton of the graduate recruitment team at Hogan Lovells says: "A lot of students read a question and think to themselves, 'Oh right - this is the question where I talk about my motivation.' For me, the best forms are the ones where I can tell the candidate has made a conscious effort to think about what that particular question is asking them." If a firm asks you to send in a CV and cover letter, remember that here too you're answering a question - it's "Why should I hire you?" - and you need to make sure that you answer it. Jones Day is one such firm, and Diana adds that students should also not forget to include all the information they're asked to provide, for example, a full exam results breakdown, or references. For more on producing the perfect CV, see page 22 of Issue 31.

Be honest and play to your strengths

You know better than to lie about your exam results, or about what work experience you've done. But also be careful about making statements which while not untrue in the same way, might still get you into trouble. Diana tells us that if, for example, you imply you're an expert on the European sovereign debt crisis, you can expect to be quizzed hard about the finer points of the Greek bail-out, and suggests that you "don't include anything on an application which you can't substantiate - remember an application is your chance to pick some subjects that you want to talk about at interview!" If you're not an macroeconomics whizz yet, it would be better just to say that you've been reading up on the topic to increase your knowledge - or draw attention to another area instead.

Don't tell the firm about themselves

This is a mistake that many people make when they're trying to explain their reasons for applying to a firm. Don't just repeat sentences or list transactions from the firm's website - Diana reminds us: "I know what my firm's website says - I don't need you to tell me." Instead you need to say why particular features of the firm are of interest to you, and why you're suited to training at a firm which has them. For example, what is it exactly that appeals to you about working for a firm with overseas offices? And what experiences have you had that show you could cope with living on a different continent if you were posted to one of them later in your career?

Show some personality!

We don't think you should use silly fonts, or ice your application onto a cake (though it might be worth a go if all else fails). But you should try to convey your excitement about a career at a City law firm in a distinctive and individual way. Don't use tired corporate language; try to write honestly and clearly about what has led you to make this application. Says Diana: "I want a candidate to show their enthusiasm for us in their own words - that they get what we're about, and that a training contract with Jones Day means something to them personally."


Do your homework

You know that a lot of preparation is involved for a City law firm interview. But make sure that you don't forget to go through your application form or CV again carefully - get familiar with what details you've included and exactly what you've said about your career history and personality. While it's one thing to need some thinking time when asked to comment on the latest M&A deal in the news, it's quite another to hesitate when you're asked a simple question about yourself.

Firm commitment

If you've got this far through our law special issue, you must have a pretty good idea of what a typical City firm is like. But in fact, there's no such thing. Every City law firm sees themselves as distinctive in some way - and there are important differences between them. So you must think about not just why you want to be a City lawyer, but why you want to be a City lawyer at this firm in particular - and the interview is often where firms will test your commitment to them. However, your interviewers will expect you to have applied to other firms, but be prepared for them to ask you which ones - your answer will show them whether or not you understand the firm's position in the legal marketplace and whether you know what you want.

The personal touch

If you're told who will be interviewing you, do a search on the firm's website or good old Google. You'll find out their position at the firm and if they're a partner, usually a wealth of information about their expertise, career history and recent deals or cases. We may have interviewed them for an article in The Gateway, so don't forget to check the archive on our website too! Once you have your information, use it wisely to predict what you might be asked or to prepare some targeted questions, especially if one of your interviewers works in an area of particular interest to you.

Be confident, but not over-confident

Confidence is crucial but good candidates like you run the risk of overdoing it. It's important to get the balance right - you'll go in as a trainee, not a partner so you need to show you are talented and capable, but also ready to follow instructions and to learn. Diana says that "we're looking for candidates who are confident, but not so arrogant that they won't seek help when they ought to." Alison likes to see interviewees who are "very articulate from the start", but who also remember to "give me a solid answer to whatever I've asked them."

Save something extra for the interview

Says Alison: "Some students come into the interview and hope that their application form will be enough. Whereas those who have prepared exceptionally well for the interview have thought about some additional examples of where they've demonstrated particular skills. Candidates are often restricted to a certain word limit on a form, so should see an interview as a great opportunity to tell us more about themselves." Also, some time may pass between submitting an application and your interview, so you'll want to tell a firm about anything they should know about that has happened in between.