Training contract application questions: tips from the experts

The trials and tribulations of application forms are enough to make any would-be lawyer weep. Ridiculously long forms, unimaginative questions requiring answers demonstrating individuality and prowess in all fields, and online programs with the propensity to crash at any moment can drive you to the brink of insanity.

So to help guide you through this maze, Lawyer 2B asked three graduate recruiters the best way to approach common questions and added our own words of wisdom too.

“Why do you want to be a lawyer?”

Start by asking yourself why you have been asked the question. The more you can get inside the mind-set of the assessor, the better your chances of answering the question well.

“Why do you want to be a lawyer?” is a superficially simple question, although you may want to consider if there are any unwritten elements. For example, does it actually mean ‘commercial lawyer’ rather than lawyer in general?  Once you are confident you understand the question, you can start to formulate your answer.

For a general question like this you have freedom to talk about whatever you want but try to ensure the following:

  • Avoid being overly academic or focusing solely on legal theory. You may have enjoyed studying jurisprudence but how does this relate to becoming a legal practitioner?
  • Make sure your answer is personal and talks about your skills, motivations, relevant experience and short and long term career goals.
  • Avoid platitudes by addressing the specific opportunity on offer to you and what the employer is looking for. This can be ascertained from a competency framework or by looking at the firm’s goals or areas of expertise.
  • Show there is a synthesis between the above – that you and the firm are a good match for one another and can meet one another’s expectations.
  • Remember application forms are often looked at in a negative way – the person reading it is asking themselves: “Is there any reason not to put you through to the next stage?” If you give them a reason to say no they probably will, given the number of applications they get.

Pinsent Masons graduate recruitment manager Edward Walker

Did you miss our webcast on making successful training contract applications? Watch it here!

The ‘show us your personality’ question

Emma Watson
You may admire Hermione Granger but she’s a cliched hero to name in interviews.

Some firms like to throw in a wacky question. If the word ‘wacky’ makes you cringe then you are not alone but unfortunately you do still have to answer the question.

Two firms that fall into this category are Withers and Charles Russell, with the latter changing its question every year and the former traditionally asking candidates to name a literary character they think resembles them.

These questions do have the advantage of breaking the monotony of application forms but they also contain a key challenge – not showing off your unparalleled literary knowledge, but walking the tightrope between not coming across as either boring or weird.

For instance, naming a famous literary lawyer or answering the question “What animal are you like?” with the answer “An elephant because I never forget a point of contract law” is not going to make you stand out.

Similarly, comparing yourself to Patrick Bateman, Humbert Humbert or one of the three witches in Macbeth may not bring those interview offers flooding into your inbox.

Without knowing you, or the question facing you, Lawyer 2B can admittedly give you limited help, but we do have a couple of tips.

The first is a list of boring answers Withers gets every year that you may want to avoid: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (often with Bennet spelt incorrectly), Atticus and Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame.

The second tip is not to name a character from a book you’ve never read but that you think will make you sound clever. Don’t say you’re like Rodion Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment if the closest you’ve got to Russian literature is watching the Sochi Winter Olympics, for example. You never know just how well read your interviewing partner might be.

“Why do you think you are suited to a career with us?”

Although this is asked by all firms, it is clear that some applicants do not put in the necessary research before answering. Strong applicants will research the firm’s key practice areas, international footprint, training programme and culture. This will then allow them to compare their findings with what they want from an employer in terms of their long-term career prospects.

Some example questions to may include: Does the firm undertake the type of work you are interested in? How many trainees are in its intake? How much flexibility will there be in seat allocations? What is the supervisor scheme like? Will you get the opportunity to do pro bono work? This research will help you to visualise yourself as a trainee in the firm and assess how suitable you are.

It is also good to see evidence that you are keeping abreast of current news stories about the firm. Have they recently landed any business with a client that interests you? Is there an expansion phase planned?

There is a great deal of information on firms’ websites and applicants should also read legal publications. The firm’s presence on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn is another good way to find out about current stories and getting a feel for the firm.

Answer in a natural, structured manner. We’re not looking for long-winded answers – it’s about being clear in your communication so that on the first read we can understand how you have linked your career aspirations to what we can offer you.

We recommend personalising your answers and avoiding generic answers that may simply list your skills. Personalised answers are more engaging and help us form a picture of who you are.

Finally, it is worth proof-reading your answer a number of times as grammatical mistakes can be costly.

Berwin Leighton Paisner graduate recruitment & trainee manager Alan Demirkaya

“Discuss a news article that interests you and how it is relevant to the firm”

Newspaper
What you should look like

This question assesses your commercial understanding, motivation to join the firm and analytical ability.

My number one piece of advice, before you even put pen to paper, is to fully research the firm. Go beyond the graduate website – look at the types of candidates the firm recruits and the skills and qualities the firm values in its people. Research the firm’s clients, sectors they operate in, its position in the market, and its strategy.

Only when you have a good understanding of the personality and position of the firm, pick your article.

What you’re looking for is a topic that allows you to show your understanding of the firm. So if the firm you are applying to has a strong litigation or regulatory practice, you could talk about the financial crisis, what it’s meant in terms of the way the financial services industry is regulated and the scrutiny it finds itself under, and then map that back to specific areas of the firm.

You could then look at the implications the crisis has had on the make-up of in-house legal teams and the pressures they face, and again look to reference how the firm you are applying to has adapted its model to meet that need, for example by recruiting lawyers with a higher degree of commercial awareness.

The content and structure of your answer will reveal your analytical ability and show your written presentation skills, so ensure it is clear, concise, well-balanced and logical. As a trainee you will frequently be asked to research topics and give your opinion on the relevance to a case or client, so firms will be looking to see how adept you are at it.

Ultimately, through your answer you will reveal what interests you about the firm you are applying to. I suggest having this in the back of your mind when answering the question.

RPC HR and graduate resourcing manager Kali Butler

“Why should the firm pick you?”

application interview

Firms receive hundreds of application forms so it can often be difficult to differentiate yourself and make yourself stand out.

While it is important to be an individual, this should never take precedent over the overall look and feel of the form. Spelling, grammar and formatting must be perfect and, in this respect, it is as much how you say something as what you say.

Firms want to see individuals who are well-rounded – those who have had consistently good academics but have also managed to undertake work experience and extra-curricular activities. Highlight what you have learnt and how you have developed to show a reflective and mature attitude to your own development.

Ideally firms want to see that you are committed and passionate, so showcase your research into a firm and why you are interested in that firm’s training contract.

Shearman & Sterling recruitment manager Victoria Bradley