The real questions – nailing that application

The JLD is here to help you secure a training contract, giving answers on how to nail your application.

The JLD held its annual “Helping you secure a training position” London forum on 5 October 2019. The event was well-attended and featured speakers on a wide range of topics including networking, LegalTech and overcoming adversity.

With the help of the interactive Q&A platform,, delegates had the opportunity to put questions to the speakers throughout the day. In fact, there were so many questions left unanswered that the JLD Executive Committee has decided to team up with a few of our speakers to provide answers to all your burning questions.

“Nailing that application” is the first instalment of our three-part mini-series, providing useful tips on how to make your training contract applications stand out from the crowd.

“It is hard to exactly pinpoint what a firm is looking for when asking this question, but it is usually so they can get an understanding of you as an individual. Your personality, passions and likes or dislikes.

A CV often just provides information about your education or work experience but doesn't tell them much about you as a person. Often when firms ask this question, they are looking for something of interest, that will set you aside from the other 20 or 30 CVs they have seen which are very similar to yours.

When considering how best to answer it’s worth thinking of something interesting you have done or enjoy doing. Have you had any major achievements, do you play in a band, what are your hobbies outside of the law?

These points will often provoke a conversation about your interests and will give them a much fuller appreciation for you as a person. It's important therefore to choose something you are passionate about as this will shine through when you speak about it.

Always remember though that you are applying for a job so approach this question professionally.”

Adam Hattersley – JLD Executive Committee Member

"The likelihood is, if you are going to pursue a career as a solicitor, you will end up working in an office! Therefore, experience in working in an office means you learn office etiquette.

Ultimately, office work experience is likely to be helpful. However, my view is if you sell whatever experience you have in the right way, it should not make a significant difference."

Oliver Grech – JLD Executive Committee Member

"In terms of a legal CV, each law student's will be different even though you may have taken similar A-levels or modules during your degree. Every person writes and lays out their CV completely differently.

It is about ensuring your CV is tailored for the purpose you are using it for i.e. if you send your CV to a recruiter for a paralegal job, you want to make sure it is short and clear and that the recruiter can access key information efficiently.

Additionally, everyone has different hobbies, interests and will gain different skills through education, personal and working life. It is important to highlight the key hobbies and skills that you are interested in and have particularly developed."

Hannah Bignell - JLD Executive Committee Member

"1. Commercial awareness

Law firms operate like any business. As such, factors like increasing profit and building relationships with clients are crucial for the firm you are interviewing at. You may be able to draw on your experiences, such as operating a business, to highlight your understanding of these factors.

For example, you could explain what you have done for your clients and the positive effect that has had on the business and the client. Also, your business could one day be the client of a law firm – what would you want from your lawyer if you were the client?

2. Time management 

In an interview, it's common to have questions that ask for a situation where you've effectively managed your time. You may be able to draw on your experiences running a business to substantiate your answer. For example, was there a busy period where you prioritised your time to ensure you kept all your clients happy?

Recruiters are looking to see that you can manage the hustle and bustle of a trainee role and giving examples that demonstrate your capability will provide them with the confidence that you are ready. 

3. Leadership skills

Do you employ people in your business? Do you set the vision for the business's future? Such examples can help demonstrate a time you have shown you are capable of taking the lead and can communicate well with others. 

Drawing on your past experiences to answer questions, whether that be at the application stage or interview, will give the recruiter a better understanding of who you are. In turn, your unique experiences will help you stand out."

Callum Reed – Current JLD Student Representative

"This is a glass half-full situation. A previous career will not intimidate anyone; it will have given you useful transferable professional skills and connections.

If you choose to work on the high street (I did, with a previous career in Westminster-based politics) then you will be expected to explain why you have made that decision - whatever your background.

Firms will look at your electives, don’t forget, so if you apply to a high street firm having completed all available modules in international commercial law, they will probably be highly sceptical of your application.

Similarly, completing all criminal law modules and applying to a city firm specialising in shipping arbitration would be strange.

All firms will look for the best candidate for a position, and so if you have previous professional experience which matches with their work and client profile, that’s a benefit to your application; but it won’t be a disadvantage - at worst it will make no difference."

Jonathan Hodge – JLD Executive Committee Member

"It depends on your current stage - whether you are working or in education. The advice that has been given to me is that your first relevant section on your CV, after your personal contact details, is your current status i.e. if you are at university, it will be your results and if you are working, it will be your work experience.

Therefore, the recruiter can see straight away what stage you are at.

After sections regarding your work experience and education (order dependent on the above) you should have a section personal to you. I.e. your hobbies, interests and personal achievements.

It is also important to highlight your key skills and how you have developed them. Be cautious of just listing (I am organised, conscientious, friendly etc.).

Provide evidence that show you are these things: Eg. I managed the accounts for my local JLD group, alongside my studies and part time job."

Hannah Bignell - JLD Executive Committee Member

"Questions that require such a long response can be structured in a similar way to an exam question - with headings and examples.

Pick three or four activities you have done at university, make each one a numbered heading, under each heading explain what you did, what skills you acquired and how it is transferable to working with them.

Similarly, when explaining why you want to work at that firm, pick three or four reasons (size, work type, reputation, awards won, training structure, anecdotal reports, personal experience etc.) and under each heading elaborate on that reason and why it makes them different to competitor firms."

Laura Uberoi – JLD Council Member

"This type of exercise will differ from firm to firm, but think about developing the following:

  1. A great sense of commercial awareness (considering the question or problem from the perspective of the client, not just from a legal perspective)
  2. Time management - as you would do for a university essay, make sure you have enough time to structure your answer in a way that makes sense
  3. Excellent grammar and spelling. (Pretty much goes without saying, but worth continuing to pay attention to it!)"

Eloise Skinner – Associate, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

"You need to ensure that you explain initially why you are applying to that firm/recruitment agency and what you are hoping to get work wise (briefly, e.g. "a paralegal role").

It is then important to explain your current stage and your experience. Have another paragraph which has further details on what you are hoping to get work wise, i.e. in what areas or what type of firm/company.

Final paragraph is why you, which is very important and write what skills you can bring to the table – what differentiates you."

Hannah Bignell - JLD Executive Committee Member

"Research, research…research! The only way you can realistically say what you like about a firm is because you know something about it!

In particular, you should look at whether the firm in question has any particular specialisms. Delve deeper into those and you might find that the firm has worked on a high-profile case which you can mention.

You don’t necessarily have to stick to only the boring stuff, it may be you like the social aspect of a firm, which may have been rated particularly high on the Chambers Student Guide.

It’s all about scouring the website and Google. Plenty of candidates will do this and look at the front page but may not delve much deeper."

Oliver Grech – JLD Executive Committee Member

"In such a competitive environment, firms are looking for strong academic results. If you have failed an exam and had to resit, they may question why. Firms will ask if you have any extenuating circumstances that could explain why you had to resit because of circumstances beyond your control.

Everyone’s extenuating circumstances will be different, but some reasons include long or short-term illnesses, bereavement, or being a victim of a serious crime. The connecting factor is that all have an adverse impact on the student’s academic performance.

It is unlikely a firm will see social mobility issues as extenuating circumstances because it is unlikely to have severely impacted the student’s academic performance in the same way as above. However, firms will take into account contextual issues, such as your social, ethnic, and religious background.

They should use a contextual recruitment system to ensure you are assessed against your non-traditional background when making a decision.

Ultimately, if you had to retake an exam then just be honest as to the reason why – maybe you didn't study hard enough and failing made you realise how much you wanted to succeed and so you studied harder and re-sat (and hopefully obtained a higher mark!)."

Callum Reed – Current JLD Student Representative

"I don’t believe that there is one correct answer for this, as it is different for each candidate. It very much depends on how comfortable you feel disclosing the relevant information and whether your mitigating circumstances can be explained simply.

I would probably opt for the less is more approach and use language such as “family issues”, “medical reasons” and “bereavement in the family” for example. You can then use your interview to go into further detail if necessary."

Leah Caprani - JLD Executive Committee Member

"This will not put you at a disadvantage.

I personally have struggled with anxiety and have put this on my application forms and have not felt that I have been disadvantaged in any way. I think it is always important to declare things because it is not something you should ever be ashamed of.

There is a big push for legal employers to improve the wellbeing of their employees currently."

Hannah Bignell - JLD Executive Committee Member

"On an application form, you want to 'fit the box' as far as possible. Think about what your international qualification is equivalent to in England and Wales and then explain it to the law firm in that way.

For instance, if you have a degree which is equivalent to a law degree, you can explain that you have an equivalent law degree, explain what topics were covered and what grade you received. If the marking system is different, then compare the levels to the England and Wales marking (for instance, First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third).

You can speak to the Solicitors Regulation Authority in relation to qualifications and whether they are equivalent to the required qualifications in this jurisdiction.

Ultimately, if you're struggling with an application form, ring the firm's graduate recruitment team and explain what your qualifications are and ask how they would advise that you best explain this in their application."

Charlotte Parkinson – JLD Executive Committee, Chair

"This is all about practice. At first they can be quite daunting, particularly if you do a practice test and cannot understand how to work out the answer to each question (this is what happened to me).

However, you can find the free exams online which provide guidance and you can also download apps for on-the-go. YouTube videos are particularly helpful as someone takes the time to explain to you how to get the answer to each question.This gives you an idea of the thought process.

Whatever you do, do not take the exam without practice."

Oliver Grech – JLD Executive Committee Member

The JLD’s next “Helping you secure a training position” forums will be held on 3 October 2020 in London.

See Part Two – Lawyer Life for more useful tips.

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