This is an understandable concern. The top 30 firms in the UK (not including US firms) average between 1500-2000 applications per cycle for vac schemes and training contracts. Smaller firms will receive less but again there are different numbers of training contracts available depending on the size of the firm.
However, just because it is competitive don’t write yourself off from getting one!
Make sure you research the firm to understand what your chances are – for example, magic circle firms may ask for higher grades at A Level and across your degree compared to some national firms. When you apply, apply to a range of firms. Sometimes, people just aren’t suited to big firms and would be better off working at a mid or small level firm – there is absolutely no shame in working at a small or boutique firm. I’m happy to say I didn’t apply to magic or silver circle firms purely because after talking to some trainees I didn’t feel the culture was for me. For some it takes doing a vac scheme to see if a firm is for them, and for other firms they know the kind of candidate they are looking for and so your rejection doesn’t mean you’re necessarily not good enough – just that they’re not sure whether their culture or specialism would suit you.
When you’re applying and interviewing, there are three main things firms want to see:
1. That your English is fluent and you have mastered English spelling and grammar. You will be working with , turning out and comprehending documents at an impressive speed everyday so this is a vital skill. If you are an international applicant, they may ask for you to submit an IELTS score to prove your capabilities, or show you have completed some of your education in an English speaking school or university.
2. That you have consistent grades averaging either a 2:1 or 1st class degree, unless you have mitigating circumstances. Only some firms ask for A Levels now, and more and more firms are allowing for the submission of mitigating circumstances if you have achieved lower than expected in your A Levels or during the course of one of your years at university. Please note, you will be expected to have evidence for this. So, if you had a migraine during one of your exams but didn’t report it or seek medical attention, it is likely they won’t be able to consider it.
3. That you are obviously interested in law. This isn’t as hard as it sounds – but more and more I get people who have decided on a whim to go into law or who are more focused on the paycheck than what the job involves being rejected and wondering where they have gone wrong. It’s really important that you know what lawyers actually do on a day to day basis and show it in your application and interview (note: real life law is, sadly, not like the show Suits!).
If you meet all three of these criteria, then you are just as eligible to apply as anyone else. Don’t write yourself off before you’ve given it a try, and know that rejections are common, lots of people reapply consecutively for years until they get one. It completely depends how committed you are to the job and to showing you have improved in each application.
The biggest myth when applying for TC’s is that you need a first in your degree. Most firms have a minimum requirement of a 2:1, and whilst they like to see 2:1 grades across the board, they are flexible if you have got the odd 2:2 and if you have mitigating circumstances of any kind.
Importantly, most firms use a scoring system, where you are scored on different parts of your application. So, whilst a first would score higher on the academic part, you may score higher in other parts of your application. If you think your grades aren’t the best, then work hard on your commercial awareness, researching the firm and showing why you would make a great candidate. You can pick up points elsewhere even if you’ve dropped a grade or so, so try not to panic about that!
If you’ve retaken exams, that doesn’t mean you are automatically disqualified. Try to make up for the exam by working towards getting good grades in your retakes, and you can put down mitigating circumstances along with your results on any applications.
Commercial awareness can seem confusing, but really all it is about is keeping aware of business and legal news going on around you. You absolutely don’t need to know everything, but I recommend following the progress of a few different stories that interest you each month. Generally at interview they will ask you to share a commercial interest of your choice, and then they will lead with that. As a rule of thumb, make sure to read up on the latest news the weekend before your interview or vac scheme, just to make sure you’re in the know about the latest big pieces of news and developments. Things you will likely be asked about are the main global issues affecting businesses and law firms: think Brexit, the US-China trade war, any major mergers or sanctions that have recently come up. These are the kinds of things they would expect you to know about.
For more information you can read my commercial awareness post about keeping up to date with commercial awareness and the top websites and updates to read.
Did you know that the average age for qualifying solicitors in the UK is 29? This means that there are lots of solicitors qualifying over that age, as well as under. Age is not a barrier at all. I have met lots of people applying for training contracts after working for a few years as paralegals to get more experience, and others who want to become lawyers as a career change after working in a different industry.
With regards to being an international applicant, firms take a lot of applicants from abroad because they are interested in hiring people with knowledge of different countries and languages. It is true that there is a smaller number of firms that take international graduates due to visa requirements and employment regulations, but firms accepting international applications still exist. Your best bet is to research to find the firms that will accept your application, and try to attend careers fairs to find out first hand from the firms. Here is a link to a Burges Salmon article which shares a bit more advice about applying for TCs as an international student/graduate. Remember that international firms have locations all over the world, so check that you’re not better off applying in the country you are a national of, even if it’s just for work experience. This can enhance your TC application when you come to submitting it.