The legal training contract is the final stage in the process of qualifying as a solicitor.
It is a period of recognised training, usually involving two years spent working for a law firm (or other organisation that employs solicitors) under the supervision of a qualified solicitor.
It follows the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and includes the Professional Skills Course (PSC), all of which must be passed to qualify as a solicitor.
From 2021, a new qualifying exam is being introduced: the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), which all trainees will have to pass to be admitted onto the roll of solicitors.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) used to stipulate the terms of training contracts but now, as long as the trainee meets the SRA's competence statement, there is no set format.
- What the Training Contract Involves
- How to Choose a Training Contract
- When to Apply
- The Application Process
- The Importance of Grades
- How to Stand out from the Crowd
- Final Thoughts
- Further Reading
What the Training Contract Involves
What you learn will vary depending on the type and speciality of the firm. You will be expected to gain experience in at least three practice areas, as well developing skills in finance, business, advocacy and communication, as well as client care and professional standards.
These are assessed by the Professional Skills Course, which some firms carry out internally (or you may go to an outside provider to complete).
The training contract is the most popular and usual entry to the profession. There are other options, including apprenticeships, or following the path of becoming a chartered legal executive and then a solicitor by taking CILEx qualifications.
Traditionally, a training contract follows an undergraduate degree and the LPC (with another year for the Graduate Diploma in Law – GDL – if the undergraduate degree was not in law).
It is typically a graduate’s first job, with most trainees in their mid-twenties.
Now, as more people take time out for other academic pursuits, life experience or choose law as a second career, trainees are a wide variety of ages and are unlikely to be starting a training contract as their first experience of work.
How to Choose a Training Contract
Finding a legal training contract that suits you can be an elongated process.
The largest firms require applications two years in advance; this will usually be before you have undertaken the LPC or even graduated. Often these firms will dictate where and when you take the LPC.
Other applications will be made both after graduation and after taking the LPC, but still two years in advance.
Choose the Type of Firm That Suits You Best
Before you begin applying for a legal training contract, you need to do your research and decide what kind of firm you want to work for.
Practising family law in a small regional firm will be very different from handling billion-pound mergers and acquisitions.
If you have no interest in the corporate world, be realistic and don’t apply to corporate firms. If corporate law is what you've always dreamed of, most applicants start by considering the so-called ‘Magic Circle’.
This is the informal name for London’s five most prestigious law firms (widely accepted to be Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May), before considering other tiers of firms.
Broadly, law firms fall into the following categories:
- International firms
- Major city firms
- Medium city firms
- National firms
- Regional firms
- Specialist/niche firms
- High street
- In-house legal departments of corporates and large organisations.
The Government Legal Profession and the Crown Prosecution Service also offer training contracts.
Think about the culture of the firm/organisation in question and whether you would fit into it. Don’t let glossy websites or brochures sway your judgement.
The best way to find out what is right for you is to embark on work experience, work shadowing or, for the larger firms, a vacation placement.
Recruiters and HR at top law firms see the benefits of experience as unrivalled.
Work experience helps you to get a practical insight into the job and company culture. It helps you learn what’s right for you by working with different teams, social groups and in specialised work areas.
A vacation placement is a paid internship at a law firm, usually for two to four weeks.
Securing a vacation placement can be difficult, as they are highly sought after, and the process is very competitive. Sometimes there can be thousands of applications for fewer than 20 places.
For this reason, firms are very interested in candidates who have been accepted onto this kind of work experience. It shows that you have something special to offer and, above all, that their rivals (if you’ve done work experience at different companies) are interested in hiring you.
Find out About the Firm You Are Applying To
It's important to know what's happening right now within the firm you’re applying to.
Some firms hold open evenings or insight evenings, which you should endeavour to attend.
If a firm is in a phase of expansion, it's likely to be a more dynamic and exciting place to work than one which is downsizing and losing clients.
Search for press coverage to see if there is anything significant to note when you are thinking about your applications.
When to Apply
The majority of firms allocate training contract places two years ahead of commencement. So if you are a law undergraduate, you will usually be looking to apply for training contracts between your second and third years at university.
Not all firms have the same deadlines, even if they work two years in advance, so it is essential to diarise the deadline dates of your preferred firms.
Smaller national or regional firms, niche firms, high-street firms and in-house legal departments may work two years in advance, or they may recruit as and when required.
As such, it's worth keeping on top of recruitment boards and the websites of your preferred choices, to ensure you don't miss an opportunity.
The Application Process
The application process for different firms will vary.
Many require an initial enquiry email to a specific email address to begin the process.
Applications at the largest firms involve completing and submitting an online application.
All firms will require details of academic qualifications and work experience/history. Some applications will require candidates to answer additional questions.
Firms will receive hundreds of applications per place, so it is vital that each application made is tailored to the specific firm.
Successful applicants might be invited to assessment days and then several interviews.
The Importance of Grades
Each individual firm will have an academic benchmark. Some application processes will ask you for confirmation of A Levels and even GCSE grades before allowing completion of the application.
It is important to be realistic about your likelihood of success before spending hours making applications.
If you are completing the application process before you have taken your final exams, you will be asked for your first- and second-year grades.
If you are applying after graduation and you have a 2:2 when the firm requires a 2:1, get in touch with the recruitment department before making your application and explain your circumstances.
Get your personal tutor from university to confirm your situation, and use any other collaborative sources of evidence that you can find.
Law firms are not heartless and do understand that there are sometimes extenuating circumstances. Furthermore, law firms want to interview the brightest candidates.
Academic qualifications are important but so is commercial awareness and work experience.
Recruiters understand that there may be times when the best candidates are affected by issues outside of their control and may consequently underperform.
If you have other grades, qualities and attributes to back up a lower degree grade, you may still be called for an interview.
On the other hand, if you do not have the best university grade, it might be a better idea to adjust your sights and apply to a wider variety of firms.
You could also spend time improving your commercial awareness and carrying out work experience to enhance future applications, and better tailor your skills to your chosen firm.
Continually making unsuccessful applications is not motivating – you will need to choose whether to make your applications ‘better’, or change the type of firms you are applying to.
How to Stand out from the Crowd
Successfully acquiring a training contract can be a challenge.
Competition is fierce, particularly for the biggest and most lucrative firms. Even when firms are looking for top grades, there can be little on paper to separate candidates.
Make yourself stand out by:
- Drafting a well written and thoroughly researched application. Tailor this to the firm or organisation in question, demonstrate your legal knowledge and show a genuine desire to work there.
- Using extracurricular activities to your benefit. Anything you do that is supplementary to studying shows that you are willing to learn new things and have additional skills to offer. For example, your extracurricular activities can evidence your organisational or teamwork skills.
- Get work experience and network with lawyers. Apply for vacation schemes or other internships; get involved with pro-bono or other legal charities; participate in moots and debates; and shadow lawyers and attend networking events organised by your department, law school or other legal interest groups.
- Read and develop your knowledge. Deep knowledge – not just of the law but of business generally, including economics and politics – will be a big plus. Understand how things work in business and how the legal profession fits into that.
Getting the training contract and qualifying as a solicitor starts with the application process.
Most people find it drawn-out and time-consuming, especially as it may commence before you have finished your undergraduate degree. You may not be certain where you wish to study, live and work in the future, or what kind of work you are really interested in.
Law firms are aware that it is difficult to both differentiate between firms, and also to make yourself stand out from others before your degree is finished.
An organised, methodical and well researched approach to applications will give you the best chance.
Applying yourself to acquiring commercial awareness, sound business knowledge and legal experience – while also achieving solid academic grades – will give you a head start in the application process and for life as a lawyer.
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