As we enter the summer months, students begin to consider vacation scheme and training contract applications. However, as most candidates know, sending in an application form is easier said than done. Candidates first need to ask themselves:
- Which law firms should I apply to?
- What should I research about each firm?
- How do I research each firm?
This blog article will answer all three of those questions.
Which Law Firms Should I Apply to?
Before you can dig into researching one firm in particular, you first have to research what types of law firms you want to apply to. At a certain level, this is a numbers game. We recommend that candidates submit as many high-quality applications as they can. However, if you have a particular interest or are set on a certain kind of work, you will need to ensure you apply to the correct firms.
You must ask yourself:
- What kind of work would I like?
- What kind of work would I be good at?
- Do I want to train at a regional or international firm?
These initial questions are essential and you should not sweep them aside. For example, if you want to be involved with personal injury or private client work, the Magic Circle or Elite US firms (as defined below) are not the best choices for YOU. However, if you want to be involved with private equity or structured finance, they definitely will be the best picks for you!
Nevertheless, it is critical not to limit your options. You may decide that you really want to do international arbitration. However, this severely limits your choices and may cause you to join a firm that, after your training contract, you decide you no longer want to work at. Many newly qualified solicitors will tell you that they ended up qualifying into a department they never expected to join – they began a training contract at the firm intending to qualify into ‘Department A’ but ultimately found they would be happier in ‘Department B’.
In general, if you are considering traditional ‘Big Law’ firms, you should be thinking of applying to:
- The Magic Circle firms (e.g. Clifford Chance and Linklaters)
- Elite US firms (e.g. Latham & Watkins and Kirkland & Ellis)
- Anglo-American firms (e.g. Hogan Lovells and Norton Rose Fulbright)
- Other high-ranking firms (e.g. Herbert Smith Freehills)
As a start, this should give you at least 15-20 firms to apply to.
Bonus tip: keep track of all your applications in a spreadsheet. Keep track of the firm's name, the application window dates, whether you have applied or not (and its status) and any additional notes.
We also go into further detail on how you should target firms based on your own unique profile in our last blog post: ‘Stop Undervaluing Yourself!’. If the financial draw of elite US firms stands out to you, read our article on whether to follow the money when applying for training contracts.
What Should I Research About A Law Firm?
Candidates often struggle to know what exactly to research when preparing for vacation scheme and training contract applications. Should I research certain deals? Do I need to know who the managing partner is? And – of course – how do I find out all of the necessary information?
We recommend dividing your research into three distinct areas:
- Culture (and miscellaneous)
These areas cover most of what you need to know about the firm in question, and they also aid in assessing the most important (and the least important) bits of information: research about the “work” is of the highest priority, whilst “culture” is of the least.
How Do I Research A Law Firm?
When you are researching a firm’s work ahead of applying for a vacation scheme or training contract, you should be trying to answer for yourselves:
- What practice areas does the firm specialise in?
- What is unique about the kind of work that the firm does in the above areas?
- What are some good deals or examples of that type of work?
- What is my opinion on those deals or examples – why do I find them interesting or appealing?
With this in mind, you can now begin identifying where to uncover the answers to these questions.
First, you should check the firm’s main website and their graduate recruitment website (if they have one). This should give you some ideas of what the firm specialises in. If it does not, or you want some more information, look at the Legal 500 or Chambers practice area rankings. Some top firms will rank highly in many areas, so use this information judiciously and read beyond just the headings. The Legal 500 or Chambers guides will typically have a little blurb about the firm, which will give you a better insight into what the firm itself proclaims to specialise in. Of particular note is the Chambers Student ‘True Picture’ series: this gives an insight into not only the work that the firm does but also its training and culture, which, as we will discuss, is also vital!
Next, you will have to employ your judgement. Within the areas that you have identified as the firm’s specialist practice areas, you must now try to determine what the law firm’s unique angle is. For example, if a firm specialises in leveraged finance, try to determine whether they predominantly work on the sponsor (i.e. borrower) side or the lender side. If, for example, they primarily work on the lender side, what exactly is it about that work that interests you? Why do you want to work for a bank concerning these specific deals?
As part of this, you should think about the firm’s business model and strategy. Why does this firm specialise in “Practice Area A” and specifically take on “Type of Work B” in that sector? For example, some Elite US firms limit their number of international offices and only take on work that has the highest profit margins for the firm. A great example is private equity – many Elite US firms specialise in that practice area because most private equity activity (historically) is in the US and Europe, which means they do not need to expend more resources on hiring big teams in APAC. Do not forget to consider your own opinions – do you think this is a good strategy? What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats involved with the firm’s strategy and business model? How do you fit into all this?
To uncover some of this information, you will need to refer to your research in ascertaining those specialist practice areas. You should look at what the Legal 500 says – do they mention any particular angles the firm specialises in within the practice area itself? Alternatively, you could look at the IFLR 1000 to see their deal history and see whether you can notice any trends.
Once you’ve narrowed down the firm’s specific prowess within a particular practice area, you can then move on to finding some concrete examples. These should generally take the form of some major deals that the firm has completed (preferably recent ones!).
Researching deals should not be a scary task. First, start with the firm’s website. Most large commercial law firms (and small ones too!) put out short summaries of deals they have recently completed (similar to press releases). If you cannot find much information on the firm’s site (or you have found a deal that you want to research in more detail), look at Lexology, The Lawyer, Law360, Law.com, Legal Week, Reuters.com, and Legal Business. Some publishers lock this information behind a subscription service, so do not be afraid to Google a deal (for example, “CD&R’s purchase of Morrison’s”) to see if you can find any information about it for free.
Once you have that information – it is now up to you! Why is the deal interesting to you? What impact does it have on the firm, the market, or both? If you are struggling to articulate the reasons why, you should continue to read around the deal. Some legal or financial commentators may have written some articles on the deal that will give you an insight into their thoughts, which can, naturally, inspire your own opinions.
Ultimately, you are applying to a firm for a training contract. Although you may technically be applying for a vacation scheme, the vacation scheme is only there to serve as a pathway to getting that highly-coveted training contract. As you probably know, these are now more competitive than ever. Therefore, you should expect to show off your research concerning a firm’s training programme. After all, you want to be trained by the firm, and the firm would like to know why!
When you are researching a firm’s training contract, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the seat structure? How many seats are there? Is it a rotational or non-rotational structure?
- Are there any mandatory seats?
- Are there any unique seat choices?
- Is a secondment mandatory? If not, what are the chances of getting a secondment?
- What additional training opportunities does the firm offer outside of the traditional programme?
The best way to begin to research the answers to these questions is to refer to the firm’s website or graduate recruitment website (if they have one). Almost all firms will make the essential information regarding their training contracts public. For example, on Freshfields’ graduate recruitment website, they tell you the number of seats involved (eight - which is unusual) and what the mandatory seats are (one in dispute resolution and two in “global transactions”). There is also some more information on the kind of support you would receive during your Freshfields training contract.
You should expect to go beyond the firm’s website and marketing materials. Once you have scoured those sources and amassed all the information possible, consider reaching out to trainees from the firm you are researching on LinkedIn. There is no better way to understand what additional opportunities trainees have at that firm than asking them yourself! However, please be aware that trainees face an overwhelming number of messages on LinkedIn. Hence, you may have to send multiple messages to multiple trainees – and keep those messages short. Be polite but direct. Here is one example of what a good LinkedIn message might look like to a trainee:
Thank you for connecting with me.
I am currently applying to [Firm X] and would like to learn more about the training and development opportunities offered by the firm. It’s my dream firm and I would hugely appreciate any time you could spare.
Would you be free for a 10-minute call at any time over the next two weeks?
Thank you very much!
If no trainees are available to speak with you (be aware that some trainees will prefer to message you rather than talk over the phone!), try to attend firm-specific graduate recruitment events. For example, some firms run online “insight days”, and others do “Meet the Firm”-style online presentations. Remember, the best way to learn about the firm is if you can secure an in-person open day – if you get this opportunity do as much research about the firm before you go. Then you will be best placed to ask the most pertinent questions on the open day itself and make full use of the experience.
If you have exhausted all of those options or cannot secure the opportunities mentioned above, do not forget Chambers Student. Although this is not a fantastic substitute for the other sources we have discussed, it will provide at least some information on the firm’s training contract – so, at the very least, you do not leave this stage of research empty-handed. However, you must remember that everyone has access to this information. Therefore, you should employ your own analysis when using such generic research to stand out!
After conducting all of your research about the firm’s training contract, you must remember to relate it to you. Why are YOU best suited for this kind of programme? How would YOU use the various development opportunities if you were a trainee?
“Culture” is a challenging term to define. Unfortunately, most candidates think that “culture” pertains to whether a firm is “friendly”. Such a response is vague and honestly irrelevant. Many firms dislike being called “friendly”, “nice” or “caring” by candidates that they interview – they do not want you to get the wrong impression that you would get an easy ride by working there or that they aren’t respected by clients and feared by opponents!
A better way to think about culture is to reflect on the firm’s mentality . For example, what is the firm’s stance on self-development? Would they encourage you to learn another language, gain ‘rights of audience’ or take the New York bar exam? A further example includes situations where you are looking to work in a highly technical area (for instance, you might want to work for Bird & Bird in their life sciences team). See if the firm would support you in taking an additional qualification or supplementary training course whilst you are a trainee there.
The reason for investigating these points is because it says something about the firm itself. You might be someone who is very invested in improving yourself and so be keen on a firm that aligns with your mindset. In a different vein, you might be very focused on sport, music or extracurriculars and look for a firm that would respect your work/life balance.
Believe it or not, many firms do not have all these opportunities, and some firms would encourage you to drop those hobbies to better focus on your work. So if you can demonstrate you have a particular passion (whether that be charitable volunteering, sport, music, languages, self-development, technology and so on), you should research whether the firm can support you with such interests and whether you can contribute to that same culture!
You may be sceptical about discussing these points. However, when candidates talk about culture concerning the firm’s work or training supervision, the answers are generic. All firms are hardworking, all firms provide you with a decent level of supervision and training, and all firms will proclaim to be friendly and open. Hence, you need to look beyond these generic points and research the more quirky or eccentric elements of the firm and see how you would fit in there.
Of course, researching these areas is easier said than done. Whilst the firm will publish some marketing material on its culture, the single best way to understand a firm’s culture is to talk to its lawyers. Much like researching a firm’s training contract, reach out to trainees and associates on LinkedIn as discussed above. Attend graduate recruitment events and presentations, and, if you can, go on an open/insight day. If you know you will have the opportunity to ask questions, do as much research as you can beforehand so you use your Q&A comment to its most significant effect.
Here is an example of a question (without the necessary pleasantries bookending it!) you could ask either at an event or on LinkedIn:
“I have intermediate Python coding skills. Would this be useful for the firm? And if so, what opportunities does [Firm X] offer to encourage its trainees to use and develop their coding abilities?”
This question hits two areas: it gives you a sense of the firm’s training and development opportunities and will provide you with an insight into the firm’s mentality concerning self-development and supporting its trainees’ interests!
It’s worth mentioning again that guides like Chambers Student and lawcareers.net may be helpful to supplement your research. Nevertheless, these online resources are not as good at providing usable information about a firm’s culture compared with its work and training. Culture is subjective, so there is no better evidence for it than first-hand experience (or talking directly with someone who has had that experience!). If you rely too heavily on published written material to evidence your research about a firm’s culture, your answers will sound superficial. Therefore, where you can, get some open days, attend in-person or online graduate recruitment events, and talk directly with trainees and associates!
Additionally, if you end up connecting well with someone at a law firm event, you could ask them whether they would be happy for you to reference your conversation with them in an application. Most people will agree to let you do so and those kinds of references make an application really stand out! Regardless, always remember to connect with people you talk to on LinkedIn – it takes no time at all and it gives you a connection you can draw on later.
As a small aside, international students should also make sure any law firm they are applying to sponsors foreigners for training contracts before they waste time researching and writing an application. Check out our special guide for international applicants for more detail.
Over the course of this article, we have looked at what law firms you should apply to and how to research a firm’s work, training and culture. We have provided you with some guidance on what sources to use and what questions you should be asking yourself along the way to guide your research.
- Submit as many high-quality vacation scheme or training contract applications as you can. Candidates often undervalue themselves and lose out on opportunities due to sending out too few applications.
- Focus on researching a firm’s work, training and culture. These are the core areas on which firms will question you during the application process.
- Begin your research with the firm’s website and graduate recruitment page (if they have one).
- Use sources like the Chambers Global and Student guides, Legal 500, Lexology, The Lawyer, Law360, Law.com, Legal Week, Reuters.com, and Legal Business to research a firm’s work.
- Contact trainees and associates on LinkedIn to learn about a firm’s training and culture.
- Try to attend open days and graduate recruitment presentations concerning researching a firm’s training and culture.
We hope you found this article useful – if you did, please share it with other candidates who might find it helpful!
You can learn more about how we can help you secure a training contract here.
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