Stop Undervaluing Yourself!

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Next City Lawyer
May 20, 2022
[time to read]
min read

Applying to the Best Law Firms

Candidates applying for vacation schemes and training contracts are increasingly being told to ‘manage their expectations’. Every application cycle, more and more candidates join the pool of prospective trainee solicitors who fight for fewer graduate law jobs.

Candidates are tempering their expectations and attempting to game the system by applying to smaller, lesser known firms in the hope that this will improve their odds of attaining a training contract. Some students may even believe that they are not good enough for the bigger, more prestigious firms. After all, it is hard to believe in yourself when your LinkedIn and Instagram feeds are flooded with candidates who boast about their latest achievement or endeavour…

The result is that candidates who are, for example, of “Magic Circle quality”, end up not applying to those firms. Instead, either as a result of undervaluing themselves or trying to play “the numbers game” (as explained below), they apply to firms which do not match their ability or genuine interest.

We are not suggesting that ‘smaller’ firms are necessarily worse than the Magic Circle, or the Elite US behemoths. Rather, we are encouraging candidates to apply for what they actually want - whether that’s prestige, pay, culture or quality of work - and not underestimate their own potential.  

This blog post is designed to:

  1. help you to see the best in yourself and value yourself accordingly;
  2. encourage you to apply to the best law firms for you and raise the standard of your applications;
  3. prevent you from becoming disillusioned with a career as a commercial solicitor; and
  4. show you how to harness any rejection you face along the way.

Training Contract Applicant Numbers Don’t Count

The primary reason why strong candidates do not apply to the best firms is because they believe that fewer candidates will apply to other firms whilst the majority will apply to the top ones. At first blush, this makes sense – everyone knows about Clifford Chance or Latham & Watkins and how prestigious they are. It therefore seems logical that the majority of candidates would want to work there and apply there. If that is the case, then to maximise your chances of success (on a purely statistical basis), you should apply elsewhere – perhaps to a smaller high street or national firm which fewer individuals know about or would want to work.

However, this view is misguided. If many candidates think like this, then those smaller firms will also become oversubscribed and face a similar number of applications per place. Suddenly, that statistical advantage you thought you had vanishes. Let’s take a real life example:

White & Case offers 50 training contracts per year and receives around 4,500 applications per year. This seems reasonable: White & Case is a large, prestigious commercial law firm. It can offer more vacation schemes and training contracts, but it will also receive a larger number of applications. Your purely mathematical probability of getting a training contract at White & Case (according to these figures) is 1 in 90 (a 1.11% chance).

Okay, those odds seem tough. So, let’s look at a smaller firm.

Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) offers 18 training contracts per year and according to the same data by Chambers Student receives around 1,800 applications per year. RPC is a mid-size national law firm so it gives out fewer training contracts but receives fewer applications - that all makes sense. Your purely mathematical probability of getting a training contract at RPC (according to these figures) is 1 in 100 (a 1% chance)…roughly the same as if you applied to White & Case.

This is not only true for RPC, but also for other national law firms like Russell-Cooke. The firm is said to offer 12 training contracts and receives 1061 applications per year. Your odds? Approximately 1 in 88 (a 1.13% chance)…almost identical to White & Case again.

We are not saying this will be true for every firm – comparisons and data can be used in different ways to demonstrate different conclusions. However, unless you insist on crunching the numbers on each firm you want to apply to, this strategy of aiming lower on the basis of statistics alone is dubious.

In the above examples, you would have been better off applying to the more famous, more reputable firm – you had the same mathematical odds of getting in, yet the reward was substantially higher.

However, even if you did crunch the numbers and discover the perfect set of firms with the highest odds of getting in, the following section will explain why it is still a bad strategy.

The Human Factor

Simply put, just because there are fewer applicants per training contract spot does not guarantee you a higher chance of success.

The main reason is that if you apply to a firm purely on the basis of ‘better odds’, the firm in question will not find your application convincing. Whether your true motives are uncovered at the application stage, or at the final interview stage, the law firm will eventually discover that you are not actually passionate about working there. Here’s an easy hypothetical example that demonstrates why:

Say you are really interested in international arbitration and want to make that your chosen area of specialism – the firms that would best suit you might include Herbert Smith Freehills, White & Case, and Skadden. However, you may be concerned that these firms are very competitive for training contract offers. So instead you apply for mid-market or national firms. But these firms do not have international arbitration departments…

When you apply to these other firms, you will then have to come up with reasons as to why you want to work there. You may have to try to convince a firm that you actually like private client work or are interested in pensions (boring!).

There are two consequences of making such a falsehood. The first is that the firm will be unconvinced: you are not likely to have any experience in the areas that the firm specialises in (rather, your experiences and interests will be directed more towards international arbitration and those surrounding practice areas). The second consequence is that, even if you do get a training contract at that firm, you will not be doing the work you actually want to do. And, whilst it is possible to move firms post-qualification, you will find it incredibly hard to leapfrog from Shoosmiths’ family law department to Skadden’s international arbitration team.

This means that although the odds of getting into Firm X are better than getting into Firm Y, your personal suitability for the firm will raise or lower those odds substantially, such that you would be better off applying to Firm Y in the first place.

This Is Personal

The key takeaway from this discussion so far is that you must put any thoughts about probability out of your mind. There are many more factors at play which determine your chance of your success (with many of them being out of your control).

When it comes to applying to law firms, odds and chance of success should not be an influencing factor on which firms you choose. Instead, it is crucial that you understand yourself, what you want and what the ceiling of your abilities is. Irrespective of the odds, if you believe that you are suited for a career at a top commercial law firm, then you should go for it. Yes, you will face rejection, but that is not a product of the odds or a reflection of your value. Instead, the reasons for rejection are often multifaceted and can be overcome.

And it’s worth remembering that not all candidates are suited for the top commercial law firms. In fact, you may be incredibly able, and be better suited to a Womble Bond Dickinson environment than a Latham & Watkins environment. What we are encouraging, as discussed in the next section, is that you apply to the firms at the top end of whichever bracket you feel most suited to (in respect of ambition, comfort and type of work).

Know Your Self-Worth

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it can be hard to recognise your own worth when applying to commercial law firms. Application forms ask personal questions and will ask you to ‘sell yourself’. This is not an intuitive thing for many people – it can be awkward to ‘brag’ about your achievements or claim how great you are.

Nevertheless, social media feeds are filled with individuals who humble-brag about their grades, open days, vacation schemes, training contracts and a variety of other accolades. This is an intimidating thing to see as it gives the appearance that everyone else is getting ahead and succeeding whilst you are not. Couple this with some application rejections from law firms and you would be forgiven for feeling insecure and defeated.

Candidates who have been unsuccessful for several cycles will feel this most strongly and are the most likely to aim lower in their attempt to secure a training contract at any cost. This can eventually lead to disillusionment with the career as a whole as you begin to feel that the career is suited to everyone but you.

We are here to say that this does not have to be the case. Whilst we recognise that sharing and celebrating the achievements of others is a good thing, we also know how hard it can be on those who have, up to that moment, remained unsuccessful. However, that should be no reason to lower your standards. Even if you are rejected from the best firms, you may still receive feedback from them (e.g. if you are rejected at the assessment centre stage or fail to convert your vacation scheme to a training contract offer). This feedback is substantially more valuable than a vacation scheme or a training contract at a “less good” firm that, ultimately, you do not want to train or work at. It really will pay off in the long run.

Candidates are often rejected because their application writing technique requires improvement or because they were caught out by a rogue question at the final interview. Whilst those are reasons for a rejection in that specific instance, they do not indicate that the candidate is ill-fitted for the firm. In fact, we know of candidates that were rejected from a top firm on their first application round but then received a training contract offer from the same firm  in their second round. One application outcome does not define your value and your value is never set in stone – you can improve yourself and learn how to communicate your worth better each cycle (especially by actioning any feedback you have received!).

The Journey, Not the Destination

It is a cliché to say ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’; however, there is some truth to it. The commercial law firm application process is designed to test, amongst other things, your verbal and written communication skills, your charismatic and persuasive abilities and your intelligence. Whilst the process is designed to examine you in these areas, you may benefit from seeing the process as an opportunity in itself to develop said skills, abilities, and intelligence. For example:

  1. Writing application forms strengthens your written communication skills and will improve your ability to be concise.
  2. Completing situational judgement tests and critical thinking assessments (i.e. Watson Glaser), will hone your problem-solving and analytical skills.
  3. Participating in assessment centre activities, like a case study/presentation exercise, will develop your public speaking skills.
  4. Interviewing will strengthen your interpersonal skills and your confidence.

So whilst you may not secure a training contract when you apply to one firm, that does not mean the time you spent applying and going through their various application stages was wasted. On the contrary, it can act as a catalyst for personal development which can be applied not only in your quest for a training contract but also in your personal endeavours.


In this article, we have discussed the problem of candidate’s lowering their standards in an attempt to secure a vacation scheme or training contract and the danger of undervaluing oneself.

To summarise the advice contained within the article:

  1. Ignore the odds regarding the number of training contracts and number of applicants. The statistics change each year and your suitability to the firm/strength as a candidate will massively outweigh these odds as a factor determining success.
  2. Do not lower your standards in the face of rejection. Although it can be demoralising and make you question your self-worth, you should always strive to do your best and achieve the best. Yes, we accept that there will be discrete instances where it would be advisable to alter one’s standards; however, we believe that the majority of candidates should make sure they know exactly what they want and unwaveringly strive for it.
  3. Use rejection to better yourself. You can get two things out of this process: a training contract and an improved skill set. Ensure that you put yourself in the correct mindset so the process raises you up, rather than grinds you down.

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.  

  • Our Application Database has >95 examples of successful applications for >70 different law firms for £14.99 each. Each application includes expert line-by-line commentary by our team of qualified solicitors from US, Magic Circle and Silver Circle firms to help you craft your own perfect application and secure a training contract.
  • Our Practice Case Study will help you turn your assessment centre into a training contract offer. This realistic mock case study takes 45 minutes to complete. It includes >15 pages of expert feedback which will teach you vital commercial content that you need to know and help you to assess how strong your practice performance was.  It costs just £19.99.
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