The Complete Guide to Training Contracts for International Students

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Next City Lawyer
August 20, 2021
[time to read]
min read

We hate to say it, but a sad truth in the legal world is that being an international student makes it harder to get a training contract.  Many law firms do not want to incur the additional expense and administrative burden of sponsoring trainees and so miss out on the amazing international talent that exists in the UK.

We have prepared this guide to teach you how to maximise your training contract chances as an international student by explaining:

  1. The Visa System
  2. Differences for EU/EEA/Swiss Students
  3. Visa Options
  4. Which Firms DO and DO NOT Hire International Students
  5. Advice for All Other Firms
  6. Using Your International Status as a Strength

1. The Visa System

As of 2019 there were c.560k international students in the UK (Higher Education Statistics Agency).  Of those, c.5k international students are enrolled in undergraduate law degrees (Law Society). We expect this number to continue to grow as UK universities are world renowned and the City offers arguably the best legal training on the planet (without requiring the extortionate tuition fees of US universities).

Foreign students already in the UK will be familiar with the visa process for studying and will need to then transfer visas once their degree has been completed if they want to stay and work.  Similarly, international candidates who have studied abroad but want to now train as a solicitor in the UK will also require a visa.

2. Differences for EU/EEA/Swiss Students

EU flag
Training Contracts for EU Students

Prior to Brexit, EU, Swiss, Norwegian, Icelandic and Liechtenstein citizens had equal rights to those of UK citizens to study and work in the UK.  

Citizens from these countries (“Eligible Persons”) had until 30 June 2021 to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK or Northern Ireland under the free EU Settlement Scheme (GOV.UK).

If you did not apply in time, you can still apply if either:

  • you are a family member of an Eligible Person who was living in the UK by 31 December 2020
  • the relevant Eligible Person has settled or pre-settled status, have applied and are waiting for a decision or are eligible for settled or pre-settled status
  • you are joining them in the UK or or after 1 April 2021
  • you have reasonable grounds for being unable to apply by 30 June 2021 (e.g., you had an illness,  were the victim of domestic abuse, you did not have internet access or access to the relevant documents, etc.)

If you qualify under one of these exceptional categories, it is free to apply.

Under the EU Settlement Scheme, successful applicants can:

  • work in the UK (after 30 June 2021)
  • use the NHS for free
  • enrol in education or continue studying
  • access public funds such as benefits and pensions, if you’re eligible for them
  • travel in and out of the UK

3. Visa Options

A number of options exist for all other international students to work in the UK.  The below options are the ones most commonly used by international (i.e. non-EU/EEA/Swiss) students, but a full list can be seen on the UK government’s website (GOV.UK).

  1. Graduate Visa
  2. Youth Mobility Scheme visa
  3. Ancestry Visa
  4. Skilled Worker Visa

(A) Graduate Visa

A UK Graduate visas is intended for international students that are studying in the UK on a valid student visa who wish to work in the UK for a short period after graduating.

You can apply for a Graduate route visa (GOV.UK) if:

  • you are based in the UK at the time of applying
  • your current visa is a Student visa or a Tier 4 (General) student visa
  • you studied a UK undergraduate, post-graduate, Graduate Diploma in Law, the Legal Practice Court or the Bar Practice Course for at least 12 months or the full length of the course (whichever is shorter)
  • your education provider has told you that you have successfully completed your course

As of December 2021, the cost to apply is £700.  You must also pay a health surcharge of £624 for each year that you stay in the UK.

You do not need to have a job offer in order to apply for this visa.  This is helpful if you do not yet have a training contract secured as it will allow you to work in another role (e.g., as a paralegal) in the meantime.

The Graduate visa lasts for two years. If you have a PHD or doctoral qualification, it will last for three years.

In theory, this is sufficient time to carry out a training contract.  In practice, it is unlikely to be viable for use during your training contract because the date on which the application is approved is unlikely to coincide exactly with your training contract period.  Moreover, law firms recruit trainees on the basis that they will stay following qualification.  As such, they are likely to require that you have a Skilled Worker visa (see below) or alternative long-term right to work in the UK.

(B) Youth Mobility Scheme visa

You can apply for a Youth Mobility Scheme visa (GOV.UK) if you:

  • want to live and work in the UK for up to two years
  • are aged 18 to 30
  • have £2,530 in savings
  • are a citizen of of one of the following countries:
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Monaco
  • New Zealand
  • San Marino
  • are a citizen of one of the following countries and are successfully selected in the Youth Mobility Scheme ballot (c.800 places available per country):
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • or, instead of being a citizen of the above countries, are a:
  • British overseas citizen
  • British overseas territories citizen
  • British national (overseas)

This visa allows you to stay and work in the UK for two years. As of June 2020 the cost to apply for this visa is £244.  You must also pay a healthcare surcharge which is usually £470 per year that you stay in the UK. The decision usually takes around three weeks.

You can work for any employer you choose with this visa.  This visa will last for two years.  In theory, this is sufficient to carry out a training contract, but in practice it is unlikely that the dates will perfectly coincide.  

Most future trainees apply instead for a Skilled Worker visa (see below).  However, this is a good option if you do not yet have a job offer secured as it will allow you to work as a paralegal or in other role while you try to obtain a training contract.

(C) Ancestry Visa

A UK Ancestry Visa (GOV.UK) may be available if you:

  • are a Commonwealth citizen, a British overseas citizen, a British overseas territories citizen or a citizen of Zimbabwe
  • are applying from outside the UK
  • are able to prove that one of your grandparents was born in the UK
  • are able and planning to work in the UK
  • meet the other eligibility requirements:
  • you are over 17
  • you have enough money to support yourself
  • plan to work in the UK

This visa allows you to stay and work in the UK for five years.  You can then either apply to extend your visa for a further five years or apply for indefinite leave to remain.

As of December 2021, the cost to apply for this visa is £516 and the decision usually takes around three weeks.

You can work for any employer you choose with this visa.

(D) Skilled Worker Visa

As a future trainee solicitor, you can apply for a Skilled Worker visa (GOV.UK) if you:

  • have a confirmed job offer by a UK employer for a job as a trainee solicitor that pays at least £34,300 per year (which is listed as the “going rate” for solicitors, including trainee solicitors, on GOV.UK under code 2413)*
  • have a certificate of sponsorship from your employer with information about the role you have been offered in the UK
  • prove your knowledge of English
  • have at least £1,270 in savings to support yourself when you arrive in the UK

*Note that there are other roles which are eligible for the Skilled Worker visa on the GOV.UK website

You need the law firm to sponsor you in order to be offered this visa, which is an additional financial and administrative burden that some smaller commercial law firms are not willing to meet.  The cost to the firm for acting as a sponsor is in addition to the fee that you have to pay (unless your employer agrees to pay it on your behalf, which many larger law firms will do).

As of December 2021, the cost to apply for this visa is £1,408 (which is the fee for a visa of more than three years).  There is also a healthcare surcharge to pay which is usually £624 per year that you stay in the UK.  The decision usually takes around three weeks.

You will be eligible for a small fee reduction (£55) if you come from one of the EU countries listed here.

This is the most common visa that international trainees use.  However, it comes with a couple of drawbacks:

  • You can only work for the employer who is sponsoring you. Any new employer will need to take over that sponsorship (which many law firms are not willing to do)
  • You need to update the Home Office of any changes in employment, address or serious personal circumstances

Another major issue with procuring these visas on the employer side is that in order for a law firm to be approved as able to sponsor you it must show that you meet a certain number of ‘points’, as the UK uses a points test when vetting visa applications.  Anecdotally we have heard that post-Brexit it has become increasingly difficult to attain the required points.  Employers currently have to demonstrate that the foreign candidate is filling a job no UK candidate is able to.  While this is obviously not the case at trainee level (no offence!), it often means the law firm will need to advertise the role on job boards and undertake HR work to show this.  So it comes as no surprise that many firms aren’t willing to go through all of this work in order to sponsor.

Group of international students graduating
Training Contracts for International Students

4. Which Firms DO and DO NOT Hire International Students

Fortunately you do NOT have to waste hours roaming through Google or emailing graduate recruitment teams to find out who will or will not sponsor international applicants!

As of December 2021, here is a list of verified firms that will sponsor international applicants:

  • Slaughter & May
  • Clifford Chance
  • Freshfields
  • Linklaters
  • Allen & Overy (We have heard from a source they are no longer sponsoring applicants but are sceptical this is true)
  • Travers Smith
  • Hogan Lovells
  • Ashurst
  • Norton Rose
  • Hogan Lovells
  • Dentons
  • Baker McKenzie
  • DLA Piper
  • Holman Fenwick Williams
  • Watson Farley Williams
  • Stephenson Harwood
  • Fieldfisher
  • Burgess Salmon
  • Farrer & Co
  • DWF

Please note that a number of other firms will sponsor applicants but we have only included ones we have verified.  Also note that most US law firms in London will also sponsor (as they have, or still do, sponsor a number of American lawyers in their London office already) but they are not included in this list.  And a final warning is that while all of these firms do sponsor applicants, you would expect that the bigger firms on this list are even more likely to do (e.g. Clifford Chance will routinely sponsor far more trainees and lawyers than DWF will).

5. Advice for All Other Firms

Before you apply to ANY other law firm you should email their graduate recruitment team to check if they are willing to sponsor trainees. If they are not, this should be an immediate red flag because sorting out your own visa situation per the ancestry visa or Tier 5 visa will be less appealing to them - and feel like an extra risk on their part - and greatly reduces your chances of getting a training contract with that firm.  

We would recommend you simply do not apply to firms who do not sponsor.  Even if you get very clear guidance from their graduate recruitment team that your application will still be considered and will not be disadvantaged, is it really worth spending 8-10 hours of your time on the application when there are so many other great firms out there?

6. Using Your International Status as a Strength

Group of international students chatting while enjoying a drink

If you know the firm will sponsor trainees then this is excellent news! This means the firm understands the value of international talent and is willing to pay a price to get the best people available.

UK law firms are less likely to be familiar with your grades if they deviate from the GCSE/A-Level construct.  While most law firms are familiar with IB scores, you will need to explain how your grades equate to the UK equivalent.  

Moreover, while many UK applicants will have fairly similar extracurriculars and work experience, you can leverage your experience to stand out from the crowd.  Knowing how to flush out the key details here without showing off is a bit of an art, but there are some easy tips to excel.  For instance, you should put your achievements in context to help the recruiter understand how to evaluate them.  It’s meaningless to say you were awarded a scholarship; you must say “X scholarship awarded to the top 4 students out of a class of 1,000 students”.  This is true for all applications regardless of your background, but it’s particularly helpful as an international student where the recruiter may not be familiar with your achievements.

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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