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Training contract application forms: what not to write

Written by: Becky Waller-Davies
Published on: 21 Jul 2015

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In a veritable sea of application forms it can be hard to make an impression. Unfortunately your chances of getting to interview depend on it.

Distilling exactly why you want to join a firm or work in a practice area can be tough, especially in response to the often unimaginative questions asked by firms, but not mirroring their approach is a start.

We’ve asked graduate recruiters for their particular gripes: phrases they come across time after time; the uninspired approach taken by every second applicant and even common grammar errors to help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Don’t copy and paste
A common approach that most graduate recruiters take issue with is the practice of copying and pasting off their own website. If you’re wondering how anyone could be so lazy then well done, you’re very virtuous. But let’s face it; we’ve all been there, watching the clock tick closer to deadline time, realising that another Diet Coke is going to make us jittery and muddle-headed rather than possessing of supernatural laser-focused intelligence. Playing pairs with buzzwords seems logical all of a sudden. Besides, it shows you’ve really done your research, right?

Wrong. Showing you really understand the firm and matching your skill set with their needs is going to need more work than lifting phrases from its website. Recruiters spend months consulting with the firm’s leaders and brand agency to come up with this - they’ll recognise those buzzwords from the interminable meetings about whether to go with global or international, diverse or inclusive, collaboration or… yawn.

You want to avoid that yawn at all costs. As Addleshaw Goddard resourcing adviser Sam Hill says: “A lot of candidates will simply copy and paste working off our website rather than trying to research the firm on their own. I always enjoy reading something a little more out of the ordinary than wording off the homepage of our website.”

Don’t be generic - get specific with your work experience
Contorting non-legal work experience is a bugbear of Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co graduate recruitment partner Baljit Chohan. “Work experience in a bar does not demonstrate that you understand the commercial context of law,” he says. “But dealing with a difficult customer at that bar in a sensible way does demonstrate your interpersonal skills and good judgement. Give us examples, don’t assume that we will make the link for you.”

Don’t sound like a poet - keep your language clear and simple
Latham & Watkins graduate recruitment manager Puneet Tahim has a list of several things to avoid when it comes to application forms. “Keep it simple and avoid unnecessary jargon,” she advises. “When you consider the volume of applications a firm receives it’s important to focus on the key information you want to convey. Don’t use ten words when five will suffice.” If it’s a good enough rule for George Orwell, it’s good enough for you.

The other is a little trickier. A lot of firms have a very similar offer: international travel, cross-border work, big deals and so on. It can be difficult to narrow down exactly what draws you to one firm and not the other. But whatever you do don’t try inaccurate flattery.

“When writing about firms, you often see candidates use expressions such as ‘unlike any other law firm’ before going on to make references to things most big law firms will offer, such as international opportunities or exposure to cross-border work,” says Tahim.

Bristows graduate recruitment partner Miranda Cass echoes Tahim’s advice on unnecessary jargon. “Put the thesaurus down,” she entreats. “Overly flowery language really doesn’t appeal.”

Don’t get the firm’s name wrong
Cass adds another cardinal sin to this: forgetting to alter a firm’s name on your application when copying and pasting, or misspelling the firm’s name altogether. Both will see your application land on the ‘no’ pile pretty quickly. These are pieces of advice we’ve given approximately a billion times at Lawyer 2B over the years. You’d think applicants would have cottoned on to the fact that spelling a firm’s name wrong would be a bad idea, but still people do it on a regular basis.

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not
Over at Hogan Lovells, associate director of legal resourcing Clare Harris takes a broader view. “My biggest beef is that people are not prepared to be themselves,” she says. “They seem cautious. As I say to people out on campus - don’t be scared of seeming different.

“When we are reading thousands of application forms it is the people who are prepared to talk genuinely who stand out from the crowd. You need to be yourself. People might not want to show off or put their foot in it. But they then cease to be themselves.”

Our advice to you can be summed up in two words: be authentic. Do your research, identify why you really want to join a firm and don’t fall back on buzzwords and set phrases. You wouldn’t speak that way in real life, don’t assume the person reading your application form will be swayed by them, they’d far rather hear what you really think.

And if in any doubt, avoid these cliches - all mentioned by our recruiter sources as common and unhelpful…

  • “I work well in a team as well as independently” (Well done for being a functioning human.)
  • “I relish…” (Really? Who talks like this?)
  • “Ever since I was in primary school I’ve wanted to be a lawyer” (Is this true? We doubt it. Is your primary school ambition relevant? No.)
  • “Law satisfies both my academic and business interests” (Yawn.)
  • “Law is constantly changing” (No, it’s not.)

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