- Bolaji Cole
Commercial Law Pre-Game
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Thirty-four months, eight internships, and five suits later, I finally know where my commercial law career will begin. August 2022 is my enrolment date for Clifford Chance and I could not be more excited to get the ball rolling. This fortunate sense of clarity is reassuring, but trust me, it was not always like this. Before Training Contract (TC) offers came vacation scheme (VS) applications, preceded by first-year schemes, meaning even more applications. If you want to know how I manoeuvred through the process and my top tips, keep reading.
Experience experience experience
Before university I had completed two commercial law internships and this was the foundation of my interest in the sector. For anyone at this stage, I’d highly recommend opportunities that organisations like PRIME provide. An insight into commercial law at 16-18 does not necessarily make you commercially savvy; I do not think that is the aim. Instead, the experience made me curious to learn more in my own time, and allowed me to feel comfortable in the office environment. This meant that when I went to firms to learn, I knew the right questions to ask and did not feel the overbearing effect of imposter syndrome.
After these experiences came the start of my Law degree at the LSE. As young, slightly wild & free freshers my peers and I were happy to learn that our first-year, typically known as the fun year, didn’t count. My second tip goes out to all the freshers out there; although first year doesn’t count (academically), it counts (professionally). The range of first year schemes available coupled with the rigour of a new learning style does require your A game. It’s a buyer’s market, and the best time for you to learn the niches of different firms. Have an open mind and apply to as many as you can since learning what you dislike is as valuable as learning the inverse at this stage.
The second reason it counts is because when you apply to firms in your second-year, you would like to put down the best possible grades. Firms generally ask for a 2:1 in first-year but the stronger the 2:1, the better. Grades are never looked at in isolation, but there are enough academically strong candidates out there. Being a candidate who achieved significantly lower than their full potential in first-year is a situation you should avoid if possible.
Gaining experience at a range of firms during Year 13 and first-year university is the single most important favour you can do your second-year self writing applications. For the sake of clarity, these experiences are not a prerequisite for VS’s and TC’s, but they help a lot. There was not a single VS or TC interview where I failed to mention my first-year scheme with Allen & Overy. This was normally because I was asked about it, but even if I was not, I used it to evidence my motivation to join the sector. So, if first year does not count academically, make it count professionally.
No time for relaxation on vacation schemes
For those of you sharp enough to realise the irony of me giving VS advice having only completed a virtual one, allow me to ease your suspicion. Firstly, the advice provided is bilateral (let’s hope COVID-19 does not interfere with another year of vacation schemes, but if it does, the advice is applicable to both virtual and in-person schemes). Secondly, the following points have been echoed by the dozens of trainees and future trainees I have networked with over the last couple years, and these guys know what they are talking about!
Vacation schemes are a seller’s market, so make sure application preparation commences when your first-year summer does. Try and gain some legal experience during this period and improve your understanding of financial markets (I recommend Christopher Stoakes’ All You Need To Know About The City). By the end of summer you should have a shortlist of firms you intend to apply to. This list will vary in length for individuals, but should result in a collection of strong applications with significant time spent on each. A mediocre application wastes everybody’s time, and marginally increases your odds. Applicants are better off reducing the number of applications completed in order to achieve an equilibrium. Remember your degree will not get easier because of applications; it will get harder. As a result, make full use of summer and apply carefully during term time. Vacation schemes are designed to give you a snapshot of what working at a particular firm would be like. Therefore, if you are unsure about whether a particular firm is best for you, I would recommend this route.
Can I please get a burger, chips and a TC on the side?
Sorry, the Training Contract only comes as a main meal. My point being, a straight TC application requires a certain affinity to one firm. Without this, there is a risk of everyone’s time being wasted. If a potential applicant’s affiliation with a firm is unclear, then there may be a better route (eg Vacation Scheme). At firms where more trainees are recruited from TC applications than VS ones, the reality of the numbers game becomes more prevalent. Despite this, these firms still mandate applicants to know why they want to work for them. In my experience, there is no better answer than one detailing your work experience at that firm.
This experience can manifest in many forms (first-year scheme, open day etc), but I would recommend prior experience at a firm before applying solely for the TC. I would also recommend reaching out to at least two lawyers from the firm to get a first-hand experience of their working life. Students often complete TC applications with the sole hope that the firm will choose them, but I think the inverse is also very important. Talking to professionals at the firm allows you to understand how the firm conducts their training contract. What is the ratio of classroom to on-the-job learning at the firm? What is the process of trainee seat allocation? Is it fair? What adjustments have the firm made to your TC in light of COVID-19? These are all relevant questions one can pose to firm representatives before their interview. If you attempt to build upon this knowledge with a follow up question during your interview, this shows two things. First, a keen interest in the firm which you went out of your way to explore. Second, a curiosity to learn more which would sit well with your interviewer.
In summary, applying straight TC can be a difficult and risky bet. Nevertheless, if the experience and firm knowledge is there, then that is a bet I would make.
The end already?
The tips aforementioned are quite practical and individual-centric. Due to this, I thought I would switch it up for my final tip. Securing a TC requires a lot of individual professional development, but there is no reason why this cannot be facilitated by your peers. Your peers are going through the same process, and will pick up things that you may miss, and vice versa. Use that, and help each other get to the final destination. I remember preparing for my Linklaters assessment centre and there were four of us in a room bouncing ideas off each other; it was a room filled with ingenious. Teamwork really does make the dream work so do bear that in mind. Your peers will push you to become the best version of yourself, provided you see them as your peers as opposed to your competition.
BSC Mentors, from June 2021, will be guiding students through the process of obtaining training contracts. We have up-to-date resources to help students impress at any stage and bolster their commercial awareness. So if you are looking for a TC, be sure to enquire at BSC.