A guest blog from Sally Shoult, Graduate Recruitment & LLM Specialist at Allen and Overy
“What do you look for on an application form?” “How can I make my application stand out?” “I meet your academic criteria and have lots of work experience but can’t get past the application form stage. What am I doing wrong?”
These are, without doubt, the most common questions I get asked when out and about on campus. Application forms can often be the hardest part of the recruitment process to navigate your way through successfully. You will be facing stiff competition from thousands of other applicants, so it really is worth investing some time up front in order to give yourself the best possible chance of making it through to the next stage. In my time as a graduate recruiter I have literally read thousands of applications and believe me, it’s not as hard as you think to make yourself stand out. I hope this blog post will help demystify those dreaded forms, as well as provide some helpful tips to get you over that first hurdle…
Without further ado, here are my top tips….
1. Avoid the scatter gun approach. ‘Quality over quantity’ is precisely what you should be focussing on. Given that no two law firms have the same application form/process, and that we are all looking for slightly different things, completing a solid application form can be a time consuming business. Merely copying and pasting will not do you any favours. Do your research and only apply to places where you genuinely want to work. Which leads nicely on to my next point…
2. Do your research. Successful candidates are always those who have gone the extra mile, thoroughly researched their options and have reached clear conclusions as to why they want to work for a specific firm. You should be tailoring your responses specifically to the firm you are applying to. It is no use making sweeping statements such as “I want to work for the biggest clients, on the biggest deals, in a global environment”. To a recruiter, this is a generic statement that could be said about numerous, different firms but what we really want to know why you want to work for us. Whilst the statement itself may be true, try to think of ways in which you can articulate the same sentiment in a more specific, tailored way. Reading annual reports, visiting the organisations website (not just the graduate website), talking to employees on campus, thinking about how firms differentiate themselves from competitors, for example, are perhaps just a few things that may give you some ideas that could be incorporated into your applications.
3. Avoid silly mistakes. Poor spelling and grammar, or use of an unprofessional tone are all errors that will count against you. Attention to detail is an essential skill that all successful lawyers possess, get this wrong on your application form and you are putting yourself at a serious disadvantage. Equally, pay attention to the structure of your responses – we are not just looking at what you say, but how you say it.
4. Sell yourself. This is your one chance to highlight all of the fantastic skills and experiences you have acquired thus far, so don’t sell yourself short. Try to avoid merely listing your experiences, but instead draw them back to the key competencies that each firm is looking for. If you are the president of a society, for example, don’t just state this as a responsibility. Bring it to life by describing how much of a time commitment this is, you may have had to deal with some challenging team dynamics, or perhaps implemented an idea that has greatly improved the society as a whole. These are the things that firms are interested in – the things that truly demonstrate key skills such as time management and leadership/teamwork. Equally, don’t just assume that you have ticked the ‘team-work’ box by stating you are on the rowing squad, for example. We want to hear about specific examples of a skill and we won’t infer that you are successful at it just through participation.
5. Answer the question! Make sure you read the questions carefully and answer all parts in full. For example, at A&O we ask all candidates to tell us about a recent challenge they have faced and how they overcame it. You’d be amazed at the amount of applicants who merely tell us what the challenge itself was, but fail to tell us anything about how they resolved the situation or what they actually learnt from the process.
6. Evidence. As a recruiter we are looking for solid evidence that you possess the skill set or competencies that we are looking for. Therefore, make sure your responses to competency based questions are drawn from appropriate examples, and clearly demonstrate you possess the required skill set desired by the individual firm.
7. Work experience. Include it all! Don’t fall into the trap of believing that only legal work experience is relevant. You may have worked in a shop, or a bar, or volunteered somewhere and developed a really useful, and relevant, skill. Make sure when discussing your non-legal work experience that you draw out and highlight what these skills are. If you’ve held down a part time job throughout university this could potentially demonstrate that you are hard working and can manage your time effectively – just make sure you write this down and explain how you’ve developed, don’t just assume this will be picked up through inference.
8. Commercial Awareness / Understanding. This is the one thing that ALL legal graduate recruiters are looking for. There are numerous ways you can demonstrate your awareness, for example; drawing on your own personal work experience, demonstrating your knowledge of the law firm you are applying to, or through your interest in current affairs and developments in the legal/business world. Importantly – don’t forget that law firms are businesses too! I am always impressed by candidates who fully understand our strategy and are aware of the key challenges facing the business in the near future.
And one for luck, but perhaps most importantly…
9. Be yourself. Don’t assume firms are looking for a specific ‘type’ of person. You’ll find that the majority of firms are open-minded and are looking for people who share that quality.
I hope that in reading these tips you have realised that completing a successful application form really isn’t as difficult as it initially seems. Do your research, highlight your skills, tailor your applications, and be yourself – it really is that simple. Good luck with your future applications!