A 10-Step To-Do List for Aspiring Commercial Lawyers: Preparing for the Upcoming Application Cycle

How prepping for apps feels (real)

As an aspiring commercial lawyer in the UK, the upcoming application cycle in September is a critical time for you to secure coveted opportunities like first year schemes, vacation schemes, and training contracts. To increase your chances of success, it's essential to follow a well-structured plan. This 10-step to-do list will guide you through the key actions you need to take in preparation for the application cycle, ensuring you present yourself as a strong candidate to potential employers.

Step 1: Figure Out Which Firms Fit Your Goals and Preferences:

Before diving into the application process, take some time to assess your career goals and preferences. Consider the areas of law that interest you the most and the type of firm that aligns with your aspirations. Their may be cultural aspects, specializations, and international goals that are particular to your personal ambitions. Take your time to look into how firms differ through their international strategies, cultural and DE&I initiatives, and practice specialties. Research these different practice areas, such as corporate law, commercial litigation, or intellectual property, and determine which ones resonate with you the most. Commercial law is quite unique in that applying to a high number of firms is not a good idea, unlike investment banking, for example. We can guarantee, if you apply to 50 or so firms, your chances of success are significantly lower than 10 tailored applications. For a better idea of which firms might be for you, have a look at our comparative overview of the different types of firms in the City of London, an article we published recently. A membership with ELN will give you access to a host of commercial awareness resources that can assist in figuring out which type of firm you want to work at.

Step 2: Carry Out Extensive Firm Research

Once you have identified your areas of interest, and narrowed down a list of around 10-15 firms that you want to apply to, conduct in-depth research on these specific firms. This is a crucial step and arguably the most demanding. Firm websites are a brilliant place to start - the often have extensive databases which highlight recent deals, their practice areas, and all sorts of initiatives they are involved in. Look into all of these, as well as notable clients, firm culture, and any industry awards and/or recognition the firms may have received. Understanding a firm's values and goals will enable you to tailor your application and demonstrate your genuine interest in working with them. Keep your eyes peeled for an announcement on a research resource we're working on - be sure you're following us on LinkedIn!

Step 3: Develop your Commercial Awareness

Undoubtedly the most important step, commercial awareness is a critical skill for any commercial lawyer, aspiring or current. The modern commercial lawyer is more than just a legal professional but a well-rounded business advisor with unequalled legal knowledge. At entry level (when you're applying for a vac scheme/TC), you won't have the technical legal knowledge, but you can demonstrate that you're business-minded. Stay informed about current affairs, business news, legal developments, market dynamics, and firm economics. Being well-versed in the commercial landscape will impress firms and demonstrate your dedication to the field. Some firms even have a specific question on their written applications that says something like: "discuss an article/business or economic development/emerging market that you find interesting and how it relates to the firm/commercial law". Being commercially aware is absolutely vital. A good habit to get into is making notes while you read, dedicate 20-30 minutes a day to keeping up to date with current commercial affairs. Note down thigs that stand out, try and briefly summarize the article in your own words, and most importantly, always keep in your mind how it could affect commercial law firms. It may also help to discuss articles you read with a friend/peer - this way you can help each other with your commercial awareness skills as well as communicating what you're reading.

Step 4: Attend Insight/Open Days

This is particularly important as you might not get everything you need to know out of a firm's website. Furthermore, it's great practice at getting used to writing an application. Insight and open days provide a valuable opportunity to gain firsthand experience of a law firm's working environment and culture. Many firms offer these events to prospective applicants. Attending such events allows you to interact with current lawyers, ask questions, and gain insights that can help you make informed decisions when applying. They are great networking opportunities and also something you can put on your CV to demonstrate a genuine interest in commercial law.  "When I attended an Open Day at X firm I spoke to an associate in the Corporate M&A practice. They shared their experience working on Y deal worth $Z billion. I found this fascinating because..." is a great way to begin demonstrating your experience and commercial awareness.

Step 5: Refine Your CV

Make sure you have an up to date CV. Tailor it to highlight relevant experience, skills, and achievements. Emphasize any legal work placements, relevant academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities, and skills that demonstrate your suitability for a career in commercial law. Note that your experiences don't have to be related to commercial law, and not having such experience will not put you at a disadvantage. Think about what transferrable skills your experiences have given you, such as communication, team-work, resilience, working well under pressure, and be sure to back up all of these with examples. Also be sure to quantify your experiences when you can, discuss the details of the work you did and how it may have contributed to an overarching quantifiable goal. If the firm your applying to requires a cover letter, it should be personalized for each firm and demonstrate your enthusiasm for the role. A great three-step structure for cover letters when applying to firms is: 1. Why commercial law? 2. Why the firm? 3. Why you?.

Step 6: Start Growing Your Network

Networking plays a pivotal role in the legal industry. Begin building your professional network by connecting with lawyers,  peers through LinkedIn and networking events. Make sure you're a member of your university's law society and attend any events they may be putting on. This way you can connect with students who may have experience applying to commercial law firms and they can share their advice with you. Engage in discussions, attend webinars, and participate in legal forums to expand your connections and stay updated on industry trends. Again, a membership with ELN is an excellent networking resource, with a private networking server as well as partnerships with organizations in the industry, we can guide you through the process of developing your network.

Step 7: Practice Online Assessments and Interviews

Many firms use online assessments and interviews as part of their recruitment process - namely the infamous Watson Glaser tests, although some firms have their own individual versions. Familiarize yourself with the format of these assessments and practice online tests to improve your speed and accuracy. Here, it's genuinely a case of practice makes perfect. It is tedious and repetitive but absolutely necessary. Additionally, rehearse common interview questions, focusing on showcasing your skills and experiences effectively. Keep a notebook and write down your answers, and as embarrassing as it may be, practice saying them out loud!

Step 8: Seek Guidance and Feedback

Reach out to careers advisors, mentors, or professionals in the legal field for guidance and feedback. This is why growing your network is absolutely essential. If you can connect with a future trainee at the firm you wish to work at, they can provide valuable insights into the application process, review your CV and cover letter, and offer constructive feedback to enhance your application, particularly because they'll be very close to the process as they would have just gone through it. Furthermore, future trainees will typically have more time on their hands to help you out when compared to current trainees or associates.

Step 9: Prepare for Assessment Centers

If you progress to the assessment center stage, be well-prepared for various exercises, including group discussions, case studies, and presentations. Research the specific assessment center tasks of each firm you apply to and practice these scenarios to perform your best on the day. This is mostly a case of brushing up on some of the above steps. Make sure your commercial awareness is on point, know your CV like the back of your hand, and have some semi-rehearsed interview questions in the back of your mind (but not too rehearsed, it's a red flag if you sound like a robot).

Step 10: Stay Organized and Apply Early

Keep track of application deadlines (which ELN will be helping you with - more coming soon) and requirements for each firm you apply to. Submit your applications as early as possible. This gets it out of the way so you have time to focus on university and other commitments. That being said, do not submit an application until you feel 100% ready to. Importantly, some firms have rolling deadlines, meaning the earlier you submit your application, the better. Stay organized with a spreadsheet or calendar to manage application deadlines, interview dates, and follow-ups.

By following this 10-step to-do list, you will be well-prepared for the upcoming application cycle. Careful planning, research, and dedication will undoubtedly increase your chances of success as you embark on your journey to become a commercial lawyer in the UK. Be sure you're apart of the ELN community for access to a suite of resources to help you along your journey. Good luck!