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Understanding and Applying for Law Firms

Updated: Mar 4

Written by Michelle Chan

As you embark onto the journey of studying law at university, you soon realize that there is much more that you have to face than what you have expected. Apart from studying, it’s time for you to think about your future career path. You soon will hear about people talking about first-year schemes, open days, vacation schemes and training contracts and terms like “Magic Circle” and UK or US-based law firms which you have no idea about. Before you know what you are doing, you might be already busy filling in applications, facing interviews and panicking about deadlines and outcomes.

So, what exactly are all those terms that law students talk about and what should students who are new to the legal industry prepare for?

Choosing Law Firms

Many students with an aspiration to become a solicitor apply to prestigious international firms that are mainly UK or US-based. “The Magic Circle” is the 5 most prestigious London-headquartered multinational law firms, namely Allen and Overy, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Freshfields and Slaughter and May. For US-headquartered firms, you might be looking at names like Baker McKenzie, Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins. These law firms all have a global presence and focus mainly on corporate and commercial law, with their main practice areas being on Merger & Acquisition, Banking and Finance and Disputes Resolution.

Nonetheless, there are also many other types of law firms that have different business focuses or are from different countries which also offer similar work experience or insight schemes. So take your time to explore your options and just follow your heart in choosing those that you feel like you would enjoy working in that culture and environment.

Schemes to Apply For

As a first-year student, you would be applying for first-year schemes which might be an open day or a few days of experience at the firm that would enable you to understand the firm better.

For students in penultimate year or beyond, you will be aiming for vacation schemes that gives you 2-4 weeks of work at the firm that really give you practical legal work experience and would hopefully help you secure a training contract that will begin after you graduate from university and finish the required Boards exam.

Application Process

The application process for most firms are fairly the same with slight differences in terms of questions or number of steps:

Part 1: Personal Information, e.g. academic results, work experience etc, CV and Cover Letter/a few questions on motivation, interest and commercial understanding

Part 2: Online tests, e.g. Situational Judgment Tests (SJT) that require you to give response in relation to different situations or Watson Glaser Test that tests your critical thinking and reasoning ability

Part 3: Video Interview: questions might range from motivation-based to commercial-based which you will record your answer to it in a timed manner

Part 4: Assessment Centre or Online/In-person Interview: This part usually includes both written and oral assessment. The interview part might be a case-study and/or general questions regarding your motivation and interest and scenario-based questions. The written part would require you to produce some writing in relation to information given to you at the interview.

Steps to Prepare for Application

So, what exactly can you do to make your application stands out from the rest. Afterall, most firms’ application questions are more or less the same and are similar in terms of their work.

Step 1: Attending Open Days

I strongly recommend applicants to join any Open Days or Networks organized by these firms. Attending these events give you a better understanding of the firm and a chance for you to get tips on applications. They might talk about recent or significant deals that are worth mentioning in your personal statement or cover letter. Do take this chance to get to ask about things that you are interested in or network with people and make the most out of your attendance. Most importantly, feel the culture of the firm and know whether you want to work in that environment.

Step 2: Research

Even if you cannot make it to firm visits, look into their websites or google about the firm. Look at recent deals or works of the firm and include it in your application would show the firm that you have done research about their firm and display your interest in any particular practice area. Lastly, get to know more about commercial or business news. It can just be generally trends about the economy or policies by governments on certain industries. Then, you can think about how it might affect clients of the firm or different industries that would allow you to improve your commercial awareness and showcase your ability during interviews.

Step 3: Interviews

If you have been shortlisted for an interview, get prepared for it. Try to search online for similar interview questions or ask seniors who might have went through it before. Do more extensive research into the firm and build up some knowledge on the areas that you are interested in. For case-study interviews, it might involve business-side on things that law students are less familiar with, e.g. balance sheets. Websites like Investopedia are a great way to get used to reading these materials and practice summarizing trends and simple calculations like profit or debt ratio.

Frankly, it is quite a nerve-wrecking and highly-pressurized experience. But don’t be too disappointed if you were unable to secure a spot on those schemes. Afterall, everything is a learning process. Try to learn from the feedbacks that firms provide for their online tests and interviews or reflect on your applications to conclude on what you failed on and how to improve. I am confident you all would be able to reach your full potential and achieve your dreams. Good luck!


Michelle Chan is a second year Law Student studying at King’s College London from Hong Kong who is keen in commercial law. In her post, she discusses how to better understand firms and prepare for law firm applications.

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