What are legal recruiters looking for?

Which one?

So you've got a degree? No biggie. So has everyone else. You need to make sure your CV and experiences square with what recruiters demand and build your self-confidence to improve your prospects.


The road to a training contract or pupillage is smoother for some than others, but before starting to apply you will need to make sure your CV and experiences square with what recruiters demand. A structured approach to gaining the right experiences and a healthy dose of self-confidence can improve anyone's prospects.

Did we mention that competition for training contracts and pupillages is fierce?

Did we mention that competition for training contracts and pupillages is fierce? To win one you will need not just an excellent academic record, but a stash of experiences to prove you have the ability to dive into the professional world with greater confidence than your rivals. Applying directly out of university with one or two interesting extracurricular experiences under your belt works for some. However, our research has shown that an increasing number of those entering the profession made an effort to gain substantive life experience before starting to make applications. It's no bad thing if you've already taken several steps up the career ladder by the time you start a traineeship or pupillage.


How impressive is your degree?

Having a law degree is no reason to assume entitlement. From the top sets at the Bar to the little-known solicitors’ firms on the high street, non-law graduates are just as able to secure training positions as their LLB peers. In the few cases where employers prefer law grads they will specify this, so unless you hear differently, conversion route applicants may proceed with confidence. Many recruiters tell us just how highly they regard staff with language skills and scientific or technical degrees, particularly where their clients’ businesses will benefit, and humanities degrees require many of the research, analytical or communication skills needed by lawyers. 

Non-law graduates are just as able to secure training positions as their LLB peers.

Many solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers subscribe to the idea of an unofficial pecking order of universities; at some the bias is undeniably evident. If you worry that your university isn’t one of the best regarded, then you should make sure you get the best degree result possible and work on enriching your CV in other ways.

Law firms' preferred universities

We interviewed 2,300 trainees and they told us what university they went to. We crunched the figures and published a ranking in partnership with The Times in early 2016. Here are the headlines:

- The Russell Group dominates the market at 81%. 
- Oxbridge grads make up a quarter of London trainees and a fifth of all trainees. 
- The range of universities feeding the market grew by 14% in three years, signalling improved opportunities and a push for diversity. 
- Manchester University dominates the national firms market. 
- Oxford and Cambridge feature considerably lower outside London.

Click here for full university rankings including breakdown by region and types of firm.

As obvious as it may sound, working for good results throughout your degree is crucial. Be aware that you may already be applying for training contracts and vacation schemes in your second year, so if most of your first-year marks are thirds or 2:2s, you’ll not get far.

Most firms and sets in this guide require recruits to have at least a 2:1. If you get a First that will definitely impress (at least on paper); if you wind up with a 2:2, you’re going to have a tough time. Many recruiters will tell you that they take exceptional circumstances into account, but these circumstances do truly need to be exceptional – eg the star student who suffered a serious accident as finals loomed. Confirmation of this by means of a letter from your tutor (or, better still, a doctor’s note) might assist. In addition, you will need something pretty awesome to overcome that 2:2 – a year or more in a great job, a further degree, or impressive voluntary work might cut it. Of course, none of these is a guaranteed fix. “If you have average or less than average grades, you're really going to struggle,” one recruiter told us. “I sometimes feel that no one warns students about that early enough.” So you are warned: a Desmond is not likely to get you far in a professional career, so work your socks off at university. 

For an overview of firms' academic entry criteria (including minimum A-level grades) check out our table of Application and selection criteria.


Extracurricular activities

Addicted to Reddit or obsessed with online cat pictures? Get over it. To succeed in your aim of becoming a lawyer, you will need to devote a large chunk of your free time at university and thereafter to undertaking worthwhile, constructive pursuits. Take advantage of the practically unlimited opportunities on offer. Every university has societies, meeting groups and sports clubs. Better still: set up your own event, society, club, business or social venture. Being able to show you are entrepreneurial and can achieve concrete results working on projects is increasingly important to recruiters. But you cannot undertake these pursuits just as CV fodder. Do something you are genuinely interested in; recruiters are always telling us they want to see that individuals have a passion for the things they have done.

Some kind of legal experience, whether it’s organising events for your university law society or shadowing your aunt’s neighbour’s lawyer friend, is crucial since you need to convince prospective employers that you’re serious about the profession. “If you haven't been in a firm before, you'll have a hard time convincing us,” says a managing partner. “It's far better to see that candidates have experienced what lawyers do and still want to do it.” You can acquire experience later on through open days and vacation schemes, but it’s never too early to start, not least because vac schemes and open days are now devilishly hard to get onto.

Non-legal extracurriculars can be just as useful to show that you play well with others. It also gives you something to write about when an application form says: 'Discuss a time when you worked with a group to achieve a common goal'. Relevant work experience is vital to almost every successful job application, so search hard for suitable positions. Many universities run law-specific career seminars in association with solicitors’ firms or barristers’ chambers. Be savvy, go along and find out as much as you can by talking to trainee solicitors and recruiters. Networking is a key tactic you should be employing. For more read our Nine networking tips.


Researching firms

When you apply, research should be your watchword. Demonstrating your understanding of what a firm is about and what the work will entail, and being able to explain honestly and realistically why you want to do it, are among the most important things to get across when you make an application. Adopting a scattergun approach works for some, but simply sending the same covering letter to 50 firms will get you nowhere. Recruiters can tell very easily which applicants have a genuine interest in their firm and which have put in minimal effort. Find out what to do by reading our feature Researching law firms for applications.


Commercial awareness

If you want to become a commercial lawyer you’ll need this thing they call commercial awareness. Try and gain a sense of what’s going on in the business world. The key issue to be aware of is how the current economic climate is affecting the way businesses and other organisations operate. Big topics of the day are: the implications of Brexit; efforts to boost the UK economy; climate change; the housing market and its foreign investors; tax avoidance and offshore finance; the growth of emerging markets; the effects of the Trump presidency; globalisation; and the greater emphasis placed on regulation in the financial services sector. Why not follow the news on a specific industry which you're interested in? Energy, technology and the media are particularly vibrant sectors at the moment.

Read the Financial Times, The Economist (both have great podcasts too) or any newspaper's business section. Not only will it help you follow the news, but it will get you up to speed on all the relevant business jargon. BBC Radio 4 also has a host of podcasts that will broaden your knowledge, including Evan Davis' The Bottom Line – so have a browse. If it gets too intense, Private Eye provides a lighter take on current affairs. Chambers Student's Facebook and Twitter pages often links to stories that will broaden your knowledge of the business world and private client law.

It’s also important to understand the role of a lawyer as a service provider. More and more emphasis is being placed on the fact that lawyers must be able to relate to their clients and know something about their businesses. If the firms you apply to have certain specialisms or target certain industry sectors, then find out about those sectors.

Students looking to go into criminal law should be aware of recent legislation and current issues. Future family lawyers should be able to discuss the major cases that have hit the headlines. Anyone interested in administrative and public law issues will have a full-time job keeping up to date with all the various developments in that field; Radio 4’s Law in Action podcasts should be a real help. Hopeful crime, family and human rights lawyers should also be aware of the ways in which legal aid cuts are hitting these practices.

We also recommend you check out our commercial awareness pages on Legal industry trends and recommended Legal blogs, and that you sign up for our email newsletter to get regular commercial awareness and legal news updates.



International travel in a gap year can broaden your horizons and teach you new organisational and problem-solving skills. Overseas experience is usually only valued by employers if you've spent time working, perhaps undertaking a project for a charity or in business. If you don't want to travel, don't worry: you can stand out in other ways. Above all, be original (as much as it's possible) in the experiences you pursue. 


Mature candidates

Many employers now welcome mature applicants, and some – often smaller niche or regional outfits – actively seek out those with previous career experience. With age comes wisdom and probably an impressive set of transferable skills and industry knowledge. We’ve chatted with successful barristers and solicitors who’ve done everything from secretarial work, professional football, radio DJing, forensic science, physiotherapy and music production to accountancy, consultancy, piloting, policing and soldiering.

But when is old too old? If you’re still in your 20s, that's fine. If you’re in your 30s, ask what it is you can offer a law firm that will make your application stand out. And if you’re older still? Never say never. Over the years we have run into a number of 40-something trainees, all of whom were glad to have made the career change. These much older trainees tended to have one thing in common: they brought advantageous industry experience to their firm. Figures collected by the Law Society show that 10.5% of solicitors admitted to the roll in 2014/15 were aged 35 to 54, and 0.2% were aged 55 or over. A more recent survey showed the average age of someone admitted to the roll was 29.4 years of age in 2015/16.



Women and ethnic minorities are increasingly present at the young end of the profession. In the year ending 31 July 2016, 62% of those admitted to the roll were female and 31% were from ethnic minority backgrounds (based on the 42.1% of admissions gathered where ethnicity is known). In the course of our research this year 120 firms provided us with lists identifying their trainees. In most, the women outnumber the men – something we would expect to see given that more women have gone into the profession than men for well over a decade. The names on most of these lists also reflect a healthy spread of ethnic backgrounds. It is worth mentioning, however, that female and ethnic minority trainees still have too few senior role models, and there are always a small number of legal sector sex or race discrimination claims going through the employment tribunals. Go to our website for gender and ethnic diversity statistics for firms featured in this guide.

Elsewhere on this website you can find analysis on Gender in the Law and Ethnicity in the Law, as well as gender and ethnic diversity statistics for every firm in the True Picture. We've also written about Sexism in the CityLGBT and the lawDisability and the lawSocial mobility at the Bar and Women at the Bar.


Coming from overseas

If you're a non-Brit and you want to become a lawyer in the UK, your best bet is to study here and then follow the standard route to qualification. Some people do join the profession after completing studies overseas, but the recognition of foreign degrees and qualifications is a complex business. A specific programme called the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme (QLTS) exists for those who are already practising lawyers overseas and are moving to the UK. In some cases firms will pay for you to do the QLTS and then undertake a traineeeship with them. Be aware that when the Solicitors Qualifying Examination is introduced in 2020 it will replace the QLTS. Elsewhere on this website you can read more about Qualifying from overseas.

In all cases, excellent written and spoken English is essential, and you will need a convincing reason why you want to work in the UK. Applicants may find doors are easier to push open if they apply to firms with business interests in the country or region from which they come. Go to our website for more information.


Regional connections

Regional firms and sets are sometimes more comfortable recruiting candidates with a local connection, be this through family or education. Quite simply, they want to know that whoever they take on will be committed to a long-term career with them. From time to time we hear regional firms bemoaning the fact that they have spent two years training up new solicitors only for them to swan off to London or another big city for a larger pay cheque. Firms do not like this. The picture across the UK is a variable one though: some firms clearly state their preferences for local lads and lasses; others tell us that most of their applicants do have links with the region but that they are happy to consider anyone. 


What with studying hard, following the business and professional news, helping out at the CAB, captaining your rugby team, debating, acting as student law society president and attending careers events, you’ll hardly have time for a pint. Your years at university are supposed to be fun, but don’t waste valuable time that could be spent CV building.


Your next step
>>> How to make successful applications
>>> Application and selection criteria
>>> Pro bono and volunteering
>>> Law School