Vacation Scheme and Training Contract Application Tips - Arista Lai and Tian Ma

As direct training contract applications open and the very last stretch of the 2020/2021 application cycle approaches, OSCOLA spoke with two of our members, Arista Lai and Tian Ma, to get their top tips on how to make successful vacation scheme and training contract applications! In total, both of them have received 13 vacation scheme offers from international firms and they have both received multiple training contract offers. Having distilled their combined experience, here are their top tips in our quick-fire interview!

What is commercial awareness to you and how did you develop it?

  • Being able to think from the perspectives of law firms’ clients e.g. corporates, banks, investors, etc

  • Being generally aware and curious about commercial matters

  • Reading financial news from reputable sources e.g. Financial Times, The Economist

  • Developing business and financial acumen

  • Financial technicals - have a basic understanding of financial accounting (3 financial statements – balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement), business concepts (profit/loss, financial multiples/valuations) and how law firm’s clients’ might apply these concepts

  • Reading widely until you find out what you’re interested in, then reading specifically around these topics to develop a depth of understanding with respect to that subject

  • Having an awareness of the demands and scope of a commercial lawyer’s job

  • Understanding lawyers’ roles in catering to clients’ corporate needs by applying legal concepts

  • Knowing the phases of the deal process, how drafting and contract terms can help protect clients’ corporate interests e.g. commercial covenants, representations, indemnities, warranties, condition precedents

Did you have an overarching application strategy?

  • Start early (most firms open applications around September) and decide what type(s) of firms to apply to

  • There are vague categories that would largely have similar expectations of potential trainees, e.g. Magic Circle, large global (Baker McKenzie, White & Case), elite American White Shoe (Davis Polk, Shearman & Sterling)

  • Spot overlaps in application questions to streamline the process e.g. why do you want to be a City solicitor?

  • Decide how many firms you want to apply to, and when to apply to them, as well as for which opportunity

  • Calendarise applications efficiently to maximise chances of conversion and minimise overlapping time frames – some firms have Winter schemes, some have Spring, some only have Summer

  • Take note of which firms have rolling applications – do these first, otherwise, spots may be filled up before you have the chance to apply

How did you choose the firms you applied to?

  • Look at practice area/client specialisations and apply to the firms that suit your interests e.g. Vinson & Elkins does oil and gas, Milbank does finance, Kirkland & Ellis does private equity

  • Training style/intake size

  • Magic Circle and American firms tend to have very different training styles – the Magic Circle take more trainees and have more structured and formal training; US firms are more lean and expect trainees to learn on the job with less guidance

  • Going to Open Days or firm presentations

  • Vibe check

  • Meeting members of the firm

  • Collecting information that might not be available on the website

How best can someone research firms they are interested in applying to?

  • Websites with resources and rankings

  • Legal Cheek

  • Chambers UK/Student

  • Legal500

  • TCLA (For interview tips too)

  • Firm websites

  • LinkedIn – follow the firm’s page and/or key partners at the firm

  • Google – use the “” function

  • Asking friends or seniors who have trained or done vacation schemes at the firms

How did you write about your work experience?

  • Show, don’t tell

  • Emphasise your responsibilities/role

  • Explain what initiatives you took and how you went about tackling your work

  • Evidence what you did – quantify key

  • Link it back to what you might have to do as a trainee at the firm

  • Consider transferable skills that your experiences have helped develop

How did you make your written applications stand out?

  • Think one step ahead – ask yourself what firms are looking for from, or testing using, each question

  • Commercial awareness questions

  • Research your topic well and in-depth

  • Tailor your chosen topic to the firm’s practice area/industry specialisations

  • Choose a topic that is recent and prominent, not too niche, but definitely not too broad e.g. not “Brexit”, rather “the impact of Brexit on the derivatives trade in London”

  • Tailor all answers to the firm

  • Make sure that even if you don’t mention the firm’s name, someone reading your answer can tell which firm you are applying to

  • Avoid copying and pasting answers to questions other than personal ones

  • Competency questions

  • Don’t assert that you have a certain skill, rather describe a situation where you demonstrated such a skill

  • Be descriptive and thorough


How did you prepare for online tests?

  • Watson Glaser

  • Practise a lot in advance

  • Oxford Careers Service have a free JobTestPrep subscription for students

  • Some firms also have practice tests on their websites or after you start the application

  • Read up on what exactly each segment is looking for e.g. deduction requires some knowledge of logic

  • Situational judgment tests

  • Check graduate recruitment or firm websites for the key traits they want from their trainees

  • Keep these in mind when answering questions, use common sense

  • Be aware of the tradeoffs you are being asked to choose between


Do you have any tips for video interviews?

  • Prepare extensively for predictable questions e.g. why this firm, why commercial law

  • Use the given preparation time before starting to answer and after being given the question to brainstorm – you can even jot down keywords

  • Watch the timer very closely when speaking so you don’t get cut off mid-sentence, but try not to leave spare time as this may look like you don’t have more to say

  • Practise with a timer – usually, you are given 90-150 seconds per answer

  • Have good structure

  • Lay out major points before elaborating

  • Use STAR method for competency questions

  • Signpost clearly

  • Present yourself in the best light possible

  • Take it seriously as though it is a sit-down in-person interview

  • Dress formally

  • Be enthusiastic and engaging


How did you prepare for assessment centres and interviews?

  • Know the format

  • Check websites and forums for information on how past assessment centres at the firm were carried out

  • Usually, there might be an HR interview (personality, competencies, motivations); partner interview (case study, work experience, interest in the firm); timed written assessment; group interview

  • Prepare bullet point answers to obvious questions

  • Research the firm, especially its recent deals

  • Brush up on current events and commercial awareness e.g. reading thought leadership articles

  • Interviews

  • Keep a formal tone while also showing your personality, don’t be afraid to make a few witty comments

  • Be truthful and detailed

  • Show off without showing off – be confident and prove to interviewers that you would be an asset to their firm

  • Don’t be afraid to acknowledge weaknesses or failures, but show what you learned from them and how you overcame them


What was your approach to written assessments?

  • Leave time at the end to check word choice, language, organisation, spelling, grammar, punctuation

  • Ensure that formatting is appropriate for the prompt or the medium of communication

  • Pay attention to detail in the information packet – the more specific you can be, the better

What was the most difficult question you have been asked in an interview? How did you respond?

  • Questions about biggest mistakes made and biggest regrets

  • Important to consciously reflect on weaknesses as well as strengths and have a strong sense of self-awareness, showing a desire to improve

Do you have any other advice or tips for aspiring solicitors?

  • Tian Ma: Spend more time learning deal mechanisms and financial accounting.

  • Arista Lai: Know that everything is cumulative – your experience, your effort, all the applications you have written in the past and events you have attended etc. will make a difference in the end, so make sure to exploit the full extent of your opportunities. If you fail, seek constructive feedback and be resilient enough to bounce back better. You have to believe in yourself before you can convince a firm to believe in you and invest in you!


We hope you took away some useful tips from them and wish you the best of luck for your applications!



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