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Husnara Begum, editor & career coach

An aspiring lawyer recently asked me what she can do to make her training contract applications stand out. She went on to tell me that notwithstanding strong academics and all the usual extra-curricular activities – virtual events, pro bono, debating, mooting and posting content on LinkedIn she’s still struggling to break the cycle of rejection emails.

Now herein lies the problem. By doing all the ‘usual’ stuff your application forms are going to look remarkably similar to those submitted by most of the students you’re up against. Therefore, it’s absolutely vital that you avoid following the crowds and forge your own path. Playing to your unique selling points, such as leveraging off a previous career or an unusual past-time and authenticity all contribute to developing your personal brand and can help you stand out from the crowd.

Rather than treating extra-curricular activities as a box ticking exercise and signing up for every single event out of fear of missing out, I’d recommend a more targeted approach. Focussing on more intimate events that enable you to network on a 1-2-1 basis with employers from your target firms will be a great way to build your network of legal industry contacts. Meanwhile, those featuring senior lawyers talking about their work will help you to boost your commercial awareness. Limiting events to the most relevant ones also ensures you can turn up really well-prepared and ready to ask pertinent questions that will in turn help you get noticed by employers.

After each event, consider sending LinkedIn connection requests to the speakers or any individuals you had conversations with. Always include a personal note with each invitation, including why you’d like to connect and once the request is accepted send a more detailed message. If appropriate, be bold and invite your new contact for a virtual coffee to learn more about their career story and day-to-day work. Also, remember, networking isn’t a popularity contest and gaining millions of connections. It’s all about building positive meaningful relationships with targeted individuals. And when done in an appropriate manner, it’s a wonderful way to connect with future mentors and cheerleaders. Networking can also help to open up opportunities that you might’ve otherwise missed or not been considered for, especially if you go all out and ask for recommendations. But please make such requests with caution. The majority of lawyers are cautious beasts and don’t like sticking their head above the parapet. So, if they do politely say no to making a recommendation or offering a personal reference try not to take it personally.

Aside from networking and the ‘targeted’ law-related stuff, get involved in activities that you really care about or love doing. Not only will you enjoy the experiences you’ll pick up some original anecdotes to include in your applications or job interviews that will give you the competitive edge and make you more memorable. For instance, did you know that I’m the proud owner of a much-coveted green Blue Peter badge for my work on a massive recycling campaign that I ran from my hospital bed whilst recovering from major surgery? Which law firm graduate recruitment person was going to forget such an unusual achievement on my application forms as proof of my grit, determination and not to mention project management skills?

Cognitive curiosity and adopting a growth mindset, including using every encounter or opportunity as a learning experience is also key. I love discovering new things and often spend time reading non-literature, including newspapers and self-help books, and watching documentaries. And when given the opportunity I always ask questions of others to build on any existing knowledge I’ve already gained about a subject matter or issue.

Finally, create your own opportunities to close any gaps on your CV. For example, if you need to boost your research and writing skills why not offer to write a blog for CheekyLittleCareers? Or if public speaking is your Achilles heel then have a think about getting involved in amateur dramatics or like me stand up comedy. Indeed, any activities that help bolster your communication skills (writing and speaking) are a must because ultimately getting noticed is all about story-telling.