Your application timeline: key dates for getting hired as a trainee solicitor

13 Dec 2023, 10:45

Our ‘what do I do when?’ FAQs and easy-to-follow action plans for each year of study will help you secure a training contract or qualifying work experience.

A calendar signifying the application timeline for solicitors

The timetable for when you need to apply for different stages of the solicitor qualification process is less fixed than it was, but it is still important to do certain things at certain times of year – and in specific year groups. We’re here to help.

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If needed, you can first remind yourself of the SQE qualification process for aspiring solicitors.

When do I apply for a training contract?

Training contract deadlines for most large law firms used to be fixed for 31 July, but this is no longer the case, with some falling as early as December in the previous year.

See our list of key training contract deadlines.

Most large firms recruit up to two years in advance. So, you should start applying for training contracts in the second year of a law degree or the final year of a non-law degree.

However, if you are not successful in securing a training contract first time around, many firms also accept applications from students pursuing postgraduate study (including the postgraduate diploma in law, PGDL, the LPC, or the preparation study for the SQE). It’s just if you get a training contract as an undergraduate student, most large law firms will pay for any required postgraduate study.

Note, though, the smaller and high street firms typically hire trainees on an as-needed basis throughout the year for an immediate start.

When do I apply for vacation schemes?

Applications for winter vacation schemes typically open in the autumn and applications for summer vacation schemes tend to open in the winter, from around December to March.

See our list of key vacation scheme deadlines.

Most vacation schemes are aimed at second year law students and final-year non-students, although there are some open to graduates and postgraduate students as well. You may find that law firms run schemes at different times of the year for specific groups of students: for example, for second-year law students in the summer and non-law students in the winter.

When do I apply for law insight programmes and open days?

Most insight programmes are held in the autumn and spring, and so deadlines tend to fall between October and January.

They are typically geared towards first-year students. However, some are aimed at student cohorts in other years who are underrepresented in the legal profession: for example, at those from lower socioeconomic or ethnic minority backgrounds.

First-year law students and second-year non-law students: chart your course for a law career

You are not expected to be absolutely ‘set’ on a career in law, let alone with a specific firm, at this point. This is a time for you to explore the whole legal profession and work out if it is for you. That said, if you impress a law firm on a first-year (or second-year non-law) insight programme, they are likely to offer you a vacation scheme in the following year.

  • Start with essential research. First, decide whether you would rather be a solicitor or a barrister . Then read our practice area overviews to get a sense of which type of law appeals and take a look at our guide to the different types of firms to work out where you might like to work or gain work experience.
  • Create or update your CV and LinkedIn profile to get ready to apply for work experience. For inspiration, see our law CV template , our CV advice and our tips on how to make the perfect profile .
  • Apply to law insight programmes and open days – both online and in person – between October and January . Most events are held in the autumn and spring terms. These are a great way to find out if law is for you and to gain vital work experience for your CV.
  • Register/apply for any law careers events and fairs run by your careers service or targetjobs – these will typically be held in the autumn term, so start looking from October . At this stage, you are using these events to learn more about firms and hearing about their opportunities for your year group and discipline – but adding careers events and webinars to your CV will enhance it.
  • Join your university’s law society and regularly attend meet ups and events throughout the year. Being able to say you are an active member of the society on your CV will demonstrate your enthusiasm for the legal profession.
  • Start to develop the skills law firms seek in trainees by actively pursuing extracurricular activities throughout the year . Not only will law recruiters want to see examples of when you’ve previously demonstrated skills, but many firms also ask about your extracurricular activities on their application forms.
  • Try to gain work experience with smaller and high street firms for the Easter and summer holidays – formal opportunities with smaller firms are less likely to be advertised, so you will probably need to apply speculatively . It’d be good to start trying to arrange this six to eight weeks before the holidays. Adding ‘ad hoc’ work experience to your CV will boost your chances of getting a vacation scheme next year.
  • Pay attention to your studies – law firms do expect consistent academic performance throughout your time at university (excepting any mitigating circumstances).

Second-year law students and final-year non-law students: get set for success

This is a key year for you if you wish to apply to a larger firm: you’ll need to apply for vacation schemes and training contracts, as well as keeping on top of your studies.

  • Update your CV and LinkedIn profile (or create them, if you haven’t yet – our law CV template , CV advice and guide to creating the perfect profile will help.
  • In the autumn term , attend your university law careers fair, talks/webinars and events (including those run by targetjobs). They are good means of researching law firms, deciding where to apply and networking: here are some tips on making the most of law fairs. In addition, use LinkedIn to actively follow and network with recruiters, law firms and practising solicitors – our advice will help you to do this.
  • Apply for vacation schemes. Deadlines for winter schemes typically fall in the autumn term , while applications for summer schemes are often in December and January – see our list of key vacation scheme deadlines .
  • Apply for training contracts. Deadlines typically fall between January and July – see our list of key deadlines and find out more about how they work in our advice feature (NB: if you accept a training contract offer before starting a vacation scheme, many firms will ask you to turn down the vacation scheme so that they can offer it elsewhere).
  • If you are a non-law student who is considering funding yourself through a postgraduate conversion course , aim to apply around March for courses starting in October. Some courses will accept applications up until mid-July , but you might find that your preferred course is full if you leave it until later. A conversion course is no longer required in order to qualify, but strongly advised.
  • Seek out ways to enhance your CV by developing further skills and gaining more evidence of your interest in law throughout the year. Consider one or more of the following: getting actively involved in the running of a student society or extracurricular activity; volunteering for a legal advice clinic (although there might be some restrictions); mentoring students in lower years or becoming a schools ambassador; taking part in law-related or debate competitions; or getting some customer-facing part-time work to develop your client skills.
  • If you have time in the holidays, and especially if you don’t have vacation schemes lined up, try to get some ad hoc work experience with smaller or high street law firms. You will probably need to apply speculatively .

Final-year law students, graduates of all disciplines and postgraduate students: keep your eye on the finish line

There are always many more applicants for training contracts each year than there are vacancies and so, while you should apply for them two years in advance, it is not unusual to still be seeking a training contract in the following year or the year after that.

But under the new SQE qualifying process you don’t have to gain a training contract to become a solicitor – you can self-fund your way through the exams (and any necessary study) and gain the qualifying work experience through working as a paralegal or volunteering at a law clinic.

  • It’s probably wise to combine seeking training contracts with preparing to put yourself through the SQE. So complete as much of the previous checklist as you can.
  • If you are a final-year law student who is considering funding their own LLM qualification or other postgraduate course to start in October, apply before June/mid-July – and preferably earlier (say, around March) to avoid missing out. Find out more about LLMs and other law postgraduate study options .
  • If you are considering starting an SQE preparation course immediately after graduating, you will find that there are multiple start dates, depending on the course you are interested in. LLM SQE preparation dates may have a start date in October or January, while shorter courses often have multiple intakes throughout the year. Research the best course for you.
  • If you are considering gaining QWE by other means than through a training contract – or wish to boost your work experience before applying for a training contract – you should start looking for paralegal jobs or voluntary work a couple of months before you are available to start work. Note that some smaller and high street firms will have a few training contracts available for an immediate start too.

Note: we haven’t included in this any timings for the legal practice course (LPC) because most firms are switching from the LPC qualifying route to the SQE from 2024 and are asking LPC students to qualify via the SQE – find out more in ‘what to do now if you are an LPC student’ (advertising feature).

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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