September is an interesting time of year for junior lawyers. Paralegals and LPC graduates are starting their training contracts and Trainee Solicitors are coming up to the quarter, half way or qualification stage of theirs.
It is understandable that individuals have a number of questions about how their career will progress during the training contract process. Questions frequently include “what seats do I want to undertake?”, “will I stay with my current firm?”, “what do I want to qualify into?”, “what else is out there?”, “what changes when I qualify?”. These are of course just a few of the most common queries that crop up.
Here at Chadwick Nott, we speak to a large number of lawyers during their training contract and post-qualification. We thought it would be really useful to hear from ‘the horse’s mouth’ what the process is like and what changes upon qualification.
We asked four solicitors who had qualified in law firms with quite different profiles to give us their personal insights – for this exercise, let’s call them Carol, Sarah, Richard and Anna!
When applying for your training contract what attracted you to your current firm?
Carol - My application process was a little unusual. I actually applied to a smaller local firm and in the second week of my training contract, it was announced that they was merging with a large international firm! It was a bit of a surprise, but in the end very positive for me as a trainee as the firm offered a wider choice of seats and the team I am qualifying into is really highly regarded.
Sarah - During my research of law firms their well-known well respected reputation became apparent. They have specialist departments dealing with many areas of law.
Have you any top tips in relation to the trainee application process?
Carol - Only to keep soldiering on with it! It's really time consuming to fill in all the application forms and can be demoralising until you get the offer, but it is doable. I found that having legal work experience as a paralegal was vital in getting my training contract, because it gave me some proper relevant examples to give in answers to questions and in interview.
Sarah - Try and get as much work experience as possible, do vacation schemes at law firms of any size.
Did you have a good idea of what area of law you wanted to qualify into when you started your training?
Carol - I didn't have a fixed idea – I thought I wanted to work with individual clients, perhaps in family or employment.
Sarah - No but I had some ideas which actually have changed over the two years.
Did this change as you progressed in your training?
Carol - Yes, massively! I was initially attracted to contentious work but in the end found non-contentious much more satisfying.
Was your firm flexible and accommodating in terms of which seats you were offered?
Carol - At the firm I qualified with, you are asked to choose a 'super seat', ie your dream seat, and they try to make sure you get to do that. We have the opportunity to speak to HR about which seats we'd prefer and that's taken into account, but in this office there are only as many seats as trainees so it's impossible to give everyone what they want all the time.
Sarah - They tried to be but there was a lot of competition for certain seats. Make sure you do a great jobs in every seat you undertake. Your reputation in the firm will then be very good and you are more likely to get your first choice of seat.
Do you think a 6 month seat gives you enough time to make the decision as to where you want to qualify?
Richard - The firm I qualified with actually gives its trainees the final eight months of their training contract in the area of law they want to specialise in. I liked this as it gave you a long lead-up to qualification, rather than qualifying into a seat you might have done a year ago for a 6 month period.
Sarah - It’s tough and I found that my experience in some seats differed a lot to other trainees depending on the work coming in during those 6 months.
What was the most challenging aspect of your training contract?
Carol - It is a huge step up in terms of responsibility and technical knowledge from academia and from being a paralegal. In most seats I had files in my own name and had to manage and progress them myself. It felt quite daunting in the beginning but now I would say it's one of the best things about the training contract.
Did you get involved in marketing or other such activities at your firm during your training?
Carol - I am a member of the CSR committee so help to plan fundraising and volunteering activities within the firm. I have also been to several client networking and marketing events, including social events and seminars. Feeling confident in talking to clients and potential clients about the firm and also in an informal environment is such a useful skill. I was given the opportunity to present at two seminars which was initially terrifying but such great experience.
Sarah - Yes, it helps build your confidence with clients and also helps build your positive reputation with your firm, which you may well wish to be retained by. Marketing skills are now crucial for all lawyers.
In addition to technical knowledge, what was the most useful thing you learned during your training?
Carol - At my firm, trainees are given a lot of client contact which has been so useful. During the course of my training I have felt increasingly comfortable explaining legal positions, understanding clients' needs and updating them when necessary.
Sarah - how to manage client meetings and manage client expectations.
Did you consult agencies, friends or family in looking for an NQ role and how did they help? What was useful about this process?
Carol - Like all trainees, I have lots of friends who are in the same position at other firms (or may have qualified already or be working in different roles in a law firm such as HR). When I started thinking about NQ roles friends were really useful as they could advise what might be available at their firm and when the best time would be to apply. Friends and family were also very patient and proof-read hundreds of drafts of my CV. In the end though consulting Chadwick Nott was the most useful, as a means of getting my CV directly to the firms themselves, and scouting out what might be available even before it is advertised. I also felt that the interview preparation really helped me to prepare for the sorts of things the firm were likely to (and in fact did) ask.
Sarah – Help and advice from friends and family was vital, as was using an agency like Chadwick Nott who could give me the full low-down on firms and opportunities in my area and also much further afield – it was a competitive process at qualification time.
Using five words describe your time as a Trainee Solicitor
Carol - Very challenging but really satisfying.
Sarah - Full-on, hard work but fun!
Post qualification, what changed for you?
Richard - You get a lot more respect as a qualified solicitor than as a trainee solicitor, but for me this probably had something to do with moving to a different firm. I think some of my colleagues would have still viewed me as a trainee to a certain extent if I had stayed at the firm I trained with. The downside is that too much can be expected of you too soon at a new firm. During your first week as an NQ, it has only been a week since you were a trainee and it is important that fact is not lost on you and your colleagues.
Anna - In my personal experience it was quite a leap from trainee to NQ, in terms of targets and chargeable hours but this will depend a lot on the type of firm you are working for. The one thing I would advise is that whilst targets are important, it is certainly not the only thing an employer looks for.
Did Partners or clients treat you differently?
Richard - This was the first time I was let loose with clients and I definitely felt there was an underlying respect as well an expectation to help solve your client's problems, even if I felt I was still on a steep learning curve.
Anna - I didn’t notice much of a difference in how I was treated by partners or clients on qualification. The idea is that it should be a relatively smooth transition to qualification so I would advise trainees who are nearing qualification to make sure they have their own files, so they can experience managing a caseload and start networking. Act as though you are already qualified and it should be seamless. Finishing qualification in the seat in which you wish to qualify will help with this.
Did you take on any extra responsibility?
Richard - Yes, I was expected to network and market the firm. Business development is very important to generate further clients and referrals for the department.
Anna - Looking at an individual’s contribution to the firm as a whole in terms of generating business and ensuring your firm is seen in a positive light by others is very much valued. This is something that as a trainee I had not experienced much of so that definitely did change.
Did you have to work longer hours?
Richard - No - my hours as a trainee could be long! I think this depends on the firm you work for. If you train with a large firm and qualify into a large firm, you can expect the hours to be still long!
What advice would you give to Trainees about to start their Training Contract?
Carol - Keep an open mind about different areas of law, and throw yourself into every seat – you just never know.
Anna - If there is one piece of advice I would go back and give my NQ self, it is to have faith in your abilities. There is a reason why you have got this far and although you will have lots still to learn, just have the confidence to keep going!
And Trainees coming up to qualification?
Richard - Continue to treat your CPD seriously even if there are no longer a compulsory number of points to obtain. It is important to keep developing yourself.
If you’re a trainee looking towards life after qualification, our consultants at Chadwick Nott can get you started in a fantastic first role. With a network that extends from boutique practices to international law firms, we’ve got access to the full range of newly qualified legal jobs in the UK, as well as in the US and globally. And well beyond your placement, we’ll continue to support you with expert career advice – from CV preparation to interview tips, and up-to-the-minute market updates, immersing you in the fascinating and fast changing legal world.
If you’d like to talk through any of our latest opportunities or pick our brains on the market or your CV, please do contact us for more information.