22 February 2011 | By Laura Manning
Keeping an open mind is the way to make the most of the seat rotation system
Training contracts are often likened to a game of musical chairs rotating between seats with little idea of where you will end up, but just hoping you will land on your feet and not end up in a heap on the floor. Such a comparison is pretty accurate, provided you throw in a sizeable pay cheque and a little tactical thinking, not to mention the pressure of your future career weighing on your shoulders.
Most trainees step into their contracts with bags of motivation and drive - some, if they are fortunate, with a good idea of which department they eventually want to qualify into. But even if you are one of these lucky few, the likelihood is that you will have to compromise on some of your seats simply to secure the ones you are more interested in as a reward. The best way to allocate seats, along with the ideal number of times a trainee should rotate between departments, have long caused headaches for graduate recruiters. Many plump for the ’more the merrier’ approach, cramming six practice areas into two years, while a strong cohort stick to the more popular four-seat structure.
Arguably, though, Jones Day’s unique non-seat structure offers the best solution to the problem of keeping everyone happy, and if you like the thought of having your own office from day one, this simple structure may be just the ticket.
Quick off the mark
The international firm prides itself on this unusual set up, believing it to produce well-rounded lawyers by allowing them to take on a vast range of work from all departments at the same time. Trainees achieve their training contracts through the experience they get rather than the time they have spent in each seat, while following a finely detailed, target-based checklist.
Narrowing its training contract like this was a gutsy move by Jones Day, but the graduate recruitment team did not adopt this model with its eyes closed and wisely made public the fact that it would not be for everyone. Indeed, graduate recruitment manager Diana Spoudeas claims the firm seeks out confident, self-possessed and proactive candidates who respond positively to the idea of responsibility.
“We look for someone who’s ready to fly; who’s done enough studying and learning, and wants to roll up their sleeves and get on with it,” says Spoudeas.
Spoudeas explains that the structure requires the trainee to be “a self-starter”, with the work they cover being largely down to them. And, despite some deals requiring a trainee to work with several other people, she says that often “the pressure is on trainees to walk around and get to know other lawyers, which is why the training system demands a certain type
Spoudeas adds that “supervision is there, but you have to be the sort of person who knows when to call for help”.
But DLA Piper graduate recruitment executive Claire Lay argues that such a notion presents a drawback.
“I don’t feel this would work at our firm - our system enables trainees to closely observe four partners or associates and get used to working and interacting with a range of people and teams,” she explains.
DLA Piper uses the traditional four-seat structure, following the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) guidelines of mixing contentious and non-contentious work, with students allowed to opt for three seats that interest them for each six-month move.
“The structure works well for us, and obviously business needs come first,” says Lay. “But I think, with trainees being fairly realistic, we can balance their expectations. I’ve known trainees to get upset about going into a non-preferred department and then end up qualifying there, so the best tip I can give is to go in with an open mind.”
Weil Gotshal & Manges graduate recruitment manager Jillian Singh agrees that an open mind is key to successfully completing a training contract, and a certain amount of flexibility from both trainee and recruiter is a must.
At Weil trainees can choose their four six-month seats from the outset of their training contracts, with the option of changing their choices at mid-seat reviews. They do, however, have compulsory corporate and finance seats.
“We try to be flexible and do our best to give the preference next time if they don’t get it at first,” relates Singh. “But if everyone wants the same seat and there’s only one place available we’re not going to please everyone.”
It seems clear that being dealt a good hand at each department move is rare during a training contract, so why are so many trainees staggered when they are landed with a seat they did not want?
“I think that often trainees forget that seat rotations need to align with the business needs and models in each department,” says Singh.
Some trainees are notorious for their use of clever tactics to help secure their preferred seats, with a few taking the view that, by putting their favourite seat in the middle of three choices, will up their chances due to recruiters’ eyes being supposedly drawn to the centre. They may also fill an item in with stars around it, use a red pen or capital letters.
But apparently there are ways to help you sit more comfortably without the use of such tactics. A simple expression of interest in a particular department in which you have a unique skill set might not go amiss, for example.
Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) graduate recruitment partner Matthew Lohn shares this view, and further insists that a businesslike career-orientated approach, a large dollop of self-motivation and a proactive attitude can take you a long way.
“Bluntly, if you have a lawyer who sulks and doesn’t contribute in a seat, this could have a detrimental effect on their career potential within a firm,” he warns. “We expect our trainees to take advantage of the opportunities available.
“Trainees have to understand that [seat rotation] is part of their training. First, they shouldn’t close their minds to liking a seat, and second, there are always generic legal skills people will learn from these seats.”
FFW’s seats are allocated through trainees submitting up to five preferences that are rated plus a CV and covering letter. The graduate recruitment team then works with heads of department to assess who should go into each department, and it is noted when trainees get their preferred seats. The firm recently moved to the more popular training contract composition by stepping away from the six-seat structure to four, after running the system for six years.
Lohn comments that it was important to reach a balance between giving trainees the opportunity of seeing a range of seats and giving them enough experience in a particular seat to generate a decent enough understanding of that practice area to help in making a final career choice.
Norton Rose, however, boasts in its graduate brochure that its six-seat structure gives the opportunity for trainees “to compare different areas of law”, with one trainee opinion piece on its website, by Adam Willman, reading: “If you find you end up not liking a particular seat it means you don’t end up wasting your time by spending six months there.”
The top 10 firm also offers the opportunity for a secondment in an overseas seat, although as with many firms this is not a guarantee of your training contract. That is, unless you have secured a job at White & Case, which has been proudly shouting ’all abroad’ to their trainees for several years.
White & Case graduate recruitment officer Shahnaz Begum calls this guaranteed seat abroad “the main selling point” of its training contract, with the New York-headquartered firm jetting all 20 of its trainees last year to worldwide destinations.
Begum says the programme removes the element of competition between trainees by giving everyone a fair opportunity to experience working for the firm in another office.
“Trainees must take into account that these six months are still part of their training contracts - they must pick somewhere that adds value to their training and not just treat
it as a holiday,” stresses Begum.
White & Case requires trainees to submit three choices of overseas seats and the decision is made from there, but with only one seat going in its New York office, for example, there will inevitably be some disappointments among trainees, and there are times when “we basically have to pull a name out of a hat”, concedes Begum.
“At the end of the day, going abroad is a bonus and can be considered as one of the more desirable elements of the training contract,” she adds. “We try to be fair and
hope that nobody’s disappointed.”
As great as an overseas secondment may sound, with the exotic climate and potential uplift in salary, it can have a profound impact on your life, whether this is to do with your partner’s reaction or family commitments. The most far-flung seats can often give UK-loving Brits a culture shock. Different working patterns and a broader mix of work, along with potentially less support, can be a little overwhelming.
But with only a handful of firms guaranteeing all their trainees a stint abroad, those wanting to get out of the office in London will often need to lower their expectations to a client secondment.
Client secondments should not, however, be knocked, as they have their merits despite looking a little less glamorous. And they are arguably more helpful for enhancing the skills necessary to become a successful commercial lawyer.
Other advantages include a likely increased level of responsibility for trainees than they would get in private practice plus an opportunity to get unbeatable client contact while immersing themselves in the everyday operation of a business.
Linklaters graduate recruitment marketing adviser Victoria Wisson believes that overseas secondments should not be guaranteed, as it may be more beneficial for some trainees to complete all their seats in the London office or move to a more local organisation.
Wisson insists that the key thing is that trainees should approach secondments with an open mind and make the most of the opportunities available to them to experience a different working environment for six months or a year.
Perhaps the solution to the endless struggle to keep everyone happy is for recruiters to add a few enlightening phrases about the truth behind seat allocation and secondments to their glossy brochures, and for would-be lawyers to choose firms with structures that suit their needs, while simply lowering their expectations and recognising, as FFW’s Lohn puts it, that “of course people won’t always get their first choice, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles”.
Top tips on seat rotations
- Keep an open mind - you can’t really know what a department is like until you have spent some time in it.
- Try to make a favourable impression in every department because the best/hardest-working trainees get noticed by those who have the power to determine who gets which seats
- Keep an updated business case on why you want to do a particular seat.
- Think about which seats best complement each other.
- Do not throw a tantrum if you do not get your first choice, and avoid underhand tactics.
- Speak to other trainees who have been in departments you are interested in.
- Do not forget that an overseas seat is not an extended holiday.