Training as a solicitor is a bit like playing musical chairs. During your two-year training contract you will rotate between departments, spending around six months in each. These placements are known as seats.
The seat system differs between firms, so its worth asking the firms youre thinking of applying to how theirs work. Most offer four seats, of which one may be overseas or with a client.
Magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, however, offers up to eight seats, each lasting three months, enabling trainees to maximise the opportunity to identify where their strengths and weaknesses are and for departments to identify those trainees theyd like to recruit upon qualification. That said, very few trainees undertake seven or eight seats, with most taking on five or six, including an overseas or client secondment.
In stark contrast, US firm Jones Day doesnt operate a seat system at all, with new recruits spending their entire training contracts in one department, and indeed their own offices. On the face of it this structure sounds bonkers, but I think Jones Day might be onto something.
For many trainees, choosing between departments can be incredibly challenging, with some seats, especially the overseas ones, being oversubscribed. There is also the danger of specialising too early.
There isnt really a right or wrong answer as to what order to do your seats, or indeed whether four seats are better than eight. I started in the corporate department, which is arguably less technical than niche areas such as tax or derivatives, meaning I didnt feel out of my depth during the early stages of my training contract. The key, I believe, is to keep an open mind and to dabble in as many different areas as possible until you find your own niche.
This is why I think the Jones Day structure has a number of benefits. The agony of choosing between practice areas and indeed some of the politics of seat changes is removed. This flexibility means its possible to become involved in a broader mix of work, rather than being restricted to the deals the department youre sitting in is handling, until you naturally drift towards a certain practice area. Whats more, youre likely to see through a deal from start to finish rather than, as I did, move into another group as it just gets interesting. Youll also get to see a variety of lawyers in action, which should help you develop your own style.
The danger, of course, is that it may turn into a free-for-all. Jones Day contests this is the case and argues that, contrary to popular belief, it reduces competition between trainees, as a natural split develops between them with regard to the practice areas they eventually want to specialise in.
Almost every firm I speak to claims to offer the most flexible training contract. Some firms, such as Freshfields and Jones Day, make convincing arguments, while others need to be more persuasive. I suggest you ask them the same questions and make up your own mind. After all, your choice of seats will be crucial for the rest of your career.