How can a graduate be best prepared for a job as a trainee solicitor?
The Dangerous Book for Trainees
24 June 2013
BPP Graduate Diploma in Law student Deborah Halifax is the winner of the BPP and Lawyer 2B prize for a free BPP Legal Practice Course place for her article on how best to prepare for a trainee job
Q: How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: According to the Light-bulb Act 1916 s1, a light bulb is defined as a glass globe that allows the electromagnetic charge to radiate, and s3(a) states that this may be changed by person or persons of full capacity, as per the ‘reasonable man’ test (Filament v Ecobulb).
The exceptions are as follows: in statute L(amendment)Act 1917 s7(1)(a) small person should not attempt light-bulb changing on their own (P v MS) and ‘small’ is defined in schedule 1 as ‘below 4ft 8” in height’….
The truth is law school doesn’t equip you for the world of work. Law graduates spend countless hours learning to break down definitions, and cite subsections and exceptions, of which, it seems, there are always many.
The fundamental difference between law school and your work as a trainee is that you now are serving a client. Your client does not want an academic answer. Bizarrely, neither does the partner you’ll be working under.
Of all people, you might have thought they would appreciate your intellectual prowess, but no, they want concise answers too. Everyone I spoke to, senior partners, partners and trainees, had an appreciation that time is money, and they wanted an answer below fifty words.
I’ve been lucky enough to work in the legal department at News International. Their in-house counsel Justin Walford gave me some old cases to prepare advice on before I was allowed to get my teeth into any live news stories.
Of course, I prepared a variety of arguments, with many caveats and sections from the PCC and the Defamation Act 1996. As I presented this, he stopped me part way through: “I’m the journalist who has written this,” he said.“Advise me. Can I say this?”
“Yes, under fair comment,” I replied. That was actually all he was after.
Of course, I needed to do the research, checking the statutes and codes. I needed to be sure what was legal and what was not, but my client doesn’t need to know how I got to a decision, they just need to know if they can, or cannot, write or do a particular thing.
You will be working with very busy people and busy people want straight answers. There sometimes are reasons why you would advise against a course of action, even when it is possible, but most of the time the KISS principle applies (keep it simple, stupid).
Another key skill that a graduate needs to succeed as a trainee could be best encapsulated in the Yorkshire phrase: “There’s nowt so strange as folk.’ The chances are that you have mainly mixed with people who are similar to you. You won’t necessarily have had to get on with people from different social backgrounds or who have differing views on life.
The skill of getting on with people with whom you don’t naturally see eye to eye is crucial. Olly, an in-house lawyer commented: “Get used to weird hours, and dealing with stressed and wonderfully varied people.”
Firstly, let’s consider this within working relationships. You are in a seat for four to six months. You need to hit the ground running, building efficient relationships without sacrificing your general humanity or becoming an emotional frazzle. It sounds trite, but be nice to secretaries. They really do oil the machinery of the firm. If you know how to ask without being either patronising or demanding, you will get much more help from them too.
Many of the clerical staff at firms will know much more than you do at this stage about what needs to be done, so if you are pleasant in your dealings with them, you are much more likely to get their help with if a search went through or for something to be rushed out to the post.
You will probably come across all kinds of diva behaviour from both colleagues and clients; if you have emotional intelligence, this will not throw you. You need to be able to cooperate, and that means the putting in effort to make the team look good. If you have built the relationships, it is easier to liaise across practices within the firm to ensure the client gets all advice needed.
Helen, a second year family law trainee, remarked: “They certainly didn’t teach me the price per gram of heroin at law school. Or how to remove irate travellers from reception.”
Knowing what is likely to affect your client and how to diffuse potentially aggressive situations are skills worth cultivating. People from all walks of life can be aggressive, especially when under stress. “Learn to manage difficult people before you go into law,” one solicitor says.
It may be worth investing in some assertiveness training, or if something contentious is your goal, courses on handling confrontation. You can, of course, try to do this during your training contract, but so much better if you can do this before you start.
Working part time defending at custody, I know that my training in handling confrontation has helped me recognise dangers, handle explosive or emotional clients and deal with belligerent police officers. They aren’t all belligerent, but I have come across a few.
The other way you can prepare for this is to get some work experience on a play scheme or a youth centre. Face-to-face, pro bono work for clients with stressful and pressing needs will help, and many law schools offer this opportunity. Or why not help out at a night shelter for six months?
You need to be able to filter out the rubbish and hear what the client or partner needs or wants from you at any given point. Only practice with some difficult people and difficult situations will do this.
The skill of quick comprehension only happens if you practice by reading. When you move seats, you’ll need to absorb information quickly and be up to speed, areas like employment law change rapidly. If your aim is the corporate heady world of merger and acquisitions, you should be reading business press so you know what will impact your clients.
With the advent of ‘Tesco law’, many high street firms are under threat, so knowing where else to look for a training contract, and what ABS and the Jackson reforms mean for your potential clients is important, and all areas you could be asked about in that training contract interview.
Personal organisation is also key. Law firms want to make money. If you can’t organise your files, manage your time and be technically aware, you will run into problems. “You can stop and rewind your dictation machine, but you don’t really have time for that, you need to get it right first time,” said a solicitor source.
If you are a last minute merchant, beware. You can be sure that aspects will emerge that need your attention and the client will still want the work delivered on time. They will want it to be accurate too. If you email clients, they will expect an immediate response; knowing when to email and when a letter is better is important.
You will have to deal with complaints. Clients are less likely to complain if you don’t delay and if you have given all the information on things like the costs, but all complaints could go to the ombudsman. If you haven’t written your attendance notes and kept the paper trail, you are in trouble.
Develop a systematic mind. Colour code your wardrobe by all means, but a placement where you do filing, prepare bundles or have to organise a fundraising event will help. Getting your essays in on time, whilst managing a full attendance, is also practice for this skill.
With legal apprenticeships, and the move towards the minimum wage for a trainee being abolished, it will cost more to train as a lawyer. That makes the imperative to get qualified more imminent. Put off the gap year until you have the qualified status under your belt. Perhaps you need a year as a paralegal so that you have more marketable skills.
Work placements will help you. “It didn’t matter that the area of law I got the experience in wasn’t what I wanted to do – the purpose is to give you an idea of what you like and what you don’t like,” explained one associate.
It is much easier to do the long hours if you believe in the firm you work for. And you will sound much more enthusiastic in your applications if you know this is a firm whose work you admire.