10 December 2009 | By Husnara Begum
An in-house training contract is a great way for would-be lawyers to learn their trade in a real-life business environment.
Law firms may be the first port of call for most students applying for training contracts, but have you ever thought about applying for an in-house training contract? Opportunities for aspiring lawyers with some of the UK’s biggest businesses may be far and few between, but for those who do make it can boast first-class experience with bags of client contact.
An exclusive survey conducted by Lawyer 2B in 2008 found that just 18 per cent of FTSE100 companies hire in-house trainees. Although this does not sound very high, it does represent a slight increase from the 15 per cent in the previous year’s survey. One such company is Barclays Capital (BarCap), the investment banking arm of Barclays Bank. As first reported by Lawyer2B.com in October, BarCap celebrated the qualification of its first-ever cohort of trainees and a 100 per cent retention rate to boot - not bad work given the financial crisis.
Director of the legal department and principal trainer Francis Dickinson says the bank had taken the initial decision to home grow its own talent because of the rapid expansion of its 97-strong legal department.
“There’s quite a lot of expertise within BarCap so it’s a perfect learning environment for trainees,” Dickinson explains. “It’s great because we’ve now got five newly qualified lawyers who are ready to hit the ground running and are very commercially aware because they’ve seen all sides of the business through the seat rotation we do.”
Graduates taking part in BarCap’s legal training programme experience four six-month seat rotations within various teams in the department, including finance and business. There is also a mentoring system in place for each trainee throughout the two-year contract.
FTSE100 mobile phone giant Vodafone has run a formal recruitment programme for trainees for the past five years and even offers vacation placements to four students per year. The structure of Vodafone’s training contract is similar to those offered in private practice, with trainees spending time with different teams including commercial, corporate and litigation. The trainees are also allocated an overall manager who will undertake their appraisals and be their first point of contact.
Vodafone Group senior solicitor Charlotte Booth says the key difference with private practice is that the client sees the in-house lawyer as part of their team.
“This means you get more exposure to commercial issues and opportunities to develop commercial awareness. You’re not just providing legal advice in a vacuum,” she explains. “You also get more face-to-face interaction with clients and aren’t hidden behind partners.”
This is echoed by ITV director of central legal affairs Paul Lewis, who says that in-house lawyers are at the heart of the business area and are usually involved in the business rationale, execution, implementation and fallout of the particular deal they are advising on. In contrast a trainee in a large City firm may only be brought in at the execution/dispute stage, meaning that they miss out on large chunks of a matter.
“This holistic view gives an in-house trainee a real insight into how business works, how decisions/mistakes are made and the rationale for businesses taking the decisions they do, enabling the advice they give to be appropriately tailored and contextual, whereas a private practice trainee may feel somewhat detached from the matter on which they are advising,” explains Lewis. “Working with the business and assisting them to succeed gives an in-house lawyer a particular sense of job satisfaction.”
Like many other businesses, broadcast giant ITV has been offering training contracts to reward its legal executives who have shown promise on an ad hoc basis for seven years, although it has now been formalised into an identifiable scheme as part of the ITV Legal Excellence and Responsibility Programme.
ITV trainees complete two six-month seats with the broadcaster and two further six-month seats with a panel of law firms comprising Addleshaw Goddard, DLA Piper, Lovells, Olswang and Slaughter and May.
Private practice vs in-house
Booth denies that it is preferable to train in private practice, claiming that some in-house legal departments, including that of Vodafone, are almost the same size as a small law firm and therefore cover most areas of law.
“There aren’t many law firms that could offer a broader range of experience than Vodafone. Our trainees have been involved in everything from defending Vodafone in class actions to our sponsorship of the McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 racing team,” claims Booth.
But Lewis concedes that there are certain advantages to training in private practice, such as access to formal legal training to hone your technical drafting skills, for instance.
“There may be less of a focus on this in-house where the training is much more on the job,” he admits.
That said, Lewis argues that he does not necessarily agree that it is preferable to have such a broad exposure - although this does depend on an individual’s longer-term career aspirations.
It is finally worth noting that it is always possible to move into private practice at a later date. Indeed, while the majority of former Vodafone trainees are still with the company, some have left to go into private practice in the City, proving that the skills that you acquire in-house are equally valued by law firms.
Need to know
Training in-house is the road less travelled, so here is the essential information to help get you to your destination.
Who? Unlike their counterparts in law firms, many in-house trainees gain experience in a corporate environment before taking the plunge into law. Many trainees come from different parts of the business and have transferred to legal via a law conversion course.
What? A training contract in-house will be heavy on corporate and commercial work, but there will be scope to do seats in more specialist areas, such as litigation and intellectual property, depending on the company. As a trainee, you have a right to a varied experience. Many companies will send you for a six-month secondment in a law firm if they cannot offer training in certain practice areas.
Where? It is worth exploring both listed and large privately owned companies or foreign businesses with presences in the UK. It is also worth looking at the public sector, including local and central government. Your research should initially focus on whether a company has an in-house legal function. In terms of geography, the opportunities tend to be where the companies have their headquarters. London is important, but is not the only place to train.
When? Because legal trainees are rather exceptional within a company, there are not the same rigid hiring cycles you will find in law firms. Most companies hire trainees on an ad hoc basis as and when the need arises or the right candidate comes along.
How? The application process depends on the organisation. Usually the central HR department handles the initial application stage, working with one or two senior lawyers who are the designated trainee contacts in the legal department. The other part of the how is down to you. The legal department will be looking for people who are clued up on how the company’s business works and any developments in the wider industry. Do your research and wear a suit.
Why? Training in-house is a good way to get real business experience while building up a budding career as a solicitor. It will differentiate you from the crowd of your peers that trained at law firms and will look impressive on your CV should you wish to join private practice later because you will have worked with the clients that pay the bills. As an in-house trainee you will be quite a rarity. You might have less contact with trainees in a company, as they tend to hire fewer than law firms, but you will avoid the strict hierarchy of life in private practice.
Name: Gareth McClure
Universities: University of Southampton (LLB) and
University of Strathclyde (LLM)
Degrees: Master of Laws (LLM) in Information Technology and Telecommunications Law; Bachelor of Laws (LLB)
How did you secure your training contract at Vodafone?
In 2006 I successfully applied for Vodafone’s Group Legal summer scheme. This placement allowed me to work for three weeks in three different teams within the group legal department and was a key stepping stone to obtaining my training contract. Following my placement, I kept in contact with some of the solicitors I had met and applied for a training contract in the department while studying for my LLM.
How big is your company’s in-house legal department?
There are approximately 80 lawyers in Vodafone’s Group Legal department, spread across three countries (UK, Germany and Luxembourg) and divided into different teams to support different parts of the business worldwide. We also have local lawyers working in each Vodafone operating company (eg Vodafone Ireland, Vodafone Italy etc) throughout the world.
Why did you do your training contract in-house?
I was drawn to Vodafone’s in-house training contract due to my interest and background in technology and business. Being able to train in-house and practice law within Vodafone has proved a perfect fit for me. Also, there are many benefits to training in-house, such as obtaining responsibility at an early stage, access to good quality commercial work and a high level of client contact.
What are the best aspects of your job?
I enjoy working for a large corporation that operates internationally across many markets and being able to support the same business from different legal perspectives. Being able to rotate seats (ie legal teams) throughout the training contract gives you a wonderful perspective of how the business operates and how the law is applied in a business context. Also, as Vodafone only takes one trainee a year you get exposure to great quality work and the support/training from colleagues is excellent.
What are the worst aspects of your job?
While fabulous experience, rotating teams every three to six months can also be a disadvantage. Once you settle into a team, start to build working relationships with clients and run your own matters with supervision, it’s time to move on to a different seat and start the whole cycle again. However, that’s the life of a trainee and I appreciate that it’s important to have a broad range of training at this stage in my career.
What does your typical day involve?
The work varies depending on the seat/team. I start most mornings checking my BlackBerry on the way to work to see if any emails or matters have come in that require immediate attention. Once in work I’ll plan my day and set out a to-do list of actions for the matters I’m working on. However, sitting with clients often means that my plans can change due to a new, more pressing client matter or an urgent request. Throughout the day I could be doing any or all of the following: reviewing or drafting an agreement, researching a matter or the law, drafting advice to a client or a note to the business, attending a meeting, or giving a presentation.
What has been the highlight of your training contract so far?
Recently Vodafone launched Vodafone 360, a brand-new set of internet services accessible via mobile and the web. Over the past year I’ve been internally supporting the business with the rest of Group Legal and our local operating company lawyers in preparation for launch. It has been a very exciting time and superb legal experience. I’ve learnt that I quite enjoy contractual negotiations with suppliers and business partners. I’ve also been able to take the lead in some of the negotiations relating to Vodafone 360 with supervision. The whole department is very supportive and encouraging, and it’s great to be treated as a junior lawyer within a team, rather than simply the trainee of the hour. It’s very satisfying being part of the business and helping to drive it forward with the Vodafone 360 proposition.