No soft option
31 October 2007
Getting a training contract at a law firm is usually a day for celebration. But enter into that contract lightly and you may find yourself with more problems than when you started. For many, the start of a training contract kicks off a rewarding career.
But for some, it can be the first of 730 days of misery. The biggest shock for most people is the hard work. The difference between Law School hours and an urgent deal closing at a big law firm is considerable. You may have to cancel social engagements at short notice because of work or you might just be too tired.
There will be some trainees whove worked all night or all weekend, says Graham White, graduate recruitment partner at Slaughter and May. It depends a lot on who youre sitting with and whats going on at the time. Its quite common for trainees to get involved in due diligence, which involves spending periods of time in data rooms.
Most firms split the two-year training contract into four different job postings of six-months each, called seats. With each seat, you will see a different department of the law firm, such as corporate, capital markets or intellectual property (IP).
You will have some control over where you go and when, but it will depend on the choices of the other trainees. You may also have the option of a six-month secondment to a client or a foreign office as part of your training, which is an opportunity to get experience beyond the UK.
For example, although the emphasis at Slaughters is on corporate work, there is the option to split one of your seats into two groups of three months to get experience in the smaller departments such as IP or pensions.
The tasks you will be asked to take on will depend on your seat and supervisor, who may be a partner or senior associate. Menial tasks are part of the job, and that involves photocopying and binding documents as well as transcribing board minutes.
If you are involved in a big corporate or finance deal, you may be invited to meetings with the client and lead partner or go on conference calls. This is to build up your knowledge of what happens on a transaction and what responsibility each party has, be it a bank, law firm or company. Trainees can also be asked to draft board resolutions, research documents and simple contracts, such as licences for assignments in property transactions. It is up to the partners in the practice group to organise the trainees work and monitor their progress.
Allocating work is done on a practice group basis, says Simon Pilcher, graduate recruitment partner at CMS Cameron McKenna. The partners will look at the hours the trainees do. The last thing a trainee wants is to be working too hard, but naturally there will be peaks and troughs, particularly in the transactional environments. The way it works with trainees is that they will have open conversations with supervisors.
If you feel like you are working much longer hours than other trainees or being singled out for work projects, you should talk to your supervisor or HR manager if possible.
Some big firms use capacity emails to allocate work if there is an emergency or a big deal is closing and help is needed. A partner or senior associate working on a deal may send an email to all trainees to see if anyone has any time to muck in, known as spare capacity.
Opinion is split on how you should approach these emails. While putting your hand up and asking for work may get you noticed as a go-getter, the danger is that you could burn out or become disillusioned if you answered each email and spent every night in the office without so much as a pat on the back. Use your judgement; your career as a lawyer does not depend on each email.
It is not all work, work, work. However, the social side of training experiences will also depend on the size of your law firm. The advantage of joining a bigger firm is that there is quite a large contingent of trainees and its easy to form a social group, says White. The only problem is that you might feel like a small cog in a large machine. If you are one of five or six trainees, everyone will know you.
Most people who have an unhappy experience as a trainee put it down to two root causes: the people they work with or the work they do. If the problem is people based for example you do not get along with your immediate supervisor you should try to talk out the problem either with an HR manager or a member of your firms graduate recruitment or trainee-development teams. In most cases, a solution can be hammered out without harming your career within the firm.
Trainees have a range of people they can talk to, explains Jonathan Bond, head of HR and training at Pinsent Masons. Theres their immediate boss, the HR manager for trainees, the lead partner of the group or the HR manager of the office. We normally resolve these things. You can change the type of work, the person the trainee reports to or sometimes move seats after a shorter period of time. Trainees are well supported.
If you do not feel comfortable talking to someone within the firm, there is always the Trainee Solicitors Group helpline (08000 856 131), open between 9am and 9pm. A volunteer, trained by the Samaritans no less, will be able to give you advice on problems experienced during a training contract.
If you are experiencing problems, your first instinct may be to pack in the training contract altogether, an instinct you would do well to ignore unless you have money to burn. Nearly all firms will force you to pay back any maintenance grants or law school fees that you may have received from them before starting your training contract if you decide to leave. That could leave you with between 15,000 and 20,000 to pay back depending on the firm and the amount it pays to students. Its a standard deal most firms have with trainees, otherwise why would you pay that money in the first place? points out Bond.
A deal has obligations on both sides. Generally speaking you should stick with it until you qualify.
Depending on the firm, however, you may be able to negotiate your way out of the bill. If someone genuinely doesnt want to do this wed get career consulting and try to help them out, says Camerons Pilcher. I think its almost part of the occupational hazard when you recruit people.
Although no one Lawyer 2B contacted had heard of a trainee changing firms during a training contract, the same principles of paying back grants and fees would apply. Even if you like the people you work with, you may hate the job itself. This is a harder problem to remedy. Most HR managers agree that leaving a training contract before qualification is more likely to hurt your prospects of starting a different career than just toughing it out.
One trainee, when thinking of law, thought of Ally McBeal and how it appears on TV, explains Bond. It was the wrong career choice and they came to us to talk about it. We advised them to stick with it until qualification. Its a waste really if you dont.
Problems can also arise even before you start your training contract. There are the hurdles of the law conversion course (GDL) and the LPC to jump first. The key again is to talk to someone as soon as a problem arises if you think you may not make it through.
As with the training contract itself, law firms will demand their money back if you fail or decide to leave the course. But many will take into account any personal circumstances that could have had an adverse affect on the results before asking for the cash.
It depends very much on the individual circumstances, says Brett Galloway, graduate recruitment manager at Addleshaw Goddard. We have had people fail. In that case we sit them down and ask them why because there may be mitigating circumstances. Of course we let them go through the resit procedure. With most training contracts, firms reserve the right to reclaim the funding. But we wouldnt go straight to that. We normally apply discretion, although I know some firms just say thats it.
If you have a training contract with a big firm, it is possible that the graduate recruiters will be alerted to any problems by your tutors. We ask BPP [Law School] for feedback and to find out if something happened, explains Galloway. The student usually completes all the exams at the resit. It is fairly unusual for people to fail. We have a lot of contact with future trainees, especially during the LPC at BPP, he adds.
One of the reasons for working with the law school is so that we can go out and interact with trainees more closely.
Avoidance is always better than a cure. The best way to have a good time studying and working in law is to research the career in depth before taking the plunge.The moral of the story is to think realistically about whats involved in a legal career, says Bond. Theres so much information out there on websites and open days. Its wise to take the opportunities and research beforehand.
A training contract is a serious bond between you and a law firm. Think twice before signing it, but try to enjoy it once you do.