Stuck in the middle
27 March 2000
Most trainees live in an almost permanent state of terror, but at this time of year life can be particularly harrowing. Many have just started their final seat and have less than six months until qualification. After years of training and study, trainees across the land will soon find out whether they have a job to qualify into and if so, what kind of job.
I arrived at my firm, Lewis Silkin, 18 months ago, outwardly confident and inwardly insecure. The firm thinks it chose me, but equally I chose it - applying to a hand-picked half-dozen in preference to the less predictable scatter-gun approach. I was looking for a medium-sized firm, seeking better resources and more high-level, stimulating work than is available at high street level, anticipating greater responsibility than is offered by the City giants.
Lewis Silkin led the field in areas of interest to me, particularly employment, media and social housing. I had no desire to be at a City practice and the comparatively informal interviewing process at the firm (one interviewer was dressed for his next appointment - a barbecue) convinced me that Lewis Silkin would not be as stuffy as those located a mile east.
I confess that I was a particularly pushy applicant, which gave me advantages, but also landed me in trouble. Months before even starting work I wrote to the head of personnel listing my preferred seats and ranking them in order. Initially the policy paid off. Straight away I landed into a top seat in our employment department and sat for three months with two of the UK's top employment lawyers.
But the price for my pushiness was that in subsequent seats, others got their first choices and I was relegated in the pecking order. Sadly, personnel officers in law firms have a strong immunity to legal advocacy and I could not convince mine that all seats should be allocated on the basis of my own personal preference.
Back at my first seat I was initially too frightened to pick up the phone in case it was a client. Fortunately the partner I sat with was sympathetic - perhaps he was mellow by nature. More likely he was keen to prevent clients from knowing that the firm employed gibbering wrecks. I did take time to settle in and I feel that some potential was wasted on that first seat. I would counsel a trainee against doing their favourite seat first. Nevertheless, I was still offered plenty of the responsibility I had sought (and feared).
Within weeks I had attended an employment tribunal as Lewis Silkin's representative (with counsel there to offer a little assistance of course), advised clients about their best strategy to obtain work permits, and had, at very short notice, calculated redundancy entitlements for 15 employees - which to my horror were then relayed directly to the client. I spent weeks furtively trying to discover whether trainees are covered by the firm's professional indemnity insurance policy, which of course they are.
Choices of seat aside, my training experience has exceeded most of my expectations. The firm turned out to be well-resourced, having invested heavily in information technology. All fee-earners (trainees are included in this definition) have powerful computers with unlimited internet access. We are piloting cutting-edge voice recognition technology so that even the slowest typist is able to produce their own documents.
The low side of hi tech is that every second of the day has to be time-recorded. If a call comes in while we are working on one matter we have to click an interrupt button to ensure that the clock keeps ticking and the time is allocated to the right client. I have yet to discover the correct time code to record our "private time".
But my greatest disappointment on entering the profession has been the discovery that a lawyer's working environment is nothing like Ally McBeal's (Lewis Silkin being the only exception of course). Not only do legal premises invariably sport the profession's grey colouring, but even in a comparatively progressive firm like Lewis Silkin the structure is surprisingly traditional.
It takes effort for the trainee to be heard, although partners do provide an occasionally sympathetic ear. Law is a conventional profession and most firms are run hierarchically. So if you want to be listened to, you must speak up for yourself at every opportunity. Especially if, by the time you come round to this stage of your contract, you want to have made a mark in the discipline you wish to qualify in.
Lawrence Simanowitz is a second-year trainee at Lewis Silkin.