The inside dope on learning the ropes

You could be the on-call duty solicitor, in at the IT deep end or arguing a case before the magistrates court. Matheu Swallow goes trainee-spotting, and hears from a recently-qualified solicitor enjoying a different sort of deep end in Bermuda.

The mature trainee

Mark Simons is 38, married, with two children aged 10 and 11 years old.

Last week he commenced his training contract with Tarlo Lyons in the firm's IT department.

In his previous incarnation he was a director of his own company which specialised in property investment for financial institutions, local authorities and individual investors. Having worked from home, his new role as a lawyer will mean a much more structured lifestyle than that which he is used to.

He studied for a law degree over four years at evening classes and only after securing a training contract did he commit himself to undertaking the LPC. His first proper working day with Tarlo Lyons, after a two-day induction, threw Simons straight into the action.

8.00am Arrive at the office, by car, from his home in Hampstead.

8.05am Supervising partner, Lawrence Phillips, hands him the terms and conditions of an internet start-up company to be reviewed – just the sort of thing Simons expected.

10.30am “Know-how” meeting for entire IT department where members of the team report on recent IT articles which is followed by a general discussion on the issues.

11.15am Searching the internet to find out how a client internet company and its competitors operate.

1.00pm Lunch, taken at his desk.

2.00pm Asked to comment on the business plan of a new company. Simons must assess whether the ideas for the new company, an internet service provider, are any good. He must also draft a letter in response to the client, assess the type of advice the client will need and areas of the business plan where Simons is concerned about the firm giving advice.

4.30pm Mistaken for a solicitor because he is temporarily using his desk when a phone call comes through from a client with an urgent request. The client needs a trademark search conducted before 5pm. Simons seeks out the TM expert, a partner. Apparently, this task normally takes a lot longer than 30 minutes. However, Simons and the partner do the necessary research, the results of which Simons relays to the client. The task is completed in time.

5.10pm Proofreads an article written by a just-qualified solicitor for a professional journal.

6.00pm Simons is getting ready to leave when Phillips gives him his first task for tomorrow – a software license that needs reviewing.

6.30pm Leaves office.

The legal aid trainee

Sunita Khatri, 25, is a trainee at criminal practice Tuckers. Tuckers has a policy of employing prospective trainees as paralegals prior to offering them a training contract. Although Khatri registered her contract in February, she has only four months remaining because of the two years she was employed as a clerk. She is convinced that crime is the right practice area for her and ultimately she would like to qualify as a solicitor-advocate and appear in the higher courts.

8.00am [Monday] Arrives at work. Coffee.

8.15am On Friday she was in court so she checks pigeonhole for post and attendance notes from when she was out of the office. Deals with urgent queries.

9.00am Checks diary for the week. There is a Crown Court hearing scheduled for Wednesday. Checks availability of counsel, expert witnesses. Telephone conference with client.

10.30am Khatri is called to attend a local police station. As an accredited duty solicitor, this is a regular occurrence. This time, however, it is for an existing client, a 17-year-old boy charged with a succession of robberies. He has allegedly been emptying the cash machines at the Trocadero and Sega World. A “job”, claims Khatri, that has made him quite a lot of money. Brief meeting with the client and then attends interview and arranges bail.

1.45pm Back at the office. Part of her current remit is actions against the police. Telephones client who is suing the police for neglect of duty. When he was arrested the police searched his house and seized thousands of pounds in cash. Ultimately he was not convicted and so he organised to attend police station to collect his money. When he arrived to pick it up it was several thousands pounds short.

3.00pm Starts working through her welfare case load. This means assessing whether existing clients are on the correct benefits and advising them accordingly.

5.30pm Goes home.

11.45pm Khatri is the duty solicitor on call, as she is seven times a month, and every time she has been called out. This can be to a police station anywhere in the London area, and even outside.

12.30am Arrives at Lewisham police station. This time it is a new client, a 17-year-old who has never been in trouble with the police before. He has been charged with robbery and is being remanded in custody to appear in court the following morning. He breaks down, not able to understand why he is being kept in a cell overnight. Khatri spends some time calming him down and explaining the procedure.

3.00am Following the police interview Khatri does some impromptu “inadvertent eavesdropping” to pick up information. She says this has been quite successful in the past. Her attitude with the officers is to be pleasant but tough, and says she is generally well received.

4.00am Back home to bed, if only for two and a half hours.

The pupil barrister

Matthew Holdcroft, 23, is just reaching the end of the second six months of his pupillage at London common law set 5 Essex Court.

For the year of his pupillage he is paid £10,000 by his chambers, plus whatever he can earn in his second six months as a practising barrister, less a 7.5 per cent contribution to chambers.

So far, he estimates this to be between £5,000 and £6,000, although payment is so slow he has, as yet, only received £1,500.

Holdcroft says that it is difficult to choose a specialist area of practice, it just tends to evolve.

He is developing a reputation for representing gay clients after a successful case early in his pupillage.

Since then, one instructing solicitor has sent him all his gay clients.

The best thing in the world, he says about life at the bar, is prosecuting in the magistrates court.

7.30am Leaves home.

9.00am Arrives at the magistrates court in Aldershot to meet and take instructions from a new and very disgruntled client who has been charged with possession of offensive weapons – a large kitchen knife and a brass knuckle-duster. The meeting takes place in the court's cells, where Holdcroft is protected by the retired librarians and policemen who serve as security guards. Gets off to a very bad start. The client is very displeased about the different barrister who had represented him the day before. The client threatens Holdcroft with a “good kicking”. Fills in “the bane of every pupil's life” – the Legal Aid Board's merit test form.

10.30am Holdcroft begins to present his client's defence. The knuckle-duster is an ornamental antique and the kitchen knife is only in his possession so his children could not get it. His efforts are thwarted when the client starts shouting abuse at him from the dock and then at the bench as well. Loses case.

11.00am Travels back to chambers.

12.30pm Arrives at chambers, does a quick tea and chocolate run for everyone, followed by a bit of photocopying.

2.00pm Back to the magistrates court. The afternoon tends to be reserved for smaller trials and today is no exception. He is defending a client charged with the non-payment of a bus fare. London Transport is seeking £1. Holdcroft eventually persuades the client to drop his point of principle and change his plea, bringing the case to a quick and easy resolution. However, the total cost in fees to this privately paying client is £650, most of which goes to the solicitors. The relevant legislation in this case is The Passenger Service Vehicles Driver's Conditions and Passenger Regulations 1982.

3.30pm Returns to chambers. More tea-making and photocopying. Chats to clerks. Complains about criminal justice system, non-payment of fees and the Legal Aid Board's merit test form. Organises chambers outing to Rocky Horror Show.

5.30pm Hangs around to see if any papers come in for the following day.

5.45pm Gets the call that will see him up in court again the following morning.

6.00pm Goes home, taking the papers for the next day's case with him.

7.00pm Relaxing evening at home watching TV. “Either you will read the papers [for the next day's trial] or not. That's the wonder of the junior bar. While our fellow trainees are slaving away all night in a solicitor's office, we're watching The Simpsons,” he says. At this point his pupil mistress enters the room and he corrects himself to say that of course he reads the papers through thoroughly, researches the relevant law and prepares himself for the next day.

The qualified solicitor

Emily Smith is a two-years qualified solicitor in Freshfields' insurance litigation group. She is currently in Bermuda working on the Bermuda Fire & Marine Insurance company case.

Smith is living with the legal team which includes Robin Potts QC and Martin Moore from Erskine Chambers, and Freshfields partner Roger Enock. There is a maid to do the cleaning and cooking. Other chores are shared out evenly.

On the four days a week the court sits, a car arrives at 8am to chauffeur them to work. The day's issues are discussed en route, in between admiring the scenery. Then the team has an hour to prepare for the day's session, which begins at 9.30am.

When not in court a lot of time is spent in meetings discussing strategy, or with clients. As a junior litigator Smith also spends a lot of time studying the vast number of documents in the case and preparing papers for the trial.

Because of the four-day week, most evenings and weekends are free. Smith says that, almost without exception, the lawyers in Bermuda are good fun to be with. She says there have been numerous glamorous parties, trips on yachts and boats, water-skiing and body-surfing, but mostly she spends her free time scuba diving. The lawyers also have their own private pub which is popular for a game of snooker.

If it was possible to be any more envious, Smith starts describing the beautiful blue sea and pink beaches where she also manages to spend a fair amount of time. On a recent Monday afternoon, however, Bermuda's tranquillity was seriously threatened by the incoming Hurricane Gert, approaching the island with wind speeds of up to 140 knots.

At about 3pm, the City of Hamilton closed down and everyone, including Smith and the legal teams, was sent home. They barricaded themselves in but at the last moment Gert veered off course and Smith admits to being a little disappointed at not seeing a full-scale hurricane.

However, she says it still caused serious damage, with trees down, houses collapsed into the sea and beaches washed away.

The case is not expected to be concluded until September 2000 and although this means a long time away from family and friends, Smith is delighted by the work and the lifestyle that the case has provided.