Training contracts: learning on the job
14 March 2007
Like it or not, you cannot become a solicitor without first completing two years of work-based learning, which is known as the training contract.
Competition for trainee places is fierce because it is a required step for all solicitors. As such, getting a place as a trainee solicitor in the firm of your choice should be your priority while you are still at university.
A training contract will involve working in a law firm for two years to learn the ropes of the profession, and is taken after the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Your aim should be to spend that time acquiring the practical skills needed in the work environment.
If you are studying law at university, you should spend much of your penultimate year applying to firms for a training contract place. Students not studying law at university, but who want a legal career, should start applying in their final year.This is not as simple as it sounds and requires organisation and a methodical, structured approach. All is not lost if you do not manage to secure a training contract by the end of university, however. Some firms will take on graduates after they have completed the postgraduate stage of qualifying as a solicitor. So although the vast majority of firms recruit trainees while they are still at university, you can keep applying every year if it does not work out immediately.
One of the main advantages of securing a place before you start the postgraduate stage of your path to qualifying is that firms sponsor their trainees by making a financial contribution towards the fees of the LPC and the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), the one-year conversion course non-law graduates must complete before starting the LPC. Firms also pay a maintenance grant of between 5,000 and 7,500 to help with living costs, which takes away a huge financial burden.
Just firing off random applications is unlikely to be as successful as researching the firms and areas you personally want to get into and then carefully putting together targeted applications.
Apply directly to the law firms you wish to work for. Check out the firms websites for contacts and exact closing dates. Some firms will want a CV and covering letter, while many use online or paper application forms.
Applying for training contract places is a time-consuming exercise if you do it properly. If you are clear about which areas of the law you are most interested in, then this is likely to translate to your application form.
You will need patience. If you try to cut corners and start cutting and pasting into the forms, you are likely to be found out. Recruiters are experienced and lacklustre responses are likely to set off alarm bells.
Although it is accepted that a candidate will apply to a large number of firms, recruiters will still want evidence that candidates know something about their firms. Do not regurgitate the firms brochure and marketing material, but use it to get a sense of what kind of person the firm is looking for.
The selection process itself may encompass interviews, psychometric tests, written tests and group exercises. Firms should tell you the result as soon as possible and be able to provide feedback. Different firms place different levels of emphasis on these tests, so try and be balanced in your approach.
However, under Law Society rules law firms are not permitted to offer training contracts until 1 September.
The training contract
Once you manage to get your name on a contract, you will get to work in at least four, and sometimes six, different departments during the two-year training contract.
The time spent in each department is known as a seat and at some international law firms you may have the opportunity to do one of these overseas. You might be able to request a six-month stint at an office in Europe, the Middle East, Asia or the US depending on the firm and its network. Some firms also offer trainees an opportunity to do a seat at one of their clients in-house legal departments. This is known as a secondment.Under Law Society rules trainees must also gain contentious experience, which involves advising clients on legal disputes. This means completing a seat in the litigation department, although at some firms postgraduate law schools run this part of the training. The rotational system can help you to choose which department to qualify into.
The firm you train with will determine what type of work you will do.
Some firms believe in giving trainees a certain level of responsibility, but training programmes in some of the larger firms have a reputation for being heavy on document checking and photocopying.
Trainees should note that it is also compulsory to take the Law Societys Professional Skills Course, which covers advocacy and communication skills; financial and business skills; and client care and professional standards.
The firm should allocate a training principal to support trainees throughout their time at the firm. This is usually a partner who will supervise and give appraisals and feedback on how things are going. For your part, you will also be required to keep a training record.
Show me the money
Commercial law firms may work you hard, but they will pay you well too. Indeed, the vast majority of commercial firms pay their trainees well above the Law Society minimum of 17,527 for trainees in Central London and 15,605 for everyone else.
Magic circle firms Allen & Overy (A&O) and Linklaters now pay their first-year trainees 33,000 and 31,300 respectively. Herbert Smith and Lovells, meanwhile, increased their first-year trainee salaries to 31,000.
For second-year trainees A&O is now paying 37,000, Lovells and Herbert Smith 35,000 and Norton Rose 33,000. Your net take-home pay will be around 2,100 a month.
According to a survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, these pay packets make trainee solicitors some of the best paid graduates in the country.
The median starting salary for graduates in 2006 is 23,000. Only industries such as insurance, banking, IT and financial services eclipse the law as those professions paying the most cash for new starters.
Your career awaits
It is virtually unheard of for someone to fail their training contract, but this is not to say there is room for complacency. A recent Lawyer 2B survey uncovered the fact that firms were retaining on average 85.2 per cent of their newly qualified (NQ) solicitors. If you want to avoid being in the minority of those trainees who are not retained, then you should be doing everything you can to impress during your time at the firm, as once the training contract is up the firm is under no obligation to keep you on.
However, this cuts both ways and, if you feel that the firm is not for you, or you cannot qualify into the department of your choice, the arrangement allows you to beat a hasty retreat. But whether you stay or go, nothing can change the fact that, at the end of the two years, you are a fully qualified solicitor.
Now that you are qualified
Your pay is likely to rocket from around 31,000 to more than 50,000. Salaries for NQ solicitors have grown by an average of 25 per cent since 2000, and in the top firms an NQ solicitor can earn up to 55,000. Greater responsibility and more work often accompanies the increase in salary , so those looking to slack off after qualifying will be disappointed.