1 February 2013
After years of study, the final stage of your route to qualifying as a solicitor will involve a compulsory period of work-based learning known as the training contract.
The majority of training contracts are offered by law firms. Some companies’ in-house legal departments, local and central government, the Crown Prosecution Service and some charities also offer training contracts. See more on page 29 about training in-house. During this two-year period of learning on the job you will be known as a trainee solicitor. The good news is that all those years of hard work will begin to pay off as you finally start to earn a salary.
Unlike other graduate jobs, most major law firms recruit their trainee solicitors well in advance. If you are studying law, the busiest time for you during the application process will be your penultimate year at university, while those of you who are not studying law should start applying in your final year.
The larger commercial firms set the end of July as their training contract application deadlines. During this period a number of firms also run work experience programmes known as summer vacation schemes. But, as is the case with most things law-related, competition is fierce, with firms offering places to the best candidates - those who have strong academic backgrounds as well as the other relevant skills that make for an excellent lawyer, such as those gained by participation in extracurricular activities.
Given the complexity of the work handled by commercial law firms and the amount of time you will get to spend in a department, it is unlikely that during your vacation scheme you will be handed a significant amount of ‘real’ work. Typical tasks may include legal research, note-taking at a client meeting, proofreading or even photocopying. Firms will supplement this work with seminars designed to give you a better insight into the type of work they handle, along with skills workshops to help with your training contract applications.
As is the case with all other work experience, the type of work you handle and the level of responsibility you are given will depend on your willingness to learn and the quality of your output. If you tackle all tasks, even the more mundane ones, with enthusiasm and to the best of your ability, then you are more likely to be trusted with the more interesting and challenging jobs.
And do not forget that lawyers are obsessed with attention to detail, so check your work carefully before handing it in to your supervisor. A draft letter or agreement containing spelling mistakes will create the wrong impression and could even put your supervisor off giving you more work. The key is to inspire confidence.
Vacation schemes are not just about work. The majority of firms organise a number of social events to help students better gel with each other, as well as provide an opportunity to meet other members of staff in a more relaxed setting.
All is not lost if you do not manage to secure a training contract by the end of your time at university. Some firms will take on graduates after they have finished the postgraduate stage of qualifying as a solicitor. So although most firms recruit trainees while they are still at university, you can keep applying every year if it does not work out immediately. Indeed, a number of students pick up training contracts during their Legal Practice Course (LPC) year.
One of the main advantages of securing a place before you start the postgraduate stage of your path to qualifying is that most of the leading commercial firms sponsor future trainees by making a financial contribution towards the LPC and if necessary the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) fees. Firms also pay a maintenance grant of between £5,000 and £10,000 to help with living costs, which should ease the huge financial burden.
Firing off random applications is unlikely to be as successful as researching the firms and areas with which you want to be involved and then carefully putting together targeted applications. Apply directly to the law firms you wish to work for and check their websites for contacts and exact closing dates for applications. Some firms will want a CV and covering letter, while many now use online application forms.
Applying for training contract places is a time-consuming exercise if you do it properly. If you are clear about the areas of law you are most interested in, 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 number of firms, recruiters will still want evidence that candidates know something about them. Do not regurgitate the firm’s brochure and marketing material, but use it to obtain a sense of what kind of person the firm is seeking.
The selection process itself may encompass interviews, psychometric tests, written tests, presentations and group exercises. Firms should tell you the results as soon as possible and be able to provide feedback. Firms place different levels of emphasis on these tests, so try to be balanced in your approach. However, under the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) rules, firms are not permitted to offer training contracts to penultimate-year students until 1 September.
For all the tops tips on how to survive the training contract application process, check out Lawyer2B.com.
The training contract
Most training contracts start in the autumn after the summer in which students complete their LPCs. Some firms, however, give you the option to defer your start date by six months. If you are lucky you might even be able to persuade them to cough up some money for you to spend on activities during
this period, such as language classes.
Once you start your training contract you will get to work in at least four, and sometimes six, departments during the two-year period. You should have a say in which departments you get to spend time in. The time spent in each department is known as a seat, and at some international law firms you might have the opportunity to do one of these overseas. You might be able to secure 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 opportunities to do seats at clients’ in-house legal departments, known as secondments.
Under SRA 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.
It is also compulsory to take the 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 or senior assistant solicitor 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.
No such thing as a typical day
The firm you train with will determine the type of work you handle. Some firms believe in giving trainees a certain level of responsibility, but training programmes at some of the larger firms have a reputation for being heavy on document-checking and photocopying.
Typical trainee tasks are due diligence, legal research and drafting memoranda and basic legal documents. You will also be able to attend meetings with clients and lawyers on the opposite side of a matter, where you might be asked to take notes. Again, the amount of contact you have with clients will depend on the size of the firm you train with. In large commercial firms you are likely to be part of a team working on a big deal or case.
The universal complaint among trainees working in the commercial arena is the long hours they are sometimes required to put in. Indeed, spending a 24-hour stint in the office is not unheard of.
Thankfully, it is not all work. The benefit of working at a large commercial firm is that they tend to hire large groups of trainees. Some very large firms might have as many as 60 trainees starting at the same time, creating fantastic opportunities to make new friends.
Show me the money
Commercial law firms may work you hard, but they pay you well. Trainee solicitors are some of the highest-paid graduates, with the vast majority of commercial firms paying well above the current SRA minimum of £18,590 for trainees in central London and £16,650 for everyone else.
For example, magic circle firms Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters now pay their first-year trainee solicitors £38,000, £38,000, £39,000 and £39,000 respectively. Meanwhile, some US firms are known to pay their trainees annual starting salaries in excess of £40,000. To find out more on how much you can earn as a trainee solicitor, check out Lawyer2B.com.
Your career awaits you
It is virtually unheard of for someone to fail their training contract, but this is not to say that there is room for complacency. As reported on Lawyer2B.com, retention rates for newly qualified lawyers suffered badly during the economic downturn, although thankfully they are now improving (see table on page 24).
If you want to avoid being one of those trainees who are not retained you should be doing everything you can to impress during your time at the firm, as once the training contract is finished the firm is under no obligation to keep you on. However, this cuts both ways, and if you feel 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 finally a fully qualified solicitor.
Now that you are qualified
The good news is that your pay is likely to rocket. Salaries for newly qualified solicitors have grown significantly since 2000 and at some leading US law firms can be close to £100,000. That said, the recession forced many firms to slash their newly qualified pay in a bid to keep a lid on their salary bills. But again, thankfully, a number of the top law firms have announced small pay hikes. But greater responsibility and more work often accompany any increase in salary, so those looking to slack off after qualifying will be disappointed.
Again, depending on the firm, your title will vary upon qualification. Some firms call their newly qualified solicitors ’assistants’, while others refer to them as ‘associates’ although in essence both terms carry the same meaning.
Most firms still define their associates by the number of years they have been qualified, known as post-qualification experience (PQE). However, due to recent age discrimination legislation, firms are gradually abolishing references to PQE when setting their salary bands and for recruitment purposes.
Your ultimate aim should be to become a partner, which is when you will really see your income skyrocket. However, an increasing number of firms are introducing alternative career paths for those individuals who would rather not have the extra responsibility of being a partner.
LETR & WBL pilot
The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) is a joint project of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and ILEX Professional Standards (IPS).
Since its conception more than a year ago, the regulators have harnessed the knowledge and expertise of a research team, a review committee and an oversight panel to ensure the review and final recommendations to the three legal regulators have covered all the ground.
But despite the swelling numbers involved, there are doubts over whether the project will successfully produce meaningful recommendations for the education and training of young lawyers in a profession that is experiencing the most dramatic revolution in its history.
However, in early 2012 the legal market got its first sneak peak into the progress of the LETR, with the publication of a number of discussion papers detailing issues that are open to consultation.
The most radical of these issues discussed abolishing the qualifying law degree and replacing the pupillage and training contract among seven potential reforms.
The research team is now awaiting a response from the profession, particularly with regard to whether legal education and training is ‘fit for purpose’, any weaknesses in the current system and the radical changes proposed.
Final recommendations are due in December 2012, although it is widely believed that this deadline will leak into the New Year.
Subsequent to this step, it will be for each regulator to set out a process for addressing recommendations in the report and to consult formally on any proposed changes.
Meanwhile, it is also hoped the LETR will take into account the final strand of the SRA work-based learning pilot, which is set to be finalised later this year, with the graduation of the first cohort on Northumbria University’s qualifying five-year law degree.
Top tips on vacation schemes
- Tackle every task, however mundane, with enthusiasm and to the best of your ability.
- Get involved in the office as well as the social events.
- Do not act smug - no one likes a boaster.
- Ask lots of questions and show a willingness to learn.Be yourself.
- Be proactive - if you do not have enough to do, tell someone.
- Be respectful to your fellow schemers and do not brag about the number of placements you are planning to do over the summer.
- Always carry a pen and notepad.
- If you do not understand instructions, ask your supervisor to clarify.
- Be punctual and do not go in with a hangover.
- Do not race out of the door at 5.30pm every day.
- Dress appropriately - stick to business attire during the day and on a night out avoid wearing something toorevealing.
- Although vacation schemes are essentially a two-week interview you are not on The Apprentice, so do not be overly competitive.
- Watch your behaviour on social outings - do not get too drunk and do not try to pull fellow schemers, graduate recruitment team members or trainees.
- Do not assume that people in HR (or any other support service) are stupid.
- Do not make carping remarks about the quality of the food, venue or wine you are being treated to.
- Do not send personal emails or make too many personal phonecalls and avoid social networking sites.
- Do not use your mobile phone or iPod while with your supervisor.
- Do not end emails with ‘love and kisses’, use ‘kind regards’ and always remember to say thank you. If you are forwarding an email, make sure it does not include anything inappropriate.
- Buy some biscuits for the team on your last day and remember to thank everyone. But don’t overdo it - no one likes a brown-noser.
There is no denying that your interview technique will improve with practice. However, there are still lots of things you can do from the outset to make sure you shine on your big day. Below are just some of them:
- Arrive on time and turn up at the right place (print off a map if necessary).
- Research, research, research - make sure you know as much as possible about the firm/chambers that is interviewing you.
- Dress appropriately (a dark suit is easiest; and ladies, avoid showing too much cleavage and opt for a sensible hemline).
- Answer the question that is being asked; if you don’t understand the question, ask the interviewer to repeat it.
- When answering competency-based questions use the STAR approach: outline the Situation for the interviewer and set the scene; tell them the Task in hand; break down your Actions in detail, outlining your thought process; don’t forget to talk through your Results, ensuring these are quantifiable and measurable.
- Avoid waffle - for instance, it is tempting to lengthen a perfect answer just to fill the awkward silence, which always feels longer than it actually is.
- Do not dunk your biscuit in a hot drink.
- Take a sip of water if you need to think about an answer.
- Ask intelligent questions that demonstrate your commitment to the job.
- Be enthusiastic, but do not act too cocky.
- Most importantly, be yourself.