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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. As previously discussed, the vast majority of training contracts are offered by law firms.
Some companies in-house legal departments, local and central government, the Crown Prosecution Service and indeed charities also offer training contracts. Keep an eye on Lawyer 2B as it often runs features on in-house training contracts as well as an annual survey on training contract opportunities with FTSE 100 companies.
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 start to pay off as you will finally start to earn a salary.
Unlike other graduate jobs, 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 the summer between your penultimate and final year at university, while those of you who are not studying law should start applying in your final year. Most of the larger commercial firms set the end of July as their application deadlines. During this period a number of firms also run work experience programmes, known as summer vacation schemes.
Olswang trainee solicitor Taryn Johnson says students should try to avoid leaving it too late to apply for training contracts and vacation placements. Students who wish to pursue a career in law have to start thinking about their future long before their friends who intend to pursue other careers and often fall into the trap of thinking that they dont have to worry about where they want to go until theyre nearing the end of university, she warns.
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 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 LPC year.
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 future trainees by making a financial contribution towards the fees of the LPC and GDL. Firms also pay a maintenance grant of between 5,000 and 7,500 to help with living costs, which should take away a huge financial burden. Dechert, meanwhile, recently announced that it is boosting its LPC maintenance grant to 10,000 from September 2007, making it the most generous sponsor.
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.
Spend as much time as possible, as early as possible, learning about the industry and where you might fit into it, including types of work, areas of practice available and type of work involved, advises Weil Gotshal & Manges trainee Daniyal Stanton. Apply directly to the law firms you wish to work for and check out their 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 number of firms, recruiters will still want evidence that candidates know something about them. Do not regurgitate the firms brochure and marketing material, but use it to obtain a sense of what kind of person the firm is looking for.
The selection process itself may encompass interviews, psychometric tests, written tests, presentations 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 to be balanced in your approach.
However, under the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) rules, firms are not permitted to offer training contracts until 1 September.
The training contract
Most training contracts start in the autumn following the summer in which students complete the LPC. Some firms, however, will 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, different 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 may 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 an opportunity to do a seat at one of their clients in-house legal departments; this is known as a secondment.
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.
Trainees should note that 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.
During the summer, Easter and Christmas holidays, many law firms let aspiring lawyers loose in their offices to undertake vacation schemes.
They last for around two to three weeks and enable students to gain work experience. Firms also throw in social trips and events to gel the group together. Group prties at swanky bars, trips to Brussels and Paris, and even a ride on the London Eye, are not unheard of.
Although competition is fierce, a vacation placement is worth fighting for. Recruiters like it on the CV because it shows commitment to a legal career and it will give you a good insight into how a firm functions and the kind of tasks you will be expected to carry out. Vacation schemes can also prepare you for the world of work and the pay is good, up to 270 a week at some firms. A place on the summer scheme could also lead to a firm training contract offer, with some firms hiring four out of five trainees from their vacation schemes.
Completing a vacation scheme could have a major influence on your future career. Application deadlines for summer and Easter schemes are around January and February of your penultimate year, while you need to apply in November for Christmas places. Check with the individual firms for exact dates.
No such thing as a typical day
The firm you train with will determine what type of work you will handle. 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. But as Addleshaw Goddard trainee Daniel Bluet explains, you will not merely be making cups of tea.
Typical trainee tasks might involve due diligence, legal research, drafting memoranda and basic legal documents. Eversheds trainee solicitor Gareth Planck says the worst aspect of his job is the volume of administration. Its crucial that all items of correspondence and action taken are correctly recorded on every job to ensure you have an accurate record of the file. This is essential but time consuming, he explains.
You will also be able 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 will 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 team working on a big deal or case. The most enjoyable aspect of my job is getting to know the people I work with, says Ashurst trainee Ru-Woei Foong. It makes such as difference when youre working for long hours to be around people who are able to stop and have a laugh.
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 completely unheard of.
As a trainee your timetable can be quite unpredictable, acknowledges Linklaters trainee Aalia Datoo. One day you might finish at 5.30pm, another day it could be a long night. Lawyers are perfectionists, but so are clients, therefore more often than not there might be 20 or more different versions of a document before its finalised and that can be quite tedious.
Russell Hopkins and Paul Tovey, who are training at Herbert Smith and White & Case respectively, and Olswangs Johnson all agree with Datoo and say that the worst aspects of their jobs are the hours.
Deals are often time critical, so you are required to spend long hours in the office under intense pressure, which can be rather stressful, admits Johnson.
Thankfully, it is not just work. The benefit of working in a large commercial firm is that they tend hire large groups of trainees. Some of the very large firms, for instance, might have as many as 60 trainees starting at the same time. One the social side theres the annual White & Case football world cup and meeting lawyers from the firms other offices at the training course in Bruges, enthuses Tovey.
Show me the money
Commercial law firms may work you hard, but they will pay you very well too. Indeed, the vast majority of commercial firms pay their trainees well above the SRA minimum of 17,660 for trainees in Central London and 15,820 for everyone else.
Trainee salaries at law firms, however, are lagging behind the rest of the City. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) annual Graduate Recruitment Survey 2007 found that trainee solicitors at City firms can expect a median starting salary of 35,700. But this is 4 per cent lower than their peers in investment banks, who receive 37,000. Meanwhile, investment fund managers can look forward to earning 36,000 each year. The median for law firms, however, has increased by more than 15 per cent in the past year. It previously languished around the 30,000 mark.
Your career awaits you
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 81.2 per cent of their newly qualified 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, it 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 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 US firms have now reached a whopping 90,000 (see table, left). But greater responsibility and more work often accompanies the 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, thanks to the UKs new 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. However, these days an increasing number of firms, including the likes of Allen & Overy, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Herbert Smith, are introducing alternative career paths.