Undercover guide to training contracts
9 December 2010
So you’ve seen the glossy brochures, but now read what doing a training contract’s like in reality.
It is refreshing to flick through Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s new recruitment brochure. By using phrases such as “brutal editors”, “late for dinner (again)”, “more paper than you can carry”, “money in the bank, but not enough time to spend it”, “demanding clients” and “pesky emails”, the magic circle firm definitely paints a more honest picture of what it is like for the most junior members of the legal profession.
However, there is no denying that many other law firms’ graduate recruitment literature goes a bit too far, with promises of a “great work-life balance” and “as much responsibility as you can handle from day one”.
Real work, straight away
The well-worn promise, often used by law firm graduate recruitment teams, is that as a trainee you will be given responsibility and real work from day one. But what do you actually do as a trainee solicitor? What, in the eyes of many law firms, is the “real responsibility” and the “intellectually stimulating” work that is given to trainees fresh out of law school?
One magic circle associate recalls that when he joined his firm he was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of paperwork he had to handle on a day-to-day basis.
“It was real administrative stuff I had to do at the beginning, and to an extent the work I do is still very administrative,” he says. “What you do as a trainee is basically collect documents, check them and do things such as put bibles together, which is making sure all the documents for a deal are in one place.
“It’s demoralising, because you’re expecting intellectually stimulating work, but that’s not the case. Your physical stamina is perhaps the only thing that’s challenged because you’reexpected to keep going like a robot for hours and survive on hardly any sleep.”
Trainees also have to be prepared to have the masses of demoralising paperwork they have been given to work on to come back covered in red ink. Remember the phrase “pesky editors” in Freshfields’ brochure?
“In my first seat I was given a simple deed document to draft, and then the partner who’d reviewed it sent it back to me with lots of comments on, but in a way it’s quite satisfying to see less and less red ink as you learn,”explains Baker & McKenzie trainee Ben Ko.
“At the end of the day, as a trainee, you have to expect to be everybody’s PA. But if you learn quickly and take time to understand the transaction you’re working on, then you’re far more likely to be asked into a client meeting with a partner.”
But it is not just drafting documents that you’ll have to get used to. Dictation is something that often catches out even the most confident of trainees. Having to dictate in front of your supervisor is often an embarrassing and unnerving experience. But some trainees claim that dictation is a dying art and that most partners will allow you to type your own documents.
“It was definitely a new sensation and something I didn’t really like doing,” reveals Ko. “I’ve heard that some partners insist on it, but I’ve been lucky and I just type most things myself because I find it easier.”
But as we know, being a lawyer is not all about paperwork and sitting in a back office wading through mountains of documents. So where do clients come into the picture? Do you, as a trainee, ever actually see one? Speak to one? Sit in on a meeting with one?
Apparently not, according to one magic circle solicitor, who admits that in the four years he has been working for his firm he has only ever seen one client in the flesh. He puts this down to the fact that in a magic circle firm you are a small fish in a very big pond. Although the deals you are working on might be all over the front page of the Financial Times, you have lots of partners ahead of you, so you rarely get to see any frontline action.
However, not every trainee experience is the same because all firms have their own cultures and work ethics. Some trainees working further down the food chain, in terms of The Lawyer’s UK top 200 firms listing, feel they get to make more of a contribution. Although the paperwork is still there, many feel they have more client contact.
“I think it depends on the department, but I certainly got to make contact with clients during my seat in shipping and finance,” says Watson Farley & Williams trainee Alex Wilson.
“I got to meet them more so in completions and signing meetings, but in seats such as litigation there’s far less client contact.”
Most people going into the City, especially to carve out a career in law, expect to work long hours. But for many trainees the transition is a steep learning curve. Berwin Leighton Paisner
(BLP) trainee Alexandra Cooke admits that it was tough at first, but claims she has only had to stay in the office until past midnight a handful of times.
“You have to take some responsibility and manage your own work-life balance,” Cooke explains. “If you have a job then yes, you can moan about the long hours, but if you want a career you have to take pride in the work you’re doing and class it as an important part of your life.”
Cooke remembers a time when she was particularly busy at work but her father was in London and wanted to take her out for dinner.
“I explained the situation to my supervisor and asked if I could take a couple of hours to meet him for food and then come back to the office, and he said that was fine,” she recalls. And going back into the office after you have been out with friends or family in the evening is not uncommon in the legal world. So no matter how many people tell you that your work will not encroach on your social life, it will.
“It’s not so much the late nights, it’s the unpredictability and having to cancel and say no to friends and family at the last minute,” claims one trainee.
Be a people person
SNR Denton graduate recruitment partner Jeremy Cape recommends that all trainees be pleasant to their secretaries, because not only do they know all the work gossip, they will also help you out in your first few days at the firm.
“Generally you’ll have a secretary who’s been working at the firm far longer than you have and they’ll know how things work,” he says.
“Also, for many trainees it’s the first time they’ve been in an office environment, and your secretary will help you with things you daren’t ask your supervisor - such as how to work the photocopier.”
Shearman & Sterling graduate recruitment partner Mei Lian agrees. She thinks you should make an effort with everyone workingat the firm, but especially in the print room, because you never know when a partner is going to demand that something is copied urgently.
“When I’m working on a deal I’m never unkind or rude, because first it’s not necessary, and second the person opposite you could one day be a client,” she adds.
The stuffy stuff
We have heard about the dreaded dictation, the late hours and the piles of paperwork, but what is it really like to work in a law firm? Is it all uncomfortable suits and stiff upper lips?
“I’ve actually been to work in my pyjamas,” laughs Lian. “Law firms are quite relaxed many of the men don’t even wear ties, and some wear chinos. So long as you have a spare outfit in the office in case of a client meeting, it’s fine.”
But what about the open-door policy that every brochure seems to bang on about?
“It’s open door yes,” says one trainee, “but it’s not open mind. You can’t go in and really tell them all your problems - they’d show you the door.”
Elsewhere, other trainees say they are encouraged to go in and speak to any partner.
“It’s great because you can go in and introduce yourself to everyone and you’re always encouraged to ask questions, because at the end of the day you’re in training,” says Cooke at BLP.
So this brief alternative guide to what it is really like being a trainee in the City concludes that every firm does it differently. And most of the time it is down to the individual as much as the firm as to how much client contact and ‘real’ work they get.
But one thing is for certain - no matter what City law firm you train at, it is going to be hard work. We are just glad that at least Freshfields has had the guts to admit it.