Everything you ever wanted to know about law but were too drunk to ask

You have read enough legal books to sink the Bismark – but what about real life? Matheu Swallow gives an insight into life in a variety of legal practice areas.


With confidence, criminal law can be as challenging and stimulating in practice as it is academically.

Edward Caute, solicitor at west London firm Darlington & Parkinson, says a trainee will be expected to attend ID parades and represent clients at police station interviews. “Once you get over your nerves and find your feet, you may find that you really enjoy it,” he says.

The hours (ignoring potential middle of the night call-outs) are respectable – roughly 9am-6.30pm.

Once your contract is over, the hours may not change much but the type of work can. “Once you qualify you have to be prepared to start doing your own advocacy pretty much straight away. This requires having an appetite for making bail applications and other general advocacy in the magistrates' court,” Caute explains.

A broader commercial training can lead to specialisation in the niche field of white-collar crime. Burton Copeland has partners with both City and street crime experience, and another who worked for the Metropolitan Solicitors' Department and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Partner Geoffrey Byes explains that much of the work involves acting for high-profile businessmen in criminal courts, including a number of extradition cases and some regulatory offences, as well as “acting on the side of the gods involved with the prosecution”.

Commercial Property

This area is a good avenue for a student wishing to secure a contract in a City firm. David Albert, partner in the commercial property department of Ashurst Morris Crisp, says his firm has more vacancies in this area than in any other.

Many may ignore property for the so-called glamour of other corporate/commercial seats. But in a big City firm the property department can offer the opportunity to be involved in the property aspects of major corporate deals. For example, mergers and acquisitions can require an assessment of the property assets of a company to assess possible adverse impact.

The bulk of the work will be transactional. Ashursts' involvement in this field ranges from the selling of the NatWest tower to arranging the lease of offices for a corporate client. Trainees will also be involved with investment and development work.

David Taylor, head of the commercial property unit at Berwin Leighton, says the field breeds experts not just in law, but also in surveying, architecture and planning.


Christine O'Brien, a partner in the employment department at Baker & McKenzie, describes hers as one of the most varied areas of practice.

She says a trainee needs “a strong academic background, because this area is becoming increasingly complicated, plus good interpersonal skills to develop relationships with clients and to gain their confidence. It is not just a question of understanding the law – you must be able to interpret it to help your clients make successful business decisions.”

Flexibility and adaptability are further attributes needed to cope with the large quantity of White Papers and new cases crossing your desk on an almost daily basis.

A typical workload will involve all aspects of contentious and non-contentious matters – on one hand sex and race discrimination claims, and on the other redundancy issues and contract reviews. An employment lawyer will also give tax advice on employment benefits and termination arrangements.

Karen Black, who has just qualified in the employment department at Baker & McKenzie, has a great deal of contact with the firm's foreign offices for advice on local law. She says of the work: “You must be able to communicate what you receive as complicated legal jargon to the personnel department of a company in easily understood terms.”

Black's hours are “more than nine to five, but not weekends”.

Government Legal Service (GLS)

The GLS consists of legal teams in more than 25 government departments and bodies, employing around 1,100 solicitors and barristers, and providing a range of services to government.

The following departments offer trainee places: Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; HM Customs and Excise; Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Department of Health; Department of Social Security; Inland Revenue; Department of Trade and Industry; and the Treasury Solicitor's Department. Work at the GLS covers legislative, civil and criminal litigation and European law.

Within this media-sensitive and demanding legislative sphere, GLS lawyers can find themselves advising ministers and policy administrators on the implications of changes to existing law, instructing parliamentary counsel on the preparation of Bills and drafting subordinate legislation as necessary.

Civil and criminal litigation work – ranging from personal injury to high-profile fraud or judicial review – can have constitutional implications. EC law now impinges on almost every aspect of GLS work, so lawyers can find themselves drafting statutory instruments, handling litigation in the European courts or advising on its implications for domestic policy and legislation.

Alissa Bell, a trainee in the Customs and Excise Office, has experienced prosecution work in drug smuggling and evasion of excise duty cases, general case conduct work and was also involved in cases concerning the enforcement of UN sanctions.


Harbottle & Lewis has a large and very well-respected media and entertainment practice which breaks down into six industry groups: music; theatre; film; television; book publishing; and digital mixed media (DMM).

Whilst the bulk of work involves commercial contracts, there are also industry-specific legal issues to cope with.

Being qualified offers the option of going in-house. “A pretty appealing job,” says Gavin Maude of West End firm Russells. “The paperwork can get a bit repetitive, but the interaction with personnel and artists is great.” But, he cautions: “It is well-paid enough to tempt you away from private client work, but there is a down side in that it will hit a ceiling.”

As for where to get your training, Maude says that the “trouble with some specialist firms for training is that they won't let you near their commercial clients and [you] can end up with a duff two years if you're not careful”. He recommends that, unless you are 100 per cent committed, you should get a broader brush of training from a City firm.

Frank Bloom, partner at Marriott Harrison, says: “We prefer [prospective trainees] not to have stars in their eyes.”

However, perks include the opportunity to travel across Europe on a tour bus, gigs, premieres and fairly hospitable hours – typically 8.30am-7pm.

Information Technology

The staple workload of an IT lawyer is the licensing of software. You may be required to assist in the drafting of IT supply and maintenance contracts or be looking at licences which have been breached or gone wrong.

A trainee's role will require an understanding of IT in order to visualise clients' needs. Neil McGregor, a trainee at Bird & Bird, says IT experts do not suffer fools gladly. But do not be put off by a lack of IT expertise. As McGregor says: “I've learned as much about IT as I have IT law in my time here.”


This broad area of practice encompasses regulatory, insurance and litigation work, financing for aircraft, employment, immigration and property damage to cargo.

Sean Gates, senior partner and head of the aviation claims department at Beaumont & Sons, says that the distinguishing feature of aviation law is its international nature. “You can gain a broad experience of international law, in its most pure form, because it involves international treaties.” And, he adds, “it keeps you off the breadline since it is fairly lucrative work”.

There are plenty of travel opportunities – though more junior members of the firm can expect the more inhospitable trips. This year Beaumont & Sons have sent employees to Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Romania and Moscow, while Gates' destinations in 1998 have included Australia and the US.

A trainee can expect to be placed with a fee earner – carrying out research, visiting courts and attending meetings with counsel – as well as some “keeping the seat warm for the partner's return”. There is a great deal of work in this area at the moment, but hours can be long, including weekends if you are travelling.


There are two sides to immigration work: business and personal.

The business side will involve obtaining work permits, making business residency applications and advising wealthy investors. This has proved to be a popular task with trainees at City firm Cameron McKenna. Julia Onslow-Cole, partner and head of the department, explains this popularity in terms of the amount of client contact trainees enjoy. By the end of their six months, many trainees manage their own files – which can be rare in a City firm. The fast turnover of cases, despite demanding further hours, will not involve sleeping on the office sofa three nights a week.

There are relatively few firms specialising in this area, but Onslow-Cole says that this does not put trainees off because they are able to “learn good skills, unlike in many corporate seats where, although the firm tells you differently, you are really a glorified photocopier”.


Bal Dhillon, now competition law manager for Tesco, practised first as a barrister. His pupillage was with a general common law chambers, where he gained a further year's experience post-qualification. But the workload was predominantly criminal, which was not the area in which he wanted to specialise.

Dhillon took the decision to move in-house, where the work had a strong commercial bias, typically contractual and IP matters.

Then, two years ago, he was contacted by a recruitment agency with a vacancy at Tesco to deal with competition matters. The post has transpired to be far more varied than he anticipated, involving general commercial advice, IP and mergers and acquisitions.

The job of an in-houser, says Dhillon, is one for a generalist, unlike private practice where you quickly become specialised. A lot of work will be outsourced, where it is advantageous to have a qualified lawyer on hand who can handle some of the work personally and monitor and tailor outsourced work to the particular requirements of the firm.

Dhillon says although “a City background is useful, the major difference is applying the law to different business issues. You are not just expected to be an expert in the law but have to be able to translate it to be effective, to be able to think laterally.”

An alternative view comes from Claire Bean, a trainee with Alliance & Leicester, who points out that one advantage over private practice is that there is no billing, no time sheets and no clients.

Her clients are the other internal departments, for whom she does a variety of work – from proofing adverts and mailshots for the marketing department and handling banking enquiries from other branches, to residential conveyancing for staff being relocated – which she says is providing her with a broad-based and enjoyable training.

Personal Injury

Tania Sless, employers' and public liability group litigation head at Davies Arnold Cooper, says that this practice area has become very popular in recent years – and is increasingly perceived as the glamourous end of litigation.

A trainee in her department will not be responsible for their own files, but will assist fee earners in every aspect of a case, perhaps dealing with statement taking, discovery, attending court for the more straightforward applications and sitting in on meetings.

A trainee should be “confident and personable, friendly and outgoing with a measure of common sense”. These characteristics are important because of the large amount of client contact and investigative work – interviewing a building site worker one day and taking a statement from a senior corporate executive the next.

On qualification you can expect to build up your own cases working very much as part of a team. After qualifying into the department, Sasha Craig found herself going to hearings from day one, handling straightforward applications such as organising the exchange of statements by a certain date. She says initiative and confidence are imperative.

Local Government

Janet Fox is a trainee solicitor with Vale Royal borough council in Cheshire, a small authority with four solicitors, two paralegals and herself.

One year in, despite a lack of structuring in terms of seats, she is finding the experience both rewarding and enjoyable. She expects to receive a broad brush of training covering planning, housing, general litigation, environmental health and licensing.

The most exciting element to a local government training contract is that it is the only place where a trainee is permitted to do court work – either in a county court or in a magistrates' court.

This generally involves health and safety, planning prosecutions or environmental protection. There are also opportunities to do internal appeals within the council, for example employment appeals before they reach industrial tribunal.

Janet first applied to private practice, but feels fortunate to be in local government. With different pressures to private practice, one enviable option is flexi-time.

Another difference is the lack of client contact – her clients are the different departments in council and the councillors themselves.

Corporate Finance

Stephen Barnard, partner in the corporate department at Herbert Smith, explains that there are four aspects to a trainee's induction into corporate finance: straight law; negotiations and deals; diligence exercise; and deal project management skills.

The types of law involved will include contract law, public company rules, company law and the takeover code.

A trainee will basically be aiding compliance of documents with such elements as the Stock Exchange listing rules.

The negotiations aspect is probably the most interesting, although a trainee cannot expect to have much personal input.

The diligence exercise involves looking at the business being acquired or sold and helping the purchaser or vendor in business/contract analysis. The final aspect is co-ordination of the whole exercise, including outsourcing work to other departments such as the property and tax groups.

The work can involve private or public companies, reorganisation, demergers, shareholder disputes or boardroom rows. A trainee will be expected to have a good understanding of contract and company law – this is fundamental – plus some knowledge of the listing code, the takeover code and the way deals are done in the City, something you cannot learn on the LPC.

Caroline Powell has recently completed her first seat in general commercial. Surprisingly, she enjoyed a good deal of client contact and, unusually, never worked a weekend (although there were a few late nights).

For four out of her six months the department was incredibly busy and she would be in by 8.30am and stay until 8pm. During those four months Caroline saw five completed deals, where she was involved in the final stages. She said this was thoroughly enjoyable.