Mission Impossible

To many law students, getting a traineeship feels like taking the lead in Mission Impossible. Competition is so intense that it is tempting to apply for everything available. But the secret behind a successful application lies in targeting your efforts to suit your needs and recognising that different people are suited to different things.

Most law students want to work for one of the large City firms. Not surprisingly, they are attracted by the good salaries, the structured training programmes and the prestige. Kate Ball-Dodd is a trainee solicitor with national firm Eversheds. She says: "I'm getting a great training. Eversheds has a broad range of clients. It's a fabulous experience."

But training in a large commercial firm will not suit everyone. Helena Twist, director of legal education at national firm Nabarro Nathanson, says: "If you join a big firm, you have a terrific structured training programme. But you have no immediate face-to-face contact with clients. It's something for trainees to think about."

Another thing to consider is that trainees in big firms are increasingly being encouraged to specialise early. City firm Norton Rose offers its trainees four four-month seats. All trainees do litigation, corporate finance and banking work. They can choose their fourth seat but are encouraged to return to one of the three core seats.

Annabelle Newell, graduate recruiter, says: "More and more trainees go back to a core seat. We encourage people to specialise more quickly, but still deal on an individual basis."

Like many law students, Steven Wood was tempted by the reputation of a big City firm. But, after careful thought, he decided it wasn't for him. Instead he accepted a traineeship with Reading-based firm Blandy & Blandy.

He says: "I chose to come to the firm because of the broad range of work on offer. I think you get better experience with clients and more responsibility in a regional firm.

"I would definitely recommend it. The depth of experience you get is very good."

Pay, on the other hand, is not so good – trainees start on £11,800, as opposed to the £19,000 offered by large commercial firms.

Most students tend to rank traineeships with City firms as highest, followed by other

London firms, then firms in growing commercial cities like Leeds and finally small high street practices. But where you do your traineeship will not necessarily dictate your career path for life. Switching from a regional firm to a City firm is difficult but not impossible. Personnel managers stress that when recruiting they look principally for relevant experience, which usually means commercial experience.

Students set on working in a particular area of law should consider applying for traineeships with a niche firm. Julie Strange, a trainee solicitor with family firm Hartnell & Co, says: "I certainly have no regrets about coming to a niche firm. It's an excellent idea because you do get very high quality training.

"But you are going to be narrowing down your options," she adds. "It's good as long as you are fairly sure about that work you want to do."

Most practitioners recommend doing some work experience to make sure a firm is for you. Opportunities with niche firms are limited, though, because many cannot meet the Law Society's requirements for training contracts and trainees may have to split their traineeship with two firms in order to do the required three seats.

Jill Andrew, a partner in niche employment firm Langley & Co, specialised in employment law from day one of her training. But she says early specialisation is not necessary. "I would strongly advise anyone against getting pigeon-holed in a traineeship. It's important you do have breadth of experience," she says.

When recruiting she looks for someone who has had company or commercial experience and says that a seat in employment is not a prerequisite.

Although 82 per cent of lawyers work in private practice, there are training opportunities in commerce and industry and also in the public sector.

Andrew says: "The status of in-house lawyers has changed dramatically. If you can't get articles in one of the big City firms, have a look at opportunities in industry – it is certainly a good idea."

A good idea perhaps, but training contracts in commerce and industry are hard to come by. As Peter Styles, chair of the Bar Association for Commerce and Industry (Bafci) and vice-president of corporate projects at Enron Europe UK, comments: "It's my opinion that not enough companies offer trainee schemes."

Julian Armstrong, general counsel of Esso UK and chair of the commerce and industry committee at the Law Society, says training contracts in which trainees join a company for a seat "work very well".

Most companies recruit lawyers with at least two and a half years post-qualification experience. "There is quite a lot of movement between the private sector and commerce and industry," he says. "But most people who come into commerce and industry don't want to leave."

When recruiting he looks for "a high level of openness and empathy with business clients, excellent academic skills and an ability to get on with people" – you don't have to come from a City firm to get a job in commerce and industry.

In the public sector, the Crown Prosecution Service and Government Legal Service both have legal training programmes and even sponsor a few students through the LPC. But competition for places is fierce. The Government Legal Service organises teams of lawyers for over 25 government departments and takes on about eight trainees for central government and six for European every year, whittled down from the 2,000 applications it receives each year.

At local government level, some local authorities take on trainees. They start as assistant solicitors and progress to head of legal services or to director. Work in local government is varied and can involve administration, management and policy. Each local authority is its own employer so there is no national recruitment scheme.

Anthony Igbiniyesu, a trainee solicitor at Tower Hamlets, says: "I think in comparison to people in private practice it's good for getting involved in things. You get rights of audience and advocacy skills and a very broad experience.

"If you can't get into a big City firm I think local authority is the next best thing."

Trainees in his authority start on around £15,500. But Igbiniyesu stresses competition is very tough. Both trainee solicitors in his authority were long-term members of staff, working as unqualified legal assistants for the authority, before they were taken on as trainees.

Whether public sector work will build the relevant skills to move into the private sector is not clear. A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service says: "We don't feel there's a problem with people moving from the private sector to the public sector and vice versa. But it's not that frequent."

Whatever the area of law, getting a traineeship is tough and the message is clear: look for a traineeship to suit you. Find firms which are strong in fields that interest you and try to get work experience with them.

Jonathan Bond, a graduate recruitment manager at Allen & Overy, says: "People frequently end up liking an area that they thought they might not like. There's no substitute for experience."