Finding your niche

If you want a level of responsibility early on in your career that bigger firms might not be able to offer, then a niche firm could well be your best choice.


Decisions, decisions. When it comes to applying for training contracts at law firms, it seems as though there is no limit to what is on offer.

Whether your first contact with a law firm is at a university law fair, where you may have the chance to speak with members of the firms graduate recruitment teams, or during a training contract interview or assessment day, the choice of law firms available to you can be daunting.

Do you go for the large international firm, with high-value transactions and with a brand name that is well-known to yourself and your peers? Or do you go for a smaller niche firm with a more specialised client base and that thrives a smaller number of practice areas? The choices are many.

Niche v large
I get really frustrated when I say who Im training with and people look at you thinking why are you there?, says Maples Teesdale trainee Laura-Jane Atkins.

Atkins, who is in her third seat at the niche commercial property firm claims that there are huge advantages to training at a niche firm as opposed to one of the larger City firms, which cover a wider range of practice areas. She says the first option includes large amounts of responsibility from day one, as well as close client contact and the opportunity to run your own files.

There are big attractions to training at smaller firms with more focused practice areas. First, the very fact that the firm is smaller and that the deals are often less high-value and, arguably, less complex, means that from the outset trainees can get heavily involved in the deal and, more often than not, end up running their own files of course with close partner supervision from day one.

This may not often be the case at large City firms, where the very nature of the work, often being very high-value with an international aspect, means the deal will involve a large number of lawyers from the firms different practice areas and also from different international offices of the firm. Lawyers running the deal will also have to liaise with various different lawyers acting on the other side of the deal, so while a trainee may oversee certain parts of the deal, it is not possible to delegate the whole file management to a trainee.

Clare Harris, graduate recruitment manager at top 10 City firm Lovells, says: I admit its a challenge, but we try to give trainees the level of responsibility to match their level of expertise.

Although we have big practice groups, theyre split into smaller groups, so trainees get more responsibility. Plus, we offer trainees the opportunity to go on client secondments, where they can have huge responsibility.

The larger firms argue that they offer more specialised practice areas, such as property and employment, where trainees do have the opportunity to run their own files with partner supervision. But trainees are often justifiably concerned that these practice areas do not offer standalone property or employment work, for example, but are mainly transactional, corporate support work.

Atkins recommends that, before you apply for a training contract, you have to decide what sort of person you are and what environment you want to work in.

Forsters trainee Anna Marie Skinner agrees, telling Lawyer2B: At the end of the day its horses for courses. If youre interested in private equity funds or want to work on huge corporate deals and do a seat abroad, then Forsters is not the place for you.

Skinner knew she wanted to train at a smaller, more specialised law firm after completing two vacation placements prior to applying for a training contract, one in a small firm in Lincolns Inn and one in a large US firm. The placement
I did at the US firm didnt feel well-suited to me. It wasnt necessarily the work, more the thought of being a small fish in a big pond, she says.

The Forsters trainee is currently in her fourth seat at the firm, which specialises in property and private client work. She is one of four trainees and describes her typical day in the private client department as taking a clients instructions for a will, drafting trust documents, research both legal and general, visiting clients at their homes and day-to-day management of a probate.

She says she usually leaves the office between 6.30pm and 7.30pm and that the hours are far more concentrated than some of her friends at the larger international law firms, who often have to work a lot later as they may have to wait for calls from the US.

Fox Williams trainee Daniel Sutherland explains that, with five trainees in his intake, they are given high levels of responsibility during their training contract and that in the firms smaller departments the level of responsibility is similar to that of a newly-qualified. While client contact varies considerably depending on departments, you never feel like youre being hidden from clients, he says.

While Sutherland recognises that a small trainee intake fosters good relationships, with the trainees becoming a close-knit team, he admits that there are disadvantages to being the only trainee in a particular department.
It can be stressful as there can be a lot of work with no other trainees to spread the work around to. You can also get stuck with doing administrative work, he says.

On a practical basis, Sutherland says that being the only trainee in a department can be hard because you cant ask another trainee silly work questions. The only other person around might be a very busy senior partner who may not have the time to answer your questions. There are also fewer people to bounce ideas off.

Atkins agrees. Two heads can be better than one, and likewise 30 heads can be better than one, she says. We have to be a bit more proactive. You have to have a certain get up and go. But theres much more of a chance of being noticed.

Allen & Overy trainee Sara Currie agrees and says of her 60-trainee intake: In a smaller intake I suppose its easier to be the star trainee if thats what youre after. But with a big trainee intake you have an automatic group of friends and its less competitive.

A danger in specialising too early?
Maples Teesdale commercial property partner Roger Thornton tells Lawyer2B: A niche firm may sound more specialised than it actually is. While were a niche property firm, we also cover a broad base of work within the property sector, including employment, commercial and corporate work.

Harbottle & Lewis head of personnel Caroline West agrees, saying: While were a niche media and entertainment firm, we offer all-round training, including corporate and commercial work and property. The deals may not be as big-ticket as in the large firms, but the experience of the deal is the same.

However, Atkins says that if a trainee wants to train at a firm that specialises in a particular practice area, such as Maples Teesdale, which specialises in commercial property, it is paramount that you have an interest in that particular practice area. Youd be foolish to come here if you didnt like property. But after studying law for six years I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to work here she says.

Fox Williams Sutherland recognises that there are dangers in training at a firm that only offers a limited and more specialised training and admits that, while he was attracted to Fox Williams because of its reputation in employment law, he actually ended up qualifying into the corporate department. There must be a danger if you apply to a niche firm that doesnt offer you anything apart from a specialism he warns.

Life after training at a niche firm
As a rule, if you qualify at a magic circle firm youll be much more marketable than if you qualify with a niche firm, says Joanne Street from legal recruiter Hays.

There is always a danger that, if you complete your training contract at a niche firm that concentrates on one particular area of the law, such as property or IP, and you decide that you actually want to work in a different area, such as competition or finance, you may struggle to land your ideal role.

Street warns: The magic circle firms will never recruit you as you will not have been exposed to that type of work. The flipside is that some West End firms dont look favourably on newly-qualifieds from the big firms because they know that at the smaller firms they will have had two good years of training with a lot of responsibility. This is not always the case with trainees at magic circle firms.

First-seat Lovells trainee Kate Hillier does not agree and says that one of the advantages of training in a large firm is that a firm such as Lovells is big enough to offer trainees the opportunity to spend a seat in niche areas, such as property, employment or IP, as well as more mainstream seats such as corporate and banking.

At a firm the size of Lovells you have the opportunity to balance both general corporate work with specific niche work, she explains. There are advantages in having the opportunity to do what you didnt necessarily think you wanted to do after law school.

However, legal recruiter Lynnsey McCall at Taylor Root believes that, in theory, trainees at a smaller, more specialist firm should get more responsibility because of the size of the firm and there is more of a focus on the type of work that they want to do. She also explains that the more specialised departments in the large international firms offer work that tends to me more corporate and transactional-based.

She also warns trainees: If the markets buoyant, then having the name of a niche or specialised firm on your CV is a very good passport to getting into other firms. However, when the market is not so buoyant, the bigger City firms tend to look at other large City firms for potential recruits.

When applying for your training contract and deciding whether you want to work for one of the magic circle or top 10 City firms, or opt for a smaller or medium-sized firm focusing on more specialised practice areas, it is important to remember that, while niche firms are niche in terms of their client bases, they are not necessarily limited in the work that they offer and you may still get a broad training in the core practice areas.

While training at a smaller firm you may not be exposed to high-value multijurisdictional deals, nor may you have the opportunity to do a seat abroad in one of the firms offices. But you will benefit from increased responsibility, as the very nature of the work means that a trainee can manage their own file from day one, rather than having limited involvement at various stages of the deal.

However, at the end of the day the choice really is yours and you have to decide what sort of lawyer you want to be when you are qualified and what sort of training you want to receive as all law firms, whether niche or not, will do the best to offer their trainees the highest level of training with the resources available to them.

This may seem like a big decision to make at the start of your career, but law firms do their best to help you make that decision by offering vacation placements, open days and, of course, interviews, where you will have the chance to ask questions and find out more about the firm.