After years of study, 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.
During this two-year period of on-the-job learning you will be known as a trainee solicitor. The good news is that all those years of hard work will begin to pay off as you finally start to earn a salary.
Most training contracts are offered by law firms but they are also offered by some companies’ in-house legal departments, local and central government, the Crown Prosecution Service and charities.
Making training contract applications – when and how
Most major law firms recruit their trainee solicitors well in advance – usually two years before they are due to start. If you are studying law, the busiest time for you during the application process will be your last couple of years at university.
One of the main advantages of securing a training contract before you start the postgraduate stage of qualification is that most of the leading commercial firms sponsor future trainees by making a financial contribution towards the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and if necessary the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) fees. Firms also pay a maintenance grant of between £5,000 and £10,000 to help with living costs, which should ease the huge financial burden.
Most (but not all) of the larger commercial firms set the end of July as their training contract application deadline, so as soon as end-of-year exams are over it is time for more hard work.
Firing off random applications is unlikely to be as successful as researching the firms and areas you want to work in and then carefully putting together targeted applications. Apply directly to the law firms you wish to work for and check their websites for contacts and precise closing dates for applications. Some firms will want a CV and covering letter, while many now use online application forms.
Applying for training contracts is a time-consuming exercise if you do it properly. 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. Read this article about what NOT to write on application forms.
Although it is accepted that a candidate will apply to a number of firms, recruiters still want evidence that candidates know something about their particular law firm. Don’t regurgitate the firm’s 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 results as soon as possible and be able to provide feedback. 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 to penultimate-year students until 1 September.
All is not lost if you do not manage to secure a training contract by the end of your time at university. 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.
Lawyer 2B has a webcast on how to make successful applications.
The ‘period of recognised training’
If we’re being strictly accurate, the training contract was officially renamed a ‘period of recognised training’ (PRT) in 2015. The reasons for this are too long and tedious to go into here. All you need to know is that most people still refer to the two-year period spent in a law firm as a ‘training contract’ but you might see references to the PRT as well.
Vacation schemes and open days
Over the summer, and sometimes at Christmas and Easter, most firms run (paid) work experience programmes known as ‘vacation schemes’. These are a great way to find out what life in a law firm is really like.
In the past vacation schemes were relaxed affairs. Students would rock up to the firm, spend a week or so shadowing lawyers, go to a few drinks events and that would be it. Maybe the student would apply to the firm further down the line.
Things have changed, though. Students are fighting harder for training contracts and firms are fighting harder for the best candidates. They are increasingly hiring their trainees directly from their vacation schemes, so getting on one can be a way of bagging a training contract. Competition is fierce, with firms seeking only the best candidates – those who have strong academic backgrounds as well as the other relevant skills that make for an excellent lawyer, such as those gained by participation in extracurricular activities.
Given the complexity of the work handled by commercial law firms and the short time you’ll actually be there, it is unlikely that you will be handed a significant amount of ‘real’ work during your vacation scheme. Typical tasks might include legal research, note-taking at a client meeting and proofreading. Firms supplement this with seminars designed to give you an insight into the type of work they handle, along with skills workshops to help with your training contract applications.
There may also be formal assessments and at the end of a vacation scheme you might get a training contract interview.
Most firms organise a number of social events to help students gel with each other and provide an opportunity to meet members of staff in a more relaxed setting. The bigger the firm, the more they will try to impress you with fancy events.
Vac schemes are usually only open to second-year undergraduates and beyond, but lots of firms run open days for keen first-years. Insight days are also a good option if you can’t spare enough time for a vac scheme for whatever reason.
The training contract
Most training contracts start in the autumn. Some larger firms give you the option to delay your start date by six months and start in the spring instead.
Once you start your training contract you will get to work in several departments. The time spent in each department is known as a ‘seat’. Most firms operate a four-seat system – giving their trainees experience in four departments over the course of the two-year period. Some firms organise things differently and let trainees complete five or six seats.
You may get a say in which seats you complete, although firms usually have their own rules and may demand that you spend time in their largest departments. The very largest firms have more than 200 trainees at any one time and, as you can imagine, it’s hard for the HR team to give all of them exactly what they want.
Under SRA rules trainees must gain contentious experience, which involves advising clients on legal disputes. This means completing a seat in a litigation-related department, although some firms allow you to skip this by going on an extra course run by a law school.
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.
At international firms you might have the opportunity to spend a seat in an overseas office. Some firms also offer trainees seats at clients’ in-house legal departments. These are known as ‘secondments’.
The firm should allocate a training principal to support a trainee while at the firm. This is usually a partner who will supervise and give appraisals on how things are going. You will also be required to keep your own training record.
Top tips for vacation schemes
- Although a vacation scheme is essentially a two-week interview, this isn’t The Apprentice, so don’t be overly competitive.
- Be punctual and don’t go in with a hangover.
- Dress appropriately – stick to business attire during the day and on a night out avoid wearing anything too revealing.
- Always carry a pen and notepad.
- Tackle every task, however mundane, with enthusiasm and to the best of your ability.
- Be proactive – if you do not have enough to do, tell someone. Sitting quietly doing nothing helps no-one.
- Ask lots of questions and show a willingness to learn.
- If you do not understand instructions, ask a supervisor to
- Do not forget that lawyers are obsessed with attention to detail, so check your work carefully before handing it to your supervisor.
- Don’t act smug – no-one likes a boaster.
- Do not assume that people in HR – or any other support service – are stupid.
- Be respectful to your fellow schemers and do not brag about the number of placements you are planning to do over the summer.
- Don’t send personal emails or make too many personal phone calls, and avoid social networking sites.
- Don’t use your mobile phone or iPad while with your supervisor.
- Don’t end emails with ‘love and kisses’. Use ‘kind regards’ and always remember to say thank you. If you are forwarding an email, make sure it does not include anything inappropriate.
- Do not race out of the door at 5.30pm every day.
- Watch your behaviour on social outings – do not get too drunk and do not try to pull fellow schemers, the graduate recruitment team or trainees.
- Common social events include go-karting, dragon-boat racing and treasure hunts around the City. It is no coincidence that they all test your ability to be a good sport. Remember you are being watched and be graceful whether you win or lose.
- Don’t make carping remarks about the quality of the food, venue or wine you are being treated to.
- Remember to thank everyone on your last day. But don’t overdo it – no-one likes a brown-noser.
“What kind of work will I get to do?”
The firm you train with will determine the type of work you handle. Some believe in giving trainees a high level of responsibility but training programmes at some of the larger firms have a reputation for being heavy on document-checking and photocopying.
Typical trainee tasks are due diligence, legal research and drafting memoranda and basic legal documents. You will also attend meetings with clients and lawyers on the opposite side of a matter, where you may be asked to take notes. Again, the amount of contact you have with clients will depend on the size of the firm you train with.
The department you are in will also have a bearing on the work you do. For example, cases in litigation departments can run for many years so it is hard for a trainee to get heavily involved in the short time they are sitting there. On the other hand, property departments often have lots of smaller matters that trainees can take the lead on.
“How hard will I be expected to work?”
The hours in commercial firms can be tough and spending a 24-hour stint in the office is not unheard of. However, the most common complaint of trainees is not the occasional long hours so much as the unpredictability – it is hard to make plans with friends because you never know if an urgent piece of work will land on your desk at 5.59pm.
Thankfully, it is not all work. The benefit of working at a large commercial firm is that they hire large groups of trainees. Some very large firms might have as many as 60 trainees starting at the same time, creating great opportunities to make new friends. .
“Show me the money! How much can I earn?”
Commercial firms work you hard but they pay you well. Trainee solicitors are some of the highest-paid graduates. A few US firms pay their London trainees annual starting salaries as high as £50,000 – rising to £125,000 as a newly qualified solicitor. Of course, salaries vary depending on region and type of firm, and most firms don’t pay anywhere near this much. To find out more on how much you can earn as a trainee solicitor, check out Lawyer2B.com.
“What happens once my training’s over?”
It is virtually unheard of for someone to fail their training contract, but this is not to say there is room for complacency. Firms have no obligation to keep you once you have finished your training – if you want to avoid being one of those who are not retained you should be doing everything you can to impress during your training contract. Of course, if you feel the firm is not for you or you cannot qualify into the department of your choice you are free to beat a hasty retreat at the end of your training.
But whether you stay or go, nothing can change the fact that, at the end of the two years, you are a fully qualified solicitor.
“Once I’ve qualified, what are the options?”
Become a partner
Traditionally, the ultimate aim for any young lawyer was to become a partner – a part-owner of the firm who takes a share of the profit. That’s when you would really see your income skyrocket. Partnership was usually offered about six to eight years after qualification, although some superstars have been known to make it sooner.
It is getting tougher to make partner. The older generation are retiring later so there is less space for new people at the bottom. Also, firms are introducing alternative career paths for those who would rather not have the extra responsibility of being a partner.
These days it is increasingly recognised that people do not necessarily want to spend their whole lives doing the same job and many young lawyers do not fancy working their socks off for years on end, chasing the carrot on a stick that is the promise of partnership.
After a few years, lots of lawyers leave private practice and go in-house. Companies and charities have their own legal teams, and the life of an in-house solicitor is often a lot more relaxed, with more regular hours, than that of a solicitor in a law firm.
Go behind the scenes
You might think that no-one would leave a hard-won job as a solicitor to become a member of a law firm’s support staff, but it is not unheard of for lawyers to take on graduate recruitment or marketing roles.
Become a lecturer
Most law schools are chock-full of qualified barristers or solicitors. Again, they have moved out of private practice for a better work-life balance, often after having children.
Do something else entirely
Law sets you up nicely if you want to become a politician (Tony Blair is just one example) but the options are endless. We have known solicitors who have left the profession to write novels, run their own bakeries or even join the church.
Top tips for attending an interview
Arrive on time and turn up at the right place (print off a map if necessary).
Research, research, research – make sure you know as much as possible about the firm that is interviewing you.
Dress appropriately – bear in mind that the law is a conservative profession and neither ladies nor gents will go wrong by sticking to a dark suit.
Answer the question that is being asked. If you do not understand the question, ask the interviewer to repeat it.
When answering competency-based questions use the STAR approach: outline the Situation for the interviewer and set the scene; tell them the Task in hand; break down your Actions in detail, outlining your thought process; and do not forget to talk through your Results, ensuring these are quantifiable and measurable.
Avoid waffle. For example, it is tempting to lengthen a perfect answer just to fill the awkward silence, which always feels longer than it actually is.
Take a sip of water if you need to think about an answer.
Ask intelligent questions that show your commitment to the job.
Be enthusiastic but do not act cocky.
Most importantly, be yourself.
“Is a gap year considered an advantage by law firms or is it not advised?”
By all means take a gap year if you want to. It is often recommended that you do not take a gap year after your LPC and prior to starting a training contract, as firms do not want you to forget what you have learnt on the LPC, especially if they have paid the fees.
Taking a gap year before or after your undergraduate studies usually works well.
Vicki Bradley, recruitment manager, Shearman & Sterling
In-house training contracts
The bulk of aspiring lawyers may still take the traditional training contract route, but training in-house is an alternative.
What’s the difference?
A number of FTSE 100 companies now offer training contracts or are keen to formalise their programmes. A good example is BT, which is increasing its presence on the graduate recruitment circuit by visiting campuses and promoting its training scheme.
As in private practice, an in-house training contract must comply with SRA rules. Therefore, trainees at BT must still undertake three seats to qualify as a lawyer.
In most cases the choice of seats is more restricted than in a law firm as they must suit the business’s needs. BT requires aspiring lawyers to complete commercial and litigation seats in the first two years, with the option of corporate, employment or competition for the third. That said, within a company work is often passed between teams more freely, making it likely that the trainee will cover a broader range of topics within that field.
Some in-house programmes offer a secondment to a law firm to ensure training equates to that in private practice, as well as complies with SRA requirements.
For most in-house programmes the trainees are required to complete three years to allow them to simultaneously study the LPC part-time. It is worth noting that many companies will not accept applications from people who have already completed their LPC. BT only accepts applications from law students, or non-law students if they have completed the GDL. It also offers full sponsorship for the LPC with the University of Law.
Many in-house training schemes are offered on an ad hoc basis to people already working at the company. Live events company the NEC Group, for example, has developed an in-house training contract for paralegals that show promise, while ITV initially introduced training contracts to reward legal executives.
One myth of training in-house is that it could damage your chances of working in private practice in the future. However, although it is less common to take the ‘reverse-route’, it is not unheard of. Moreover, with the vast exposure and inside knowledge gained by working at the heart of a business, you may find you are well-equipped with the skills and legal acumen to have a successful career in a law firm.
Indeed, the legal issues faced by in-house trainees are for the most part the same as in private practice. However, they relate to the company you work for, not a third-party client, which enables the in-house trainee to develop strong commercial awareness. In-house trainees are also often given a lot more responsibility in a shorter amount of time than a trainee at a law firm.
Often, the hardest part of training in-house is finding out about the opportunities available. The Commerce & Industry Group (www.cigroup.org.uk) has a list of organisations that are registered to offer training contracts, but there is no guarantee that all the names on the list offer contracts every year, or to external candidates. Students must be prepared to put in enquiries about training programmes and speculative applications, which will take a lot more time and effort than a standard private practice application.