How to develop key relationships during your training contract

Michael Hornsey
Michael Hornsey

Slotting into the culture of a large law firm can be daunting for new trainees; especially in larger firms where over one thousand people work together as parts in a well-oiled machine. A lot of the success of such firms is down to internal relationships that allow people to get things done when they need to get done.

Some firms send their trainees on professional development courses with titles such as “Impact and Influence” to fast track their relationship skills although much depends on the specific workplace culture of a firm, group or team. Others, though, are bound up with the nature of different roles in a law firm.

Here are some tips for how trainees can build effective relationships with different firm stakeholders.

Other trainees

Unless you are training at a very small firm you will be moving through your training contract with other people. At larger firms this gives you access to a support network of potentially 120 people to draw from:

DO – See other trainees as allies and share your knowledge. Feel free to call someone who sat in your current group previously for pointers. Similarly, share your knowledge about a transaction you worked on if you know someone will be drafted in to help on it in their next seat.

DON’T – Don’t treat your training contract as an extension of university. You are not building a community from scratch; you are entering a well-established commercial environment and this means you should be sensitive to the existing culture and tensions.

Your supervisor

In each seat of your training contract you will have a supervisor who oversees your work and trains you in their area of law. It’s the most bespoke relationship you will form and one of the most important.

DO – To an extent, a trainee’s job is to help their supervisor do his or her job. Some supervisors are very particular in how they want their trainees to work. It’s best to get to grips with their preferences and work habits early on. You can also learn a lot from taking an interest in their clients and their practice area – you might be sitting with the next big fintech dealmaker or renewable energy arbitrator!

DON’T – Don’t think of your supervisor as a mentor unless they position themselves in that way. Although it’s important to find mentor figures, many supervisors are given trainees as a matter of firm policy and for whatever reason do not invest time in their trainees as people. You should expect to learn a lot about the job but lots of lawyers lack a pedagogical mind set and you are just one of many trainees on a pipeline that refreshes every six months.

Your PA

A good relationship with your PA can make all the difference as a trainee – they will save you from bureaucratic processes, teach you how to use niche software programmes, help you plough through admin tasks and provide a warm ear in what can be a cold environment.

DO – Take the time to get to know your PA: say hello in the mornings, ask how his or her week is going, make a coffee at the same time for a quick catch up. The more you interact the more you will learn how to communicate with each other, which makes all the difference when a trainee inherits an emergency (e.g. when a letter needs to be signed by lunchtime or a matter needs to be set up by the end of the day).

DON’T – Never try to pull rank, especially at 4.50pm! Your PA technically works for you but s/he may have been at the firm 20 years and will have a better understanding of how the firm works than you. If you are having problems with your PA find a way to address it tactfully (e.g. ask your supervisor for advice in the first instance).

Partners

Partners are the seasoned explorers braving their way to the peak of the corporate law mountain. Most are approachable but have high standards and little time. Some may have been in the firm for thirty years and may look back fondly on a time before computers when smoking at your desk was acceptable.

DO – Get as much exposure to partners as you can and make an effort to come across as practical and reliable – never miss deadlines, suggest solutions to problems you encounter, and make judgment calls if you think a decision is necessary and there’s no one else to make it.

DON’T – Don’t avoid partners out of deference. Law firms are hierarchical but partners are people too and one day you might join them in their lofty ranks. You shouldn’t wander into a partner’s office for a chat about your weekend but when the occasion presents itself, such as over drinks, you have the perfect opportunity to connect with them. This is your chance to learn how their career developed, what they do outside of work and how you can help make their department a success.

The print room

Law firms and documents go hand in hand. Often your work product is a document and you will constantly be reviewing and commenting on client documents. This means you will get to know you print room extremely well; especially if you are in a disputes team where you might be tasked with organising a bundle of hundreds of thousands of pages.

DO – Take the time to meet people in print room and be honest with them about deadlines and if you make a mistake. They are under a lot of time pressure and if you set things out clearly, give realistic deadlines and turn up to collect your finished print jobs now and then it will help when you have a bit of work that’s actually urgent (ninety level arch files by tomorrow).

DON’T – Don’t fluster or give unnecessary deadlines. It undermines your credibility and can be annoying. If a pedantic associate gives you an unrealistic deadline, try to address it with the associate rather than passing the frenzy onwards.

Other support teams

Fee earners would be unable to do their jobs without the army of business development advisers, finance co-ordinators, project managers, conflicts specialists, graphic designers, IT support staff, events managers and other support group. As a trainee you are often at the interface between these departments and your team.

DO – Work with support teams on their terms. Some departments require certain forms to be filled in or sign-off from multiple people. Try to find out exactly what their process requires and don’t be afraid to ask early on. Your PA is likely to have done it before and can probably help!

DON’T – Don’t insist on work being done a certain way, even if “a partner said so”. Hierarchy is not as effective as a management technique outside fee-earning circles. Most support teams also follow processes set by senior management that cannot be overridden e.g. certain requirements when using firm logos. Sometimes feeding this message back is better than ruining a relationship for the sake of following orders.