“There was a fax machine on every floor!” Three partners recall their first day as a trainee

Chris Forsyth, Freshfields

Chris Forsyth

Current role: Partner in Freshfields’ London IP/IT practice.

I trained at: Bristows

My first day was: 15 September 1986

On September 15th 1986, I started my article clerkship at specialist IP firm Bristows. Articles comprised four compulsory six-month seats – company, civil litigation (a contradiction in terms?), property and IP. I sat with a partner for three out of the four seats. To give it context, The Communards were number 1, Liverpool had just won the division one title ahead of Everton, West Ham were third and Luton Town ninth. Maradona scored his Hand of God goal against England on his way to helping Argentina win the World Cup in Mexico.

It was a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

So what was different back then? Just bits and pieces, really. The internet was young – lawyers were only just getting PCs on their desks. We did very little typing, but a lot of dictating (I mean recording document content on to audio tapes for typing up, not ordering people about, although we did that too…). Not many people had mobile phones – this meant that when you arranged to meet someone or do something, you had to turn up, because they would be there waiting,  – you couldn’t “text” them at the last minute explaining you’d be late due to a tiger on the line outside Raynes Park station. 

Bristows had a fax machine ON EVERY FLOOR! Cool. Matter files were all in hard copy, bursting with sheets of randomly shaped shiny fax paper, the print fading week by week like petrol station receipts… Because the tech was less developed, most work needed to be done in the office – there was much less flexibility to work from home or on the move.

Because internet accessibility was limited, you had to learn and remember the important stuff – film and song quotes, football team emblems, the dates of the Apollo space missions, etc etc

I didn’t have an employment contract, I had a personal Deed of Articles with one of the Bristows partners. Life was good.

It sounds like a nightmare – was anything like it is now?

It certainly wasn’t a nightmare, and while many of the little things were different, the big things were the same.  Like now, a legal career was considered a reputable, serious, professional path for a young person to follow. Leading law firms, big and small, general and specialist, attracted the highest quality young talent. An articled clerk (trainee) was expected to work hard and to a high standard. Trainee places at the most reputable firms were highly prized and competitive. On day to day stuff, I still share my office with a trainee. Two of my fellow IP partners do too. It worked for me back in 1986, it still works now.

The training in 1986 was of a high standard, but less sophisticated than today. I have been closely involved with trainee recruitment and development at Freshfields for many years. The investment of time and resource that Freshfields and the other leading commercial law firms dedicate to training is far greater now than when I started. The major firms have grown massively in terms of size and global spread. With this growth has come an increase in the number of international opportunities open to trainees.

Another difference between the Freshfields training contract now and my (excellent) Bristows experience in the 1980s is the flexibility and autonomy afforded to the trainees. Here at Freshfields, our trainees have the option of three month seats, meaning they can try seats in six different teams and still find time for a six-month international secondment during their training contracts. Trainees here get to indicate what they would like as their next seat choice, and more often than not, they get it. This allows them freedom to shape their training contract to take them, hopefully, to the qualification place of their choice.

I honestly think that the London commercial firms, of all shapes and sizes, offer some of the best legal training in the world. The quality of this training is enhanced by the strength of London as a commercial and financial centre and the internationality of the law and the young lawyers who train here. If anyone needs convincing that encouraging talent from across the world to come to London to live and work, makes it a more vibrant, interesting, successful place, they only need to look at the example of the legal profession.


Ian Gray

Current role: Head of litigation at Eversheds 

I trained at: Linklaters

My first day was 5 September 1989

Linklaters seemed incredibly sophisticated to me: everything was so well organised. We were treated royally as trainees. I had been warned about being anchored to a photocopier. The only anchor I saw in the early days was on the boat they took us on the Thames for a champagne reception – just for us. The City was in boom time, the firms had been in cut-throat competition for people, and our salaries had gone up three times (and by about 30%) between us signing up for articles and actually starting.

My first seat was with a junior property lawyer who I won’t name, as he is now head of real estate at one of the UK’s leading firms. He was great to me, but formidable on behalf of his clients. There was no internet or email, so communication was either on the telephone (landline of course) or by letter. Much of the deal was therefore done on the phone. In my first month, he had a full on shouting match with the other side. I cowered in the corner. When he hung up, a round of applause went down the corridor, as all the partners, solicitors and secretaries had stopped to listen. He paused, smiled at me and said “Don’t worry, Ian. Sometimes they just need telling.”

Kate Swaine, Wragge

Kate Swaine

Current role: IP partner at Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co

I trained at: Wragge & Co

My first day was: 18 September 1994

I joined Wragge & Co, as it then was, in 1994 as a trainee. I was one of eight trainees joining the firm that September; all wearing brand new suits and nervous expressions. 

My first training seat was in commercial litigation. I had absolutely no idea what was expected of me and I held onto my LPC course books for dear life in the hope that they would guide me through those first few weeks. The bad news was that they didn’t! The good news? The existing trainees, newly qualified and junior lawyers stepped in to do the job.

I distinctly remember how supportive everyone was. So many questions: How do I switch on the dictating machine? Where is meeting room 11? Should I make a personal call when my supervisor is in the office? Who is my secretary and will they do a humble trainee’s work?

The practical questions were invariably more daunting than the legal ones! The fact that there were seven other people all going through the same experience meant that I had a ready-made helpline as well as a social network.

This was a time when court forms were still being typed on a manual typewriter, certain male partners raised their eyebrows if a female lawyer wore trousers to the office, open-plan was a mere glimmer in the eyes of the managing partner and no one had heard of Starbucks. It was Nescafe Instant all the way. How very old that makes me sound; this is starting to resemble a Monty Python sketch…

That first seat was a steep learning curve. One of the hardest things to get to grips with was working for a number of different people, with different styles and different expectations. A letter that would have received a cursory nod and approval from one partner would be artfully dissected and redlined by another. The thought of ever developing my own style seemed a long way off.

Now I would tell myself that, frustrating though it could be, that was a key part of learning the job. All those different expectations and styles allowed me to eventually develop my own way of working.  I’ve carried that lesson, and various other things I learned in those initial weeks, with me throughout my entire career; much of it is still relevant now…

Ask questions rather than being too afraid to admit that you don’t know something. If you’re asked a question and you are not certain of the answer, don’t worry. Use your initiative and at least have some answers to propose. Don’t forget the client! There doesn’t have to be something wrong or a bill to raise for you to simply pick up the phone and check in with your client. Finally, you were absolutely right to buy that trouser suit.

You might also be interested in: