For those unfortunate souls who are in the no man’s land of being a non-qualified law graduate, getting the right work experience is crucial for securing a training contract.
The most obvious solution is, of course, to work as a paralegal at a law firm, make a good impression and take advantage of having regular contact with partners to show that you are a valuable asset and a worthwhile investment. However, although a handful of law firms do regularly offer training contracts to their paralegals, many purposefully avoid giving paralegals this opportunity – some on a point of principle.
Another option, which is often undervalued, is to work for an in-house legal department. I recently completed two vacation schemes, and I found it interesting that many paralegals, and trainees who have previously worked as paralegals, had never considered working in-house before commencing their training. Many of the people I spoke to were not sure what the role entails and were convinced that working for a law firm was a better option.
I would like to challenge that view by explaining what the role of an in-house paralegal involves and the advantages that accompany the position.
Life as an in-house paralegal is typically split into two roles: legal and administrative – both of which are useful sources of training. The administrative side of my role involves having to deal with invoices from external lawyers, keeping track of the legal budget and generally looking after legal documents.
These jobs, although they may seem boring, are worthwhile. Take proofreading for example – I have been lucky to work with some very talented lawyers. Therefore whenever I proofread any sort of agreement that has been drafted in-house, I get to see what good drafting looks like and how to effectively capture commercial principles in a contractual form.
The legal side of my role is very broad and unlike private practise is not limited to one specialism. I have worked in a variety of practice areas which include corporate, property, compliance, TMT, IP, employment and pensions. I also get to occasionally instruct external law firms – so those worried that they will not build up any contacts with lawyers who work in private practice, there is no need to fear.
There are some unique advantages to becoming an in-house paralegal. The dramatic effects that the Legal Services Act has had on the industry means it is a good time to experience first-hand exactly what clients expect from their law firms. Unlike in private practice, you get to see the long-term effects of legal advice. For example, after a deal is completed, external counsel will leave the scene, but in-house staff get to see how the deal could have been drafted more clearly or negotiated more effectively.
Another key advantage is getting to know how a (non-law firm) business operates – both structurally and culturally. Most clients will have a very different business model to a law firm, and appreciating how a company makes money, how it formulates its goals and aspirations, the challenges it faces and understanding the organisational structure (both legally and culturally) all helps you to understand the type of client you will be advising in the future.
An important part of this is to understand the wide variety of roles it takes to run a successful business. Lawyers have to work with a wide-range of individuals, such as bid managers, commercial directors, financial directors, group controllers, project managers, CEOs and directors. Working with these individuals on a regular basis allows you to get to grips with these roles, teaching you how much legal knowledge they have and what they care about.
Working with such a variety of professions provides an excellent opportunity to learn how to explain legal concepts to non-legal colleagues and often, in return, you will learn more about their profession which helps to break down the gap between legal and non-legal. For example, revenue recognition is not strictly a legal issue, but after working with accountants I have built up a basic (probably very basic) knowledge of how revenue recognition shapes a deal.
Although being caught between university and a training contract is frustrating, the opportunity to get to know the business, employees, company officers, suppliers and customers will help you to develop an understanding of your future clients and what they want from their lawyers, along with building up the skills that will not only help you with those assessment centres, but will give you a strong set of skills to start your legal career.
Joseph Holland will start his training contract with a top 50 firm in 2018
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