Choosing the right training contract for your graduate career in law
Don't assume that you ought to set your sights on the law firms that offer the highest salaries and are involved in the highest-profile deals. If you don’t take some time to work out what you really want, you could find that your career as a solicitor is headed in the wrong direction from the outset. Although you’re free to swap firms once you’ve finished your training contract (or 'period of regognised training' as it is also now known), you’ll find it difficult to move somewhere with a completely different focus.
On the other hand, if you think through your options clearly, your thorough approach will come across in your applications and interviews. Recruiters will be impressed by evidence that you are applying to them out of a genuine interest in their business and areas of specialisation.
Which legal areas of practice interest you?
The most important factor to consider is which areas of law you’d like to try out. If you’re a law student, bear in mind that practising in a particular field can be very different to studying it at university. For example, you may find your property lectures dull but discover that you love working on big real estate deals as a trainee solicitor.
It’s important to be aware that you may not be able to choose the exact combination of seats you’d like to do on your training contract. This will be influenced in part by the size of the different departments and the desires of fellow trainees. However, firms will do their best to place you where you’ll be happy and you can give yourself a massive headstart by selecting employers who practise broadly in the areas that interest you.
What sort of client relationships do you want?
You might also want to consider what sorts of clients you’d prefer to work for and what kind of relationship you’d like to have with them. The highest-profile firms often have the highest-profile clients; however, if you work for smaller clients you’re likely to deal with more senior members of the organisation and take great satisfaction in helping them achieve their goals.
Take the size of law firms into account
Firms’ practice areas and client bases are quite closely linked to their size. The largest firms tend to be commercial law practices advising major international organisations whereas the smallest are generally high-street firms used by members of the public. However, there are plenty of exceptions so never judge a firm purely on its number of fee-earners.
Giant firms – these include the ‘magic circle’ firms of Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Slaughter and May, and Linklaters as well as other City heavyweights such as Herbert Smith, Hogan Lovells and CMS Cameron McKenna. These firms often employ thousands of staff, a couple of hundred partners and over 100 trainees. They handle a range of complex commercial work and lots of high-value international transactions for massive, global companies.
Mid-tier firms – although smaller than their magic circle counterparts, they are substantial legal powerhouses. Firms such as Ashurst, Macfarlanes and Travers Smith boast headline-grabbing deals and significant City clients. They tend to recruit between 20 and 50 trainees a year.
US firms – a number of firms whose head offices are in the US now have bases in London (eg Sidley Austin and White & Case). Like giant firms and mid-tier firms, they are involved with high value commercial work but tend to offer a smaller number of training contracts (typically 10–30). From time to time US firms choose to merge with significant commercial practices in the UK – for example the mergers of DLA with Piper Rudnick Gray Cary (now DLA Piper) and Lovells with Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells).
Boutique or niche practices – firms such as Ince & Co are known for offering specialist advice in one or more areas; in Ince's case it's shipping law. Typical niche areas include IT and telecommunications, intellectual property, family law and shipping. They may take on up to 15 trainees.
High-street or legal aid firms – these firms deal with the man or woman on the street in areas such as family law, conveyancing, crime and employment. They are likely to take on up to five trainees a year. A certain kind of personality is needed to work in smaller firms. You’ll probably be described as a ‘self-starter’ – someone who is happy and able to organise their own time and workload. You will need to be flexible, adaptable and keen to learn on the job. You are likely to run your own client files as a trainee.
A firm’s size also correlates closely with the number of trainees it takes on, which will in turn affect your experiences there. Would you like to be one of only two or three new starters and have the chance to mingle with lawyers of all levels of experience or would you prefer to be part of a 100-strong intake from whom to select your new friends and pub-going buddies?
Where do you want to be based?
Quality of life is a big consideration for many employees but what this means differs from person to person. You might love the buzz of working in the City with a large pay packet and plenty to spend it on. Or you may make a conscious decision to give London a miss in favour of more predictable working hours and shorter commutes.
How the structure of legal training varies from firm to firm
Different firms structure their training contracts in slightly different ways. The traditional model is for trainees to spend four six-month placements in different departments; however, some will have shorter seats in a greater number of departments or, conversely, stay in one department but experience different areas of work. Likewise, the time and manner in which formal training sessions are delivered will differ, as will the support systems.
Optional extras for trainee solicitors
Many firms offer trainees opportunities such as participating in pro bono programmes, spending a seat in an overseas office or going on secondment to a client. These shouldn’t be your first consideration but could help you decide between similar firms.
Alternatives to law firms
There are a small number of training contracts available in companies’ in-house legal departments, the Government Legal Service and the Crown Prosecution Service. However, these employers tend to take on the majority of their employees post-qualification.
Shortlist your favoured firms
Once you have a reasonable idea of where you’d like to work, you need to draw up a shortlist. You can then whittle it down further by checking out employers’ websites, reading the legal press and attending any events on campus. You may find yourself coming back to the names you first thought of but you’ll at least have the confidence of knowing that they really are the best firms for you.