Careers advice and planning

Choosing the right training contract for your graduate career in law

23 Feb 2023, 12:24

All the factors to consider when choosing which law firm to join as a trainee solicitor.

A picture of a London landscape, although you can apply for training contracts outside of London

Whether you are qualifying to be a solicitor through the old-style legal practice course (LPC) route or the new solicitors’ qualifying examination (SQE) route, the chances are you will still be applying for a training contract. It’s what the two year qualifying work experience was known as under the LPC qualification process and many firms are using this term when offering their SQE-ready qualifying work experience, although a few are calling it a graduate law apprenticeship instead. But which firm (or other organisation) should you apply to?

Try not to let your training contract search be all about which law firms 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.

Consider the size and types of law firms when choosing a training contract

  • Giant law firms – these include the ‘magic circle’ law firms of Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Slaughter and May, and Linklaters as well as other City heavyweights such as Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and national law firms such as CMS and DLA Piper. These firms often employ thousands of staff, a couple of hundred partners and often as many as 100 trainee solicitors. They handle a range of complex commercial work and lots of high-value international transactions for massive, global companies via their overseas network of global offices.
  • Mid-tier law firms – although smaller than their magic circle counterparts, they are substantial legal powerhouses. Firms such as Ashurst, Macfarlanes and Taylor Wessing boast headline-grabbing deals and significant City clients. They tend to recruit between 20 and 50 trainees a year.
  • Regional or national law firms – these law firms are often not as large as the City giants, but attract the same quality of work and clients as their London equivalents. Think: Osborne Clarke, Burges Salmon and Mills & Reeve. They can offer the best of many options: top-quality work with, potentially, a better work/life balance.
  • US law firms – a number of firms whose head offices are in the US now have bases in London (eg Sidley Austin, Covington & Burling 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).
  • Boutique or niche legal practices – firms such as Peters & Peters are known for offering specialist advice in one or more areas; in Peters & Peters' case it's criminal law. Typical niche areas include shipping law, IT and telecommunications, intellectual property and family law. 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.

Law firms’ practice areas and client bases are 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 lawyers. 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?

Which legal practice areas 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. 'I thought I’d blown it in my interview when I revealed my feelings about land law being difficult to study and then found out that the interviewer was in the real estate team! Law in practice and in theory is different, which was the point I was trying to make, but my heart was in my mouth at the time,’ reflects Ross Buckingham, trainee solicitor at Mills & Reeve LLP.

It’s important to be aware that you may not be able to choose the exact combination of training contract seats you’d like to do as a trainee. This will be influenced in part by the size of the different departments, the types of work they handle and the desires of fellow trainees. However, law 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 of law 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.

Where in the UK 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 a London training contract a miss in favour of more predictable working hours and shorter commutes. ‘Scotland is home for me – my main motivation for training in a Scottish office is that most of my family live here,' explains Craig Muir, trainee at Shoosmiths LLP.

How the structure of legal training varies from law firm to law firm

Different firms structure their training contracts in slightly different ways. The traditional model is for trainee solicitors to spend four six-month placements in different departments experiencing a variety of law practice areas. However, some law firms will have shorter seats in a greater number of legal departments or, conversely, stay in one department but experience different areas of work. A non-rotational training contract, such as that offered by Jones Day, suits a trainee who wants control over their training contract and isn't afraid to knock on partners' doors asking for work.

Likewise, the timing and manner of legal training will vary from firm to firm, as will the support network

Extra training contract opportunities

Many law 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

Training contracts are available in companies’ in-house legal departments (such as the BBC), the Government Legal Profession (GLP) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). However, these employers tend to take on the majority of their employees post-qualification.

Shortlist your favourite firms before you apply for a training contract

Once you have a reasonable idea of where you’d like to work, you need to draw up a shortlist – perhaps start with the most popular law firms , as voted for by students and graduates for the UK 300 and then turn to the training contract vacancies on targetjobs.

Next, whittle it down further by checking out employers’ websites, reading the legal press and attending university law fairs 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 law firms for you.

If you think through your training contract options clearly, your thorough research will come across in your applications and interviews. Graduate recruiters will notice that you are applying to them out of a genuine interest in their business and areas of legal specialisation. ‘Do your research, but not just on the firm and interviewers. It is also really important to understand the background to what goes on in the firm (ie how a mergers and acquisition transaction works or how the financial markets work),’ one trainee at Sidley Austin told us years ago – and the advice still holds true.

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