Life as a trainee solicitor: an insider view

Setting your heart on a fulfilling legal career by landing a job at a top law firm is no small ambition. So what makes one training contract stand out from another and which law firms in London should you apply to?

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If you’re targeting a graduate role as a trainee solicitor, how do you know you’re choosing a law firm that will suit you? Trainee solicitors Nina Rowe and Mihira Patten give an insider view on what makes Mayer Brown stand out.

Mihira Patten studied English and philosophy at the University of Nottingham, and a masters in International Law, SOAS University of London. She joined Mayer Brown in 2021.

Nina Rowe studied history and Russian at the University of Exeter. She joined Mayer Brown in 2020.

Small numbers, big responsibilities

‘Mayer Brown is unique as an international law firm that also retains our English roots of Rowe & Maw, allowing the firm to retain its close-knit culture,’ says Nina. The firm offers around 15 training contracts in two intakes each year, making getting to know other trainees easy. ‘It is not so small a group that you can only reach out for advice from a tiny number of peers,’ explains Nina. ‘However, having around 30 trainees means that you are not lost in a sea of trainees and can make connections across the office prior to qualification.’

Given work-from-home directives and other restrictions, Nina found the virtual socials and trainee forum for group discussions useful when she joined in 2020, these expanded to socials in real life when allowed. ‘As an example, in December 2021, we had a gingerbread house making competition accompanied by pizza with future trainees. It was lovely to get to know people who will be joining the firm in a relaxed setting,’ she says. Socials are organised every two months but, in between, Nina and Mihira have both found that trainees frequently have lunch together.

Mihira highlights other advantages to being part of small groups, including the opportunity to get involved in interesting cases early in your career. It means a steep learning curve, guided by a supervisor who is typically a senior associate or partner.

‘Their role is focused on our development. It is a great way to get to know them and learn more about the profession and career development. Trainees typically share an office with their supervisor and so you can learn by osmosis, such as by the way your supervisor conducts business and themselves, and you can build your repertoire of understanding how colleagues like to work,’ she says.

Partners, pairing and that other P word

Nina has found support for Mayer Brown’s trainees goes hand-in-hand with senior lawyers’ friendly, approachable and appreciative manner, and the firm’s culture is based on the cultivation of good relationships. ‘That culture means individuals remain as loyal employees of the firm, which leads to long-standing relationships with clients,’ she says.

The pandemic, with the resulting lockdowns, work-from-home guidelines and social distancing rules has not made life as a trainee a doddle, but work-arounds have been put in place. The firm has instigated daily check-ins between trainees and supervisors with an emphasis on encouraging juniors to get in touch any time they need anything. Being paired with trainee buddies from a different cohort and having a formal mentor network also helps. ‘Less formally, it is easy to speak to Mayer Brown solicitors and go for coffee and pick their brain. Everyone is very giving of their time,’ says Mihira.

Nina appreciates the support networks available and the working style. ‘From your first day at Mayer Brown you can really tell that there is a friendly, supportive and inclusive culture,’ she says. ‘As a trainee, you are only in a department for six months (which does fly by!) but you are made to feel like a team member and not like someone who is just passing through.’ She admits that before starting her training contract she worried that she would find partners unapproachable. ‘It is the complete opposite,’ she says. ‘I regularly get given work directly by partners, who are always willing to discuss what you have done and how you could improve it.’

Nothing is too minor to talk over, she has found, and the set-up, sharing an office with her supervisor, combined with the firm’s open-door policy, really suits her compared with a former experience of working in an open-plan office environment. ‘The legal teams are spread across two floors. This means it is quick and easy to pop to see friends in different teams and the opportunities to get lost are limited!’ she says.

How training works

Most firms, though not all, split training into four six-month rotations – known as seats in the legal world. At Mayer Brown trainees are expected to complete one contentious seat, for example in arbitration, and another in transactional, say finance, all supervised by a senior lawyer. Where possible, the firm allows trainees to tailor their contract to their interests provided training still meets Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) requirements.

Mihira reminds aspiring trainees that Mayer Brown is an American firm with UK roots and so remains at the forefront of international business, with strength in the key hubs of New York and Hong Kong as well as London. This means there is usually the opportunity for one of your seats to be a secondment at a client or a Mayer Brown office in another country. ‘Secondments help your development as a trainee solicitor and provide you with the opportunity to forge connections and build a network at an early stage of your legal career,’ points out Nina. With a client roster that includes Ford, Google, Nestlé and Unilever, as well as financial institutions, the networks Mayer Brown solicitors move in are top rate.

Work/life balance

Mihira describes Mayer Brown’s ethos as ‘friendly, inclusive and easygoing in nature’. Just one example she gives is its smart-casual policy, moving away from the traditional and allowing people to bring their whole selves to work and express their individuality.

City law firms have a reputation for paying well and expecting long hours in return. Neither Mihira nor Nina have found their work/life balance is skewed although they do note this is dependent on the practice area. ‘I typically work 8.45 am to 7.00 pm,’ says Mihira. Of course, hours do change during a particularly busy period or when deadlines are looming, but Mihira has found that colleagues assist and advise when there are challenging tasks to complete. The firm teaches coping strategies and offers access to an initiative called Headspace to help with mindfulness, meditation and focus. ‘There are also a series of webinars on a range of topics such as resilience, feeling overwhelmed, stress management and knowing how to ask for help,’ she says.

'Learning to manage time effectively is a key part of the job,' says Nina, who has found it helpful to have supervisors checking, monitoring and offering to help lighten her workload when necessary. 'High-octane projects can be a good thing though,' she points out. 'There’s an adrenaline rush to pulling big deals together across international time zones and knowing your team is working together to meet a deadline.'

Inclusion, diversity... and you

If you think that your background, degree subject, university or school put you a pace behind your peers, how do make yourself stand out? Nina’s view is that in some ways, the pandemic has made the firm more accessible than ever to aspiring trainees, with virtual events offering networking opportunities like never before. Mayer Brown’s initiatives include a CV-blind recruitment process – interviewers will only know a name and if they have a law or non-law degree– to neutralise any unconscious bias. The firm is a proud founding member of social mobility charity the Aspiring Solicitors Foundation, which aims to enhance diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and remove some of the financial barriers to pursuing a career in law. In addition, there are a number of diverse and inclusive networks within Mayer Brown that trainees are encouraged to join, such as the Women’s, Fusion, LGBT+ and Family and Me Network, as well as firm-wide workshops and events.

Trainees are also expected to donate 20 hours’ work to society through a pro bono scheme each year, a habit the firm’s seniors continue, with 3% of billable time devoted to providing legal services to disadvantaged people and the organisations serving them. Mihira pinpoints advising clients at the Islington Law Centre, drafting citizenship applications or working with the firm’s charity partners including Marine Conservation Society, Community Music and Gendered Intelligence as just some examples. Read more about pro bono and CSR work at Mayer Brown here .

A two-way process

Overall, both Mihira and Nina cite the people, the fluid structure of practice areas and teams, and the variety of the work they are involved in as the best things about the firm.

‘The firm is looking for all-rounders who are as passionate about the work as they are upholding our values. It’s a two-way interview process for you to also get to know us,’ says Mihira, adding that Mayer Brown doesn’t want a cookie-cutter candidate. ‘It’s not all about the work – we have netball and football teams that play with other law firms and clients and an annual Christmas caroling choir, for example. The firm will be interested in who you are as a person and what your interests are.’

Nina agrees: ‘The culture at the firm is one of inclusion and open doors and it is very important for these to be qualities embraced at the most junior level, as well as the most senior.’

If you’re looking to join them, they advise researching Mayer Brown, understanding its business, why it is different from other law firms and which aspects of the firm stand out to you. And, while Mayer Brown is an international law firm, they advise focusing on work led by the London office if you are applying for a vacation scheme or training contract based there.

Head to Mayer Brown's organisation profile on targetjobs to find out more about the law firm and apply for the next vacation scheme or training contract intake.

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