Before applying for solicitor training contracts it’s important to know that law firms come in all shapes and sizes and undertake all manner of different legal work for an extensive range of clients.
Research is Key
For wannabe trainee solicitors it is vitally important to fully research the different types of firms and organisations which offer training contracts.
It is also paramount that prospective trainees understand, at least at a basic level, the different types of work that firms carry out for their clients.
Without a good knowledge of the different firm and work options available, it will be difficult for candidates to choose which best suits them. It will also be apparent to recruiters if they haven’t done some thorough research to back up the decision to apply to their firm.
Avoid The Scattergun Approach
Some people choose to apply to lots of different firms with a scattergun approach in the hope of picking up a training contract just anywhere. This isn’t advisable as it will show through in applications and it will result in a case of pot luck as to whether the firm is right for them.
So, What Should You Consider?
So what do you need to consider when deciding which sort of law firm to apply to?
1. Size and culture of firm
The size of a firm will affect both the type of work it does and the culture within the firm. The big, high-profile corporate work is often done within the very large firms where some report to feel like a small cog in a very large wheel. The smaller the firm then the culture often becomes more collegiate.
Different sized firms will also attract people from different backgrounds so it’s worth exploring this – if you do not want to work in an environment with lots of Oxbridge graduates then you probably want to steer clear of the magic circle firms, for example.
I outline the different types of firms later in this post.
2. Type of work/practice areas
Whilst trainees get to work in different departments, and therefore experience a spread of work, this is still the most important area to give consideration to at this point.
Research needs to be done into different practice areas to determine which ones appeal more than others. Also, which fit with the areas of law most enjoyed during studying or which has the student shown a particularly flair for?
3. Client base
This is often linked to the size of the firm and the type of work that is undertaken. Consideration here should be given to what sort of clients an applicant would like to advise – multi-national corporations, entrepreneurs, insurance companies, individuals needing family law advice, etc.
Not only is location important from a personal perspective, it is also important when considering the type of firm to work for and the type of work to undertake.
London has the largest number of law firms and training contracts on offer and many of the biggest firms are based there.
Whilst the regions used to struggle competing with London, there are now a host of very good national and regional firms that do high quality work.
If more high street work is sought then this is often found in smaller towns and suburbs.
5. Entry requirements and application process
Most of the firms who regularly recruit trainees will publish their entry requirements and application process. Competition is fierce for many training contract vacancies so firms can afford to be choosy and employ the best candidates.
It’s usually no good applying for a training contract at a firm without meeting their minimum entry requirements unless other exceptional experience or skills could make up for this.
6. Salaries and financial support during law school
Again, most firms will publish their trainee solicitor salaries together with allowances paid in respect of law school fees.
Whilst the salary for every trainee solicitor is important this is often proportional to the amount of hours expected of the trainee.
Work/life balance has been a hot topic within the legal profession for some time now and there are still many stories of people suffering from the stress of working long hours.
This is often only realised once trainees start working for a firm so it’s advisable to do some research into firms’ cultures to avoid any nasty surprises – websites such as Lex100 and Inside Buzz are worth checking out for this.
8. Training structure
It mustn’t be forgotten that the two years of a training contract are part of the ongoing solicitor training and development.
Some firms have developed extensive training programmes over and above the practical experience given and these can be extremely valuable for those wanting to become highly technical lawyers at the top of their chosen field.
Different Types Of Firms
In order to ensure you make the right career choices, you must seek to gain an understanding of the different types of firms that exist.
Set out below are the main types of firms that offer training contracts:
The magic circle of firms includes Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, Allen & Overy and Slaughter and May.
The work carried out by these firms is predominantly in the corporate and finance areas, often with an international aspect. These firms often get to do the biggest deals for the biggest fees and therefore top the revenue charts consistently.
They offer trainees excellent training on high salaries, with formal training programmes laid on, great office facilities to take advantage of, and various other perks.
However, there is usually some form of trade off in terms of the amount of hours expected from their trainees. It’s not uncommon for trainees to work through the night on deals and to have to work at the weekend.
Work/life balance is a very real issue to be considered by those contemplating training with a magic circle firm.
Silver Circle (Large Commercial in London)
These firms are similar to the magic circle firms in terms of the work undertaken, the salaries paid, the hours, etc. Firms in this are Ashurst, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Herbert Smith Freehills, Macfarlanes and Travers Smith.
An advantage of training with a large firm is the brand status it adds to a CV. Many trainees train with a large firm to gain a good legal training and to bolster their CV for when they seek positions with smaller firms or in-house after qualification.
There is now a good choice of US firms to work for in London. Many of the big American firms started opening offices in London during the 1990s and now offer trainees the option of working in a smaller office on predominantly international corporate and finance work.
The American culture usually involves high billable hour targets meaning very long hours but in return they often pay considerably more than any of the UK London firms.
Medium Sized Commercial in London
Whilst smaller in size many of these firms are able to compete very well with the biggest firms in terms of profitability. Whilst they might not get the biggest corporate clients they will still have an impressive list of clients for whom they will generally do business related corporate and commercial work.
The culture of these firms is often what distinguishes them from the large firms in that they are usually more collegiate, with colleagues of all levels mixing more and trainees getting more regular access to partners.
Trainees will often get slightly more hands-on and, some might say, interesting work to do and be able to play a bigger part in deals than just photocopying and bundling documents. This sort of additional responsibility is what often swings it for trainees applying to these firms.
Smaller Commercial Firms in London
These firms either offer a comprehensive service to their clients or have one or two specialist areas they predominantly service. Whilst these firms will not often not pay as well as the firms above, trainees are not usually required to work such long hours.
The cultures usually differ to larger firms and it will be more common for colleagues to mix across the whole of the firm rather than just in specific practice areas.
These firms offer mostly commercial work and often have good sized property departments. They may also provide private client services to high net worth individuals.
Trainees will often get a good amount of responsibility at an early stage.
Firms have developed around all sorts of niches and, whilst they might do other work, they have become known as specialist law firms.
Firms popular with prospective trainee solicitors specialise in areas such as media, shipping, sports, aviation, insurance litigation, medial negligence and intellectual property.
Whilst specialising at an early stage of a legal career might not be advisable for everybody, these firms are perfect for those who already have a background in the sector or who know exactly what they want to specialise in. That said, even specialist firms are required to give a trainee a broad experience across several practice areas during their training contract.
Whilst many may have historically seen the regional practices as playing second fiddle to the big London firms there are now some big players in the regions who are able to attract some heavyweight clients and work.
Trainees who are not drawn to the capital will find competition for places at the big regional firms nearly as fierce as at the London firms. There are also plenty of smaller players that can give good local work for the clients in the region.
Work/life balance is often cited as a reason to work for a regional firm over a London firm. Whilst this may be true in many cases and be a trade off for lower salaries, trainees will still be expected to put in long hours on the bigger deals at the bigger regional firms.
There are some well established firms that have offices in several regions around the country. Again, many of these firms attract high quality work on a par with all but the largest London City transactions.
Trainees can find themselves benefiting from both good quality work and the work/life balance of the regions although long hours are still required from time to time. The work is generally of a commercial nature with property often being a well established practice area.
General Practice/High Street
These may be well established local firms with several partners or sole practioners operating on the high street of small towns up and down the country. Their clients vary from legally aided clients to paying individuals and small businesses.
The sort of work a trainee could expect at these firms would be conveyancing, landlord and tenant, personal injury, family, criminal, employment and wills and probate.
Whilst long hours will be uncommon, trainees at these sorts of firms will not be paid much above the law society minimum in most cases. Once qualified, the stereotype of solicitors earning good money often doesn’t apply either.
Of course, many high street solicitors do it for reasons other than the money – this is the level where solicitors are really able to help Joe Public with their legal problems.
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