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Milkround: Q&A With a Trainee

It’s November! We’re knee-deep in pumpkin-spiced lattes, it’s getting dark by about 4pm, we’ve been bombarded by rain and we’ve embraced that pre-Christmas, winter-lockdown workout mentality which says “I’ll put this on at Christmas anyway, so maybe I’ll skip my work out and have another hot chocolate…”. At least, I hope it’s not just me. More importantly, we’re mid-milkround! Applications are still open for most firms and there are lots of virtual events to help you get to know firms and get ready for applications. One of my favourite parts of my job is getting to share it with students and offer a window into what corporate law actually looks like. So, having taken part in several events throughout the milkround so far, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the questions that students have been asking and some responses myself and others offered at those events.

What skills / characteristics do you need to be a good lawyer?

Good question and if this isn’t on your list and you don’t have an idea what the answer might be, ask, because this is really important for you to know when you’re making applications. Skills to be a good lawyer, in my opinion, include:

  • Attention to detail – this gets mentioned LOTS and will improve lots, it’s important when dealing with significant matters and is a good way of gaining trust with colleagues and clients.

  • Communication skills – appropriately communicating with clients, colleagues and others in a respectful, friendly and effective manner.

  • Resilience – this is the ultimate “bounce-back” quality and will shape how you respond to constructive feedback, slip-ups and oversights you make and how you approach your working day when you’re tired or under pressure.

  • Perseverance – how is this different to resilience? Well, if resilience is getting yourself up off the ground when things backfire, perseverance is continually striving towards your goal. Continuing to be enthusiastic, to want to learn, to get involved, to keep trying regardless of whether things are going well, or you’ve slipped up. Perseverance drives you to keep improving.

  • Being a team player – I think this one is important. When colleagues are busy and you’re not, offering to help goes a long way. This isn’t to say that you should work every weekend or evening or holiday so that others don’t have to, but it never hurts to look up and around to check how others are placed and see whether you are in a position to help out.

  • Enthusiasm – especially as a junior lawyer, you’re aiming to see, do and learn as much as you can in the limited time you have in any one seat. You want to improve as much as possible, work with a range of people and see a variety of work. All of this requires some enthusiasm to reach out to people and maintain an eagerness and hunger to work hard and learn lots.

What does daily life look like for a trainee?

Please don’t worry about looking silly by asking anything along these lines – whether you’re in your first year or have already joined a firm, it’s important to gauge what people actually do and how they spend their time. As a trainee, a lot of my time is spent on process management (i.e. keeping on top of deadlines, drafts, input from clients and other teams), drafting, researching and corresponding. This will look different depending on the kind of seat you’re in and some seats will be more focussed on research whilst others will be more focussed on transactions and involve more process management.

How does trainee work differ from work as an associate?

An associate on a panel I was on offered a really good answer to this one. As a trainee, you are mostly being delegated work. You do basic drafting, process management and report back to an associate or an MA. As an associate, your role will be increasingly as a manager of more junior members of the team – reviewing their work, making sure they understand things, working out what can be delegated and how to support the professional development of more junior colleagues whilst also giving them realistic targets and support in their development whilst ensuring work is delivered to clients on time and to a high standard.

What are the differences between the magic circle firms?

Another good question. Some differences are structural – for example, you can look at the differences between how firms have oversees offices or relate to local counsel internationally. There are some historic differences between some of the firms being more geared towards finance and others handling corporate clients (Chambers is a helpful resource to check how different practice areas are ranked within a firm, so if there is a specific area of law you want to try, you can check Chambers and see which firm is ranked most highly in that area of law). Then there are cultural differences (something you can only really gauge from speaking to people or having first-hand experience of a firm yourself if possible). Finally, there will be differences in how each firm is responding to things like ESG, technological development and diversity. Have a look at these differences by looking at their websites (I know it sounds basic, but genuinely, this is the best place to start!) and thinking about what is important to you and whether that matches with firms’ approaches.

How can I best prepare for applications?

Application processes will vary across firms. Some (I think) are still on the CV and cover letter formula, others have adopted applications processes which holistically analyse personality, approach to work and try to emulate the work of a trainee to assess whether applicants would be interested and successful in that role at that specific firm. Different applications processes will require different approaches. As a one-size-fits all approach (to applications and interviews, if the applications process is more like the latter outlined above), I would:

  • Research the firm – why do you want to apply? Why is it distinct? Why are you a good fit? These are all things you should consider anyway as you’re looking at which firm to apply to.

  • Think about skills – look at the list of skills a lawyer will need, also included in this post. Think about any other skills a lawyer would need. Think about what a lawyer does. Do you have these skills? Try and think of examples from (i) your personal life; (ii) your studies; and (iii) working life/work experience to demonstrate those skills.

  • Commercial awareness – as one trainee on a panel put it, reading the FT is a massive help to find out about what FTSE100 companies are going through, and those are clients of large corporate firms, so that’s hugely helpful background. Read around something you enjoy and build out from there. If you can, tie this to what firms are doing in terms of recent deals and their own internal approach. For ideas on resources, you can have a look at this blog which may be helpful.

For ideas on how to prepare for applications specifically, I’ve previously posted a separate blog. If the applications process is now more like the latter outlined above, you can use any advice for interviews, and/or applications.

What can I do as a first year / non-law student?

First year schemes are available at most large corporate firms. I did first year schemes at two magic circle firms (and recently had the joy of sharing a panel with one of the then-trainees I sat with on that scheme – and actually ended up sitting in the same practice group as the partner I sat with on the other scheme, small world!). These are really valuable opportunities to get an insight into corporate law and if you have any inkling that you might be interested please apply! They will be good ways to get a flavour of corporate law, get some advice on applications, get an idea of firm culture and how firms are distinct.

Virtual schemes should also get a mention – Forage (previously Inside Sherpa) virtual schemes are run by several firms and are really helpful and accessible insights.

Any university-specific experience or personal experience you can get is also helpful. I went to the University of Sheffield which has a law clinic offering legal advice to local clients which students can get involved with. There will be other pro bono opportunities available to you, do check those out. Drop local firms an email if you’re interested – as a first year, I spent a summer working in-house at a legal department with an ex-Pinsent Masons/Eversheds lawyer who offered me an interesting insight into the differences between working in-house and in a firm. I also spent a couple of days in a local high street firm, rotating around probate, tax, agricultural real estate, real estate and corporate departments. High street law isn’t for me (neither are lots of the things I did for work experience!) but I could very honestly say in my interview at a magic circle firm that this is what I wanted, because I’d tried lots and I knew what interested me.

Finally, don’t just think about legal experience, any way to build skills is helpful. If you’re in a society, could you demonstrate leadership or organisational skills by being on the committee? Do you have a part-time job? Do you volunteer?

How did you choose the firm you work for?

Good question. I work for a magic circle firm, having done a first-year and vacation scheme at that firm. I was blown away by the quality of work, international aspect of work and culture of the firm. Culture came up on several panels I sat on and really is an important aspect of choosing a firm (and I appreciate, it’s hard to gauge virtually!). I was blown away by how many people (from trainees to partners) have been willing to get a coffee with me, chat about what they do and my interests, both as a student and a trainee.

Highlight of your TC so far?

Good question, but a hard one to answer. Sharing an office is up there for me. Until 2020, sharing an office with your principal has been the norm, but it’s not been possible for much of my training contract so far. Thanks to a range of safety measures implemented in order to comply with government guidelines, it has at times been possible, and this has been a highlight for a number of reasons:

  • Listening in – I can listen to how more senior lawyers deal with clients, colleagues, juggling matters and getting on with their work. People have surprisingly different approaches in some of these areas and its far easier to compare and get a holistic view of someone’s working style from across the room than through video calls, calls, emails and instant messaging.

  • Working together – when you’re working with your principal directly, it’s so much easier to spin around in a chair and ask a question, or to go through a document or call together. In the office, there have been moments when I asked questions I probably wouldn’t have otherwise flagged – “why did you use that word in drafting?” Principal: “I did pause on that one, don’t you like it?” (accompanied by a cheeky smile, just so you read the vibe right), Me (who will never admit that I’m not crazy about my ten-years-more-experience-than-me principal’s drafting): “I wouldn’t say that…” Principal: “OK, what do you want to do? You can re-do it.” We worked together and the drafting worked that bit better because of the extra time we spent thinking about that clause and asking questions. Two minutes of experience which probably wouldn’t have happened virtually, or could easily have been misread on an email/instant message, which leads me onto my next benefit of office-sharing…

  • Reading tone – so it turns out, virtual communication isn’t always the easiest medium to read someone through. In person, we have facial expressions, tone of voice and body language which provide helpful indicators of tone, whether this relates to (i) personality (FYI, it seems sarcasm doesn’t translate v well on instant message – we got there in the end but there were misunderstandings about personalities which I don’t think would have been the case if I’d been in the office from Day 1); (ii) feedback – it’s super easy to know when you’ve hit an out-of-the-park stunner, or when you’re below par when you’re discussing things in person, it’s not always quite so easy to gauge that on an email or just by reading someone’s amendments to your work; or (iii) busyness – it’s much easier to see when someone is busy physically rather than remotely and tailor whether/when/how you approach someone accordingly.

  • Doing working life together – OK, so this is vague but it basically covers everything else you get when you work in an office with someone. Late night sushi take-aways (socially-distanced with teaspoons because apparently COVID is an excuse not to send chopsticks these days?! Up your game London sushi providers!). Being busy and having that “you must be ready for a coffee/lunch, what can I get you?” and being able to be that person to someone else. Being stressed and having that voice from across the room that becomes the voice in your head which says “It’s ok, just do one thing at a time”. Bitesize catch-ups and conversations about what’s going on in life. Not wearing leggings and hoodies and complimenting someone and being complemented about that fact. All good stuff.

Other than office sharing, I think the people and seeing professional development have been big highlights. People have been incredibly generous with their time. I’ve had regular catch-ups with a number of people, sometimes to chat about work but sometimes just to chat about life, especially during lockdown – to chat about zoom fatigue, walks, my new-found passion for gardening, and food shopping (lest we forget the highlight of lockdown life). Post-lockdown pre-office-sharing, I had coffee with my principal and her dogs (note to self, probably shouldn’t be so tactile with a then-almost-stranger’s dogs) – she didn’t have to give up that time but chatting in person was really nice after several months of exclusively virtual communication. Just chatting, getting to know work colleagues and being supported has been a massive highlight for me and others on milkround calls I’ve been on. Another trainee spoke about her principal (a partner) giving up valuable time each day, more often than not just to chat and to be supportive, for example around being separated from loved ones during lockdown. Small gestures, but these go a long way.

Finally (and this is an extended answer, this level of detail was not provided at the networking event!), professional development. As a first seat trainee, towards the middle/end of my seat I was beginning to have flashes of seeing how far I’d come and that was a massive boost for me. One Thursday I got an email from an MA – a deal was closing next Tuesday and most of the team were on holiday (actually, it was just me and the partner not on holiday!), could I help? One weekend later, after several patchy-signal calls to the Lake District, a call from someone having lunch beside the Trevi fountain and a couple of calls with the partner, I could look back and see just how far I’d come as a trainee – I’d been on top of things, managed expectations (with thanks to said MA’s voice in my head “don’t overpromise” – another mantra I’ve adopted and proof that even working remotely, wise words and advice have a big impact on your approach to working), and kept the team up-to-date.

What are the working hours like?

This will vary depending on the kind of group you are in. As one associate on a panel said, it’s unlikely you’ll find an interesting, challenging job which pays good money and is 9-5. Some areas of law will have more predictable hours if, for example, they are advisory (i.e. answering questions for clients, rather than doing transactions for them), or if transactions are long-term. Other areas of law, and this will mostly be transactional seats where lawyers are doing deals, will see larger peaks and troughs in working hours – you may have a very quiet week, or start to the week, then a deal might take off and you’re working late nights and early mornings before a key stage in the deal, then it calms down again. I think it’s good to know that at a large corporate firm, early hours of the morning and weekends might be on the cards, but that certainly won’t be every day!

How should I improve my commercial awareness?

As mentioned elsewhere, I have done a separate blog post on this if you’re interested but to summarise, read the FT (I’ve had students mention that this is pretty hard to read as a student and ask whether there are alternatives. The simple answer is no, the FT really is the best resource to go to for this kind of news, so bear with it, take it steady and build in time to read it), check out blogs and podcasts by firms, trainees and others in the profession, engage in virtual schemes like those available on Forage.

How many applications should I aim to make?

Good question and not one with a simple answer. I would say if you’re making more than 5-10 I would question whether you really know what you want to do and whether your applications will be a very good quality. You shouldn’t aim to be copying and pasting information in applications, you should be investing time to research into which firms you would like to apply for and why and tailoring your applications accordingly.

What did you do before your TC?

This question came up on a panel which was really helpful as we had one ex-paralegal, one trainee who had taken a year out after university before the LPC, and me (who came straight from uni and tried to jump in so quickly I had to take time off the LPC to actually go and graduate). We all made it and we all had very difference experiences – there are lots of routes into law (if you’re interested, I asked some of my trainee cohort about their routes into law in a separate post (as a taster, expect ex-engineers, pastry chefs and SU presidents) – you can check it out here).

How does it work getting the LPC before your Training Contract (TC)?

You might get offered your TC when you’re still at university, in which case (this is not universal across the profession but is true for most large corporate firms) a firm will pay for your GDL/LPC and give you a living allowance before you start your TC with them. If you get your TC offer having done the LPC, you can discuss with a firm whether this could be reimbursed, lots of firms will do this, or partially cover some of the costs of professional courses like the LPC.

How have you adapted to wfh?

I had to chuckle at this one because for me, wfh has been my debut to working life and it’s adapting to the office which is novel. I needed a detailed walk-through of how to print, how to book rooms, how to use my office telephone (still haven’t done that one).

I have all of the right kit to wfh – the firm has provided this/a budget to get this but I actually picked mine up from the office way back in mid-March, when I first met my principal in a blur of coffee, cables and conversation, awkwardly not knowing how to be most helpful or look most normal whilst she and my soon-to-be secretary buzzed around the office, scrambling to disentangle a monitor, mouse and keyboard from the desk before ordering me a cab home. I struggled to conceal that this seemed a little extra. The monitor proved to be a good call.

Colleagues have also been very supportive in wfh, calling to check-in and catch up and having social events like murder mystery evenings and virtual escape rooms.

Firm-specific questions

This isn’t a promo for the firm I’m at so I’m not going to go ahead and answer these here, but here’s a flavour of some of the questions I’ve seen asked at events and which you can consider when researching firms. (If you would like firm-specific answers, feel free to reach out directly.)

  • What are you doing to promote diversity?

  • Why are you distinct?

  • What are the training opportunities like?

  • What are the options for going on secondment?

  • How are you supporting employees (pre- and during-COVID)?

  • What are the requirements for applicants?

  • Tips for applications (see above – the processes can be very different among firms so it’s always worth listening in / reaching out to specific graduate recruitment teams to hear about specific applications procedures)

  • What are you looking for in applicants?

  • How many of your trainees stay with the firm once qualified?

  • How will your approach to wfh/wfo change post-COVID?

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