Trainee: One year on
23 March 2020 marked the first day the UK went into national lockdown #1 for COVID-19. It was also the first proper day of my training contract ("TC"). A lot of folks ask about what I’ve been doing, highlights and challenges so far, adjustment to the world of work, and what I’m most looking forward to next… so, just over a year into my TC, here goes…
I started off my TC in a corporate group, working in private equity (“PE”), a group which acts mostly for funds on M&A transactions. In September, I then moved into derivatives and structured products (“DSP”), a group which does a range of work including fintech, structured products, clearing, and interest rate reform. I’m now sitting in antitrust and foreign investment (“AFIG”).
PE – a fast-paced environment supporting M&A transactions mostly for investment funds, including a splash of advisory corporate governance work. Mostly transactional work in a close-knit team, generally working on a small number of large transactions at any one time.
DSP – mostly transactional work, based in smaller teams, often with one more senior lawyer. I worked on fintech, clearing, structured products and LIBOR reform work. A mixture of transactional and advisory work, with smaller deals, intricate details and good opportunities to work with senior members of the team.
AFIG – a mixture of transactional and advisory work, including merger control analysis and advising on investigations and foreign investment, working in close-knit teams, generally on fewer larger matters at any one time.
Office – Going into the office has been a rare gem in the experience so far and a highlight. Law firms are often structured such that a junior lawyer sits in the same space as a more senior lawyer (a “principal”) and often works with their principal. The aim of the trainee is to be a sponge – listening and watching whilst working with their principal, spinning around in their chair and asking questions, gaining a sense of what goes on, who’s who, how to approach different situations, and what working life looks like for someone more senior. All of that is a lot easier when you’re physically with someone, rather than communicating virtually.
People – OK, so it sounds cheesy I know, but genuinely, my colleagues are great! Getting to know and work with them has been a big highlight. I’m still in touch with people from each of my seats, and that’s a pretty great testimony that the people are quite simply fantastic.
Work – favourite deals which I’ve worked on include a couple of M&As, one of which was Warburg Pincus and Towerbrook Capital Partner’s acquisition of the AA which I helped on in its early stages, the other which was Bayer’s acquisition of KaNDy Therapeutics Limited. Other favourite deals include a couple of fintech deals, working with a great team, on interesting work related to novel platforms and services.
Role models and mentors – In spite of the obvious challenges of mostly wfh for over a year, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is the importance of positive role modelling, and having people you can look up to and emulate, who will challenge and support you in your work. I’ve had senior partners welcome my push-back on points of law and approach to drafting, MAs who have been available to chat regularly and help me shape my career and approach, offering their advice and guidance, and associates I’ve consistently touched base with since I started work, in some cases, having never worked together, just to catch up, get to know each other, think through career progression and of course, chat about what’s for dinner, what Netflix we’re watching, which park we’ve recently walked in, and more recently, which pub we're heading to – because life right now is riveting. In all of this, people have taken the time to get to know me, see the work I do and the way I do it, and support my growth as a junior lawyer, having those people to emulate has been brilliant, and I’m glad to have learned lessons very early on, which I’ll take throughout my career.
Adapting to the workplace – My relationship with time is probably the biggest change in my life since starting work. I wanted my final year of university to be principally research-based, which mostly consisted of me sitting in my student room, drinking coffee, revelling amid legal journals, regulations and textbooks on everything from supranational citizenship in South America to the theory of enlightened shareholder value and how reformation of our understanding of “shareholder” to encompass beneficial ownership could reshape ESG, to how blockchain-based smart contracts function and what their potential uses could be in future, to questioning how the French policy of laïcité interacts with freedom of religion. I took Fridays mostly off and drank tea, played bowls and had lunch with a bunch of lovely 70+s at my church. I caught up with friends in the middle of the day. I cooked and hosted most weeks, and ate with housemates pretty much daily throughout my entire degree. Working life looks a little different. There’s no particular pressure that I need to log on at a certain time, or be available until a certain time, and I can incorporate work-outs, bible studies and catch ups into my working day, but there isn’t nearly the same level of flexibility as when I essentially managed my own time. Clients and regulators set deadlines, which have to be met, time zones mean that sometimes early mornings or late nights are reasonably inevitable, and although I can manage my own to-do list in my own time, emails need to be responded to as they come in, questions need to be asked when people are around, and collaborative working means there has to be at least a significant overlap in a team’s working hours. Another novel aspect of daily life as a trainee is time recording, to keep track of how long tasks have taken, which often feeds into the way clients are billed.
Growth mindset – a training contract can be tough, you’re setting out as a baby lawyer and that means that you will see an incredible rate of development in the first few months and years of working life. However, development usually necessitates mistakes, stumbles, corrections, and tweaking. It requires watching more senior lawyers as role models, but also letting them reign you in and push you in the right direction. Whilst no-one wants to be the trainee who bangs on about the implications of wfh, I do think this would have been easier in the office, seeing how others interact, deal with correction and approach challenges. As it is, baby lawyer though you may be, if you’ve made it to becoming a trainee, you’ve likely come through university having worked hard and achieved a lot, and you may not be used to tripping up on your way to success. Wfh means that unless you’re getting regular, frank feedback, the only expectations you have to work with whilst you sit in your living room, kitchen or bedroom are your own. And your own expectations are usually unrealistically high. Adopting a growth mindset, appreciating that your aim is to do the best you can with your experience, knowledge, and time, and that your best will get better as these things grow, is immensely liberating, and makes the learning process of traineehood a much more fun journey to be on. I’ve found getting a regular stream of feedback immensely helpful in this process, whether that’s through more structured feedback which all trainees receive halfway through and at the end of a seat, or less formally through coffee catch-ups, calls, mark-ups and instant messages. Some of the most helpful take-homes for me have been given over coffee and dinner, and more structured feedback has always been a helpful platform through which to review and challenge my progress.
It’s amazing how much you can change in just one year. Some days, I’m sure we all feel the drag of not quite performing to what we know is our greatest potential. Other days seem to slap us around the face and remind us of how far we’ve come. My advice is to enjoy those moments when you can and in the tougher times, work towards giving your best and growing it, to make your best continually better.
I’m conscious that vacation schemes are in swing, and summer schemes are upcoming, and it may be a helpful reminder that so much of your development happens once you start your TC, students are not expected to have a flawless knowledge of law, markets, or commercial awareness, but to show promising early stage signs which can develop in time.
Commercial awareness – Before becoming a trainee, I used to read the FT almost every morning. I kept up to date with the headlines but I had no real idea of the work that goes on behind those headlines. I didn’t really understand how an M&A process worked and my knowledge of structured finance was limited to what you can pick up from The Big Short. I had studied competition law, particularly looking at data utilisation by double- and multi-sided platforms and how/whether this was caught by competition regulations. Whilst this did help contextualise competition work, and has given me a helpful place to start from, two years on, post-Brexit, and with the DMA, DSA, and DMU across the EU and UK respectively, the landscape has changed a lot in a relatively short space of time! Aside from this, I didn’t really understand the process behind analysing whether an M&A would lead to overlaps, the requirements for filings to competition regulators, or the remedies which may be agreed to allow a deal to pass. Don’t skimp on the commercial awareness, and don’t cram reading the FT into the week before your vacation scheme – follow something you’re interested in for a prolonged period and you will find you learn lots in a relatively short space of time. But don’t worry that you don’t know everything. Ask questions, take recommendations for what you can be reading, and rest assured that putting the jigsaw pieces together to develop broader commercial awareness will come with time, experience and effort.
Over halfway through the TC and thoughts start slowly turning to two main subjects: qualification and secondments, i.e. what you’re hoping to do after the TC process and how that may shape your final seat. Secondments can be international (although come with the obvious COVID-19 uncertainties and restrictions right now) or with clients (i.e. you go to the in-house legal team of a client to work alongside them). Secondments aren’t just for trainees, and many associates will also spend time abroad and/or with clients once qualified.
Closer to home, and I’m probably not alone, my thoughts are turning to catching up with people in person – colleagues included – whatever that looks like within the bounds of government guidance.