Shearman & Sterling blog

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Surviving Your First Seat as a Trainee

22nd February 2016

by Camilla Bunney & Jodie Reindorf

Prior to starting our training contract, we heard many people say that the learning curve in your first seat is the sharpest you’ll ever experience. On reflection, that’s correct!

By the end of law school, we were ready to leave the classroom and start actually applying all that we had learnt so far. However, regardless of how hard you focus in training sessions, and regardless of how hard you study for your LPC exams, there is a significant gap between studying law and actually being in an office practicing law. We found that it was the small things such as how to send emails and take calls that were the most daunting. No matter how many times you practice drafting “client emails” on the LPC, nothing really prepares you for the first time you actually send an email to the client. Each email, no matter how simple, required so much more thought that we had ever imagined. Do you begin the email by “Dear”, “Hi” or “Hello”? Do you sign off the email by “Kind regards”, “Thanks” or “Best wishes”? In a similar vein, nothing that the LPC research course teaches will prepare you for the situation where you spend hours on a research task yet fail to find an answer to your supervisor’s question. How do you say “I don’t know” in a way that doesn’t make it sound as though you just haven’t looked hard enough? And how do you deal with tight deadlines, especially when the rest of your team is equally stretched? In these situations, you realise how valuable the advice you get from your mentor and the other trainees can be as everyone will have been in this situation before.

After the first couple of weeks of adjusting to life in a law firm passed by in a haze, we found that our seats became more enjoyable as time went on. Particular highlights include: drafting provisions and seeing that same provision (unchanged) included in the final version of a contract; finding a conclusive answer to a particularly tricky research task; having a partner or senior member of your team give you credit for good work; and signing deals to get the client their desired outcome. During the first six months, you begin to feel like a valued member of the team and the most rewarding aspect is being able to look back and see how far you have progressed.  Every day as a trainee, you learn more skills. The three key areas in which you develop skills and experience that help you become a better lawyer are:

  • enhancing your understanding of the law in a particular are
  • developing your commercial understanding of the business needs of the client
  • improving your “softer” skills such as developing your ability to work as part of a team or learning how to successfully work with your supervisor.

Moving into our second seats will, of course, present similar challenges. Once again, we will have to adjust to how our supervisors work, cope with being the new face in a brand new team, and inevitably, the law and terminology used in the new team will probably be a little overwhelming. However, many things will be easier. We now know our way around the office, we know who to contact if we have problems, we know how the IT systems operate, and most importantly, we also know what it means to be a trainee, and the types of trainee tasks that will be delegated to us.

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