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49 Tips Candidates Need to Know Before Starting as a Trainee Solicitor
Five current Shearman & Sterling trainees offer their insights on all things training contract related. The below guidance, agreed between the trainees following a lengthy discussion of their meandering legal sector experiences, covers everything from networking, mastering law firm interviews, to surviving the two years of working life prior to qualification.
Many students attend law fairs or presentations for the questionable freebies. However, if you go to a law fair having truly done your research, then you can leave a remarkable impression.
By way of illustration, if you generate a personable, enthusiastic, hard-working vibe to graduate recruitment, then the recruitment team may remember your name when your written application reaches their desk. Similarly, a trainee representative that has been asked countless generic questions all day will gladly provide extensive advice to your tailored issue. Furthermore, the trainee may even offer to mentor you, or to recommend you to colleagues for potential paralegal/internship positions. This positive feedback often occurs if you send a polite post-discussion follow-up email thanking them for their time and assistance.
Therefore, when it comes to law firm networking, a failure to prepare means preparing to fail. Accordingly, please try to avoid statements that show a complete lack of research. Also, small efforts such as dressing smartly, being well-groomed and carrying a notepad can create a surprisingly strong impression.
- Turn up early to events
For some people networking is a chore. Therefore, if the firm’s invitation says networking nibbles start at 7.30pm and the lecture begins at 8.00pm, they will creep in at 7.59pm. However, we would advise you to turn up to these events earlier. For one, your stress levels will be reduced as you will sidestep the worries associated with being late. Moreover, you will avoid being the person accidentally entering the conference room via the fire exit.
Also, a major reason for arriving sooner rather than later is that by arriving early you can easily form a group with other attendees. By being in a small group, you can be the friendly individual that welcomes others in to join the discussion. Plus, we personally felt from our experience that being in a smaller, naturally expanding group was less intimidating than interrupting five or six others who seem to be in mid-conversation.
- You can network via social media
Platforms such as LinkedIn provide a valuable way to engage with law firms. For instance, Shearman’s graduate recruitment team frequently post content on the firm’s deadlines, its Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and Shearman’s big-ticket deals. Obviously, by engaging with these posts, you are giving the firm greater exposure on these important areas that they will value.
Furthermore, by liking and commenting on blogs on LinkedIn, your name will begin to be recognised by the relevant decision-makers. To demonstrate, a particularly effective method of using LinkedIn is when users tag writers or presenters following open day presentations or well-written research articles. This tactic, (if employed sincerely), can demonstrate genuine gratitude, showcase a real interest in the topic and offer evidence as to your business development skills and confident written communication.
- “Push the car”
Staying on the theme of social networking, there are ways to contact trainee solicitors on LinkedIn for application guidance that are more appropriate than others. Asking an individual for IP advice when they have never worked in IP is not a wise strategy. Similarly, spelling the lawyer’s name wrong and not responding promptly to their replies can appear unprofessional. Likewise, messaging everyone within the same trainee cohort a copy and pasted message or being overly informal are equally unproductive approaches.
Instead, tailor your response to the individual and ‘push the car’. To explain the metaphor, if you are stuck in your vehicle on the side of the road and beg for help – few people will stop. However, if you start pushing the car and showcasing substantial effort to continue your journey, motorists often get out and start helping you push.
Therefore, if you can imply from your LinkedIn message that you have undertaken considerable research on the firm or topic already (i.e. “pushed the car”) then lawyers will dedicate more time into assisting you with your informed queries.
At networking events (and generally at work), ensure that you listen to what is being said by others. To demonstrate, if nothing else, try to remember the lawyers’ names and their practice groups. Listening and remembering these details can make it easier to build a connection during any break-out networking session. Further, by listening to responses, this active engagement will make your subsequent questions more relevant.
- Question why?
A useful technique is to be the candidate that expands upon a person’s answer to elicit that deeper level of analysis and connection.
For example, if a partner mentions the need for trainees to show initiative, can the partner provide an example of when they thought that a junior lawyer showed such initiative? This probing question has two benefits. The probable tight deadline scenario will be useful for interviews, assessment centers and Watson Glaser tests. Additionally, such information will be advantageous background knowledge to possess for when you enter practice.
Similarly, expand upon opening responses. Imagine, the partner suggests that solicitors need to be analytical and entrepreneurial. Perhaps, knowing that the lawyer is analytical and entrepreneurial themself, why did they choose a legal career, rather than say a start-up, venture-capital or investment banking career? Careers which also demand such analytical and entrepreneurial qualities.
This approach will demonstrate that you are listening to the person and it will assist you in answering the future “why law” interview questions. Also, the partner’s answer will provide tangible insight into how entrepreneurial, resilient, or analytical attributes manifest in a law firm context.
- It is not always about you
Admittedly, some networking conversations can be hard work, particularly if you are struggling to find something in common. Also, given the professional setting of a law firm, you might desire to showcase your commercial awareness. Therefore, it can be tempting to steer the conversation towards generic topics or matters that you are familiar with.
However, please do not be afraid to let others speak extensively about areas of interest to them. Such an approach is likely to generate more rapport with that person. Moreover, networking in this way is more likely to give you valuable learning opportunities from experienced professionals and the other attendees.
- Attend many and varied networking events. Plus, recognise other attendees
Although, you may have one dream firm, we would still recommend that you attend multiple law firm events, in part to gain comfort from repeated experience. Additionally, you will often hear points that are more relevant for other events, but that will enhance your overall commercial awareness.
For example, one of us attended a particular Legal Cheek event in Summer 2019 at a law firm that they were not particularly knowledgeable about. During the talk, the panelists were asked for their views regarding the upcoming trends impacting the legal sector over the next few years. In 2019, most panelists stated Brexit or the prospect of a US-China trade war.
Interestingly, one lawyer worked remotely from Edinburgh. She simply suggested the small-scale growth of agile working was a trend that she had personally experienced. Her uncommon and undramatic answer proved valuable discussion at subsequent events and interviews. Furthermore, agile working was arguably the defining development impacting law firms in 2020 due to Covid-19. Thus, by broadening their networking event scope, attendees gained an early, unique insight that could differentiate them from other applicants looking for that big political or economic narrative.
Elsewhere, the more events that you go to, the more that you recognise other attendees. This familiarity can make you feel at greater ease in networking settings.
Please note, networking does not have to be a direct conversation. If you are writing a blog post, you are broadening your network. If you mention or praise the work of a firm or lawyer, the relevant stakeholders may discover the content and remember it. Similarly, if you appear to unproductively criticise an event, person or issue in a way that creates a negative impression, that impression will linger too.
Therefore, feel free to write about people and events that have assisted you in your training contract journey or that you believe are worthy of greater admiration. This can be a positive way to connect with firms and does not come across as desperate or ungenuine.
- Failure is not permanent
Some individuals seem to have natural charisma and can navigate such networking events with relative ease. By contrast, many of us struggle with complete strangers, often feeling that an event was a waste of time.
Hence, it is important to acknowledge that developing networking skills comes with time and practice. A conversation is not a one-way affair. If the other person is reluctant to talk or is having a bad day, even the friendliest welcome may be nonchalantly dismissed.
Therefore, do not let a negative – or even rude – reaction prevent you from participating in future events. Just remember there may be setbacks along the way. So, smile and dust yourself off. Now, start to look forward to all the fascinating people that you can meet at the beginning of your legal career.
- Anticipate feeling somewhat uncomfortable
For most of the time, your interview will feel like a conversation, where many of the questions could have been easily anticipated. Yet, sometimes a trickier question can be thrown at you. This allows the interviewer to see how you react when thrown a little off balance whilst under pressure. That is why it is crucial to prepare a list of potential questions the interviewer may ask you. More specifically – be prepared to tell interviewers what you are good at, but also think about any shortcomings or challenges you may have faced and how you dealt with them.
- But remember that interviewers are not trying to trick you
Do not worry about interviewers trying to trip you up – they want you to perform your best, and this should alleviate concerns that interviews are designed to be a scary experience. Interviews are a two-way street, and the firm is trying to impress as much as you are.
- Current affairs are key
An understanding of current affairs (especially business or firm-specific news) will help at the interview. But it is unnecessary (and impossible) to read everything. Following news stories that genuinely interest you (and thinking about how they might affect a law firm) is a more valuable way to prepare than trying to know everything.
- Understand the legal market
It is essential that you take the time to research a firm, but that you also take the time to understand that firm’s key competitors. This will help you understand what makes the firm you applied to different from others, and you will be able to use this knowledge to demonstrate to interviewers your genuine interest in their firm. Interviewers will be impressed that you took the time to understand how the firm differentiates itself from its competitors.
- Know your CV well
Be prepared to speak about any experiences written on your CV and have something interesting to say about each of them. It is important that you take the time to reflect on the work experience you have completed so far and that you are able to explain why each of these experiences, even if unrelated to law, makes you a valuable candidate. Also, be prepared to explain any potential gaps on your CV. Gaps are not in themselves a problem, but you should be prepared to discuss them all the same.
- Tell me about a time when…
During your interview, the interviewer may ask you to tell them about a time when you worked in a team, faced a challenge at work and how you responded to it, or a time when you demonstrated great leadership skills. Think about your past experiences, in sports teams, at university, or during your internships or work experiences, and prepare in advance short answers using concrete examples to answer any potential scenario-based questions.
- Do not be afraid to show your personality
It is understandably difficult to be completely at ease in an interview setting, but law firms want to see who you are. Equally, being yourself is a good way to assess whether the firm would be a good fit for you. Personality can shine through in general interactions with interviewers, for example talking about your hobbies and interests.
- Think about questions to ask at the end of the interview
It is helpful to have a list of questions in case you are invited to ask questions of the interviewers. These should be personal things that you are genuinely interested in knowing about the firm, about the role of a trainee solicitor, or a more senior lawyer.
- Non-verbal communication may be more important than you think
Confident handshakes (or fist-bumps) and eye contact can communicate self-assurance and friendliness. These interactions form part of the all-important ‘first impression’. Similarly, not paying attention in meetings, or using your phone when someone else is speaking to you can easily give the wrong impression.
- An understanding of the firm’s practice areas is integral to success
A compelling way to communicate your interest in the firm is by understanding its practice areas. It is useful to think about how the practice areas interlink, as this shows an awareness of the firm’s holistic operation. To really impress your interviewers, have in mind notable transactions, deals, or successful cases for the practice areas which interest you the most.
- Attending graduate recruitment events will pay dividends
Attending recruitment events is valuable research and preparation for an interview. Getting opportunities to ask questions and see what the firm has to offer can help to frame convincing interview answers.
- Get a good night’s sleep
Getting enough sleep allows you to be your sharpest the next day. It might be difficult to relax with an interview looming, but going to bed an hour earlier than usual might make a big difference.
- Plan the journey well in advance (if the interview is face-to-face)
Having a Plan A and Plan B commute will help you feel more prepared, avoid panic, and arrive at the firm with plenty of time to get used to the surroundings. Often, it will be difficult to excuse being late. (The same can be applied to internet connection in the case of virtual interviews).
- Business-wear is best
Dressing smartly will not only make you feel more interview-ready, but will also make a good first impression.
- Practice makes perfect!
Whilst you should avoid designing prescriptive answers, rehearsing your answers aloud (perhaps with friends or family) will help you deliver them with confidence on the day of the interview.
Managing the training contract
- You will get things wrong… and that is OK
Making mistakes is normal and expected; everyone makes them. No one is expecting you to be perfect. What you are expected to do, though, is to learn from your mistakes. You can make a mistake – but do not be the person who makes it twice. If you get things wrong, be kind to yourself as well: there will always be further work on which you can impress, and a positive attitude will go a long way in instilling confidence in your colleagues.
- You are not the finished product, and do not expect yourself to be!
You are not the finished article of a lawyer and you will not be, even after being qualified for several years or beyond. Recognise and value your continual development as a lawyer and approach each new task as an opportunity to enhance your skills, even if the work appears daunting at first.
- Be responsible for your own learning
Sometimes, due to the timing of a deal or other deadlines arising, your supervisor will not be able to give you feedback straightaway. This is normal, especially in a transactional seat – but do take ownership of your own learning process. For example, run a comparison between your draft of an email, memo or note and that which was sent to the client, and once the rush has calmed down, ask your supervisor to explain why specific changes were made. This will not only help you to improve your skills, but also show your supervisor that you are taking accountability for your own learning process.
- Enjoy your downtime, as soon there will not be enough hours in the day
Certain practice groups can have peaks and troughs, and when the going gets tough, it really gets tough. Make sure you take the quiet periods to relax, spend time with friends and on your interests, and it will make any tough patches much, much easier.
- Be a chameleon: adapt to different working styles
Everyone you work with will have different working styles, ways for best practice, ideas about formatting: the list goes on. As a trainee in each new seat, adapt to your supervisor’s preferred practice, and understand why they work that way – there is (usually!) always a reason. Your job is to facilitate the team’s work and make your supervisor’s life easier. Besides, developing a range of working methods will help you choose how you like things done as an associate, when you have your own trainee to supervise.
- If you are unsure or confused, always ASK
Always make sure to ask questions to clarify a given task or project you have been asked to work on. No one will criticise you for asking for clarity, and it will avoid you going down the wrong avenue with your work and save your blushes later on.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
It is always better to pre-empt any problems in completing work, whether due to confusion on the subject matter or inability to meet any deadlines, by communicating this with your supervisor early on. If a matter is not urgent, then you are updating your supervisor on progress; if it is, then they can resource someone else to finish the work rather than asking the client for an extension. If you are asked to do some work by another member of the practice group, it is also a good idea to inform your supervisor, so they can help you to manage your time and workload. Being proactive, rather than reactive, is the quality of a great trainee.
- Your PAs are literal lifesavers
Chances are if you do not know where something is, or you do not know how to format a document properly, or really, anything else you do not know – your PA does. You will come to rely on them more than you know, and then you will wonder how you ever got by without them.
- You can say no to work
An important skill as a trainee is managing one’s own time and workload. You will often be asked to produce work by associates with zero visibility of what else you have on. Keep your supervisor informed, and if you have too much on, then just say so. If you let people know you are too busy, they will respect that.
- Fake it till you make it
Of course, you should always ask if you do not know how to do something. However, quite often – particularly early on in your training contract – you will be asked to do a task where you are not quite sure if your process or answer is right. The key is to keep calm and carry on – and just have a go!
- Have IT/Office Services on speed dial
Other groups of lifesavers: your firm’s IT Department and Office Services. Whether your laptop is not working, you cannot find a particular application on the intranet system, or a raft of professional printing and binding must be done, IT and Office Services will have the solution to your problems.
- Keep important phone numbers to hand
Having helpful phone numbers to hand, even if they are available on the firm’s intranet system, will make you feel confident in completing tasks more efficiently, which is particularly useful when something is urgent.
- Lean on the other trainees – they are your support network
The other trainees will become colleagues and (hopefully) friends. If you have questions on a task, it is extremely likely that another trainee will have thought or done the same before you. Indeed, establishing good relationships with your fellow trainees will not just be helpful during your training contract, but also after qualification and beyond.
- Pay attention during your induction
Your trainee induction may feel like an information overload but do pay attention. Your induction sessions are organised so that you can put your best foot forward when you start at the firm; they are structured to give you the fundamental information to do a good job. How the document management system works, to overviews of practice areas, or expectations of a great trainee are all crucial insights into the working life of the firm, and help you set your own goals and learning objectives.
- Recognise the difference between urgent and important
When given a piece of work, always ask for a deadline. If it is ‘ASAP’ or ‘urgent’, you should do it right away, but often supervisors will be flexible about when other work needs completing. Always check, and if you have competing deadlines, then tell your supervisor who can help you to prioritise your tasks.
- Understand the bigger picture
Related to commercial awareness, understanding how a task or process fits into a particular deal or work product and the client’s wider objectives will assist you to produce a piece of work of higher quality, and better facilitate the work of your supervisor and others in the group.
- Make use of mentors, both those assigned to you and those you find as well
The firm has a great system of mentors, from studying on the LPC and throughout your training contract. Make sure to use them and their knowledge, but do not restrict yourself to ‘official’ mentor relationships; you can find and develop other mentors too, and the more the better.
- Everyone is starting from the same level of knowledge
Whilst law degrees, the GDL and the LPC provide important training that prepares you for legal practice, the vast majority of legal knowledge you will need in a given practice group comes from on-the-job learning. All trainees will be in the same boat, so do not worry if you are asked to research something you do not know. Chances are your colleagues (and the person asking you!) will not be experts on the topic either.
- Take the time to get to know colleagues, even if you do not work with them directly
It is important to cultivate and develop your network across the firm, as you will never know when you will need to rely on a colleague in another department for help. Taking the time to get to know people and develop good workplace relationships is just as important as the work in front of you.
- Brush up on your IT skills
When so much of our work revolves around producing high-quality digital products, whether they be Word documents, PowerPoints or Excel spreadsheets, having good IT skills is fundamental. Brush up on your IT and make sure you take advantage of all the training opportunities available to you.
Four final things trainees wish that they knew before starting the training contract
- Proofread your application
In hindsight, the amount of time that some of us wasted submitting applications that contained typos or that were challenging to read – solely due to neglecting to proofread the application comprehensively before sending – is truly embarrassing. By printing out and mercilessly running your red pen over the written application, you will spot so many obvious spelling errors and word omissions. The proofreading process is particularly important for the work experience section. This is the part of the application that candidates often copy and paste from their LinkedIn profile or from other applications. Consequently, by not proofreading this work-experience section, every application that you subsequently submit will contain the same mistakes – leading to repeated rejection e-mails.
- Expect rejected applications
There are candidates that get into every firm that they apply to at their first attempt. However, it is important not to mistake a fraction of applicants for the whole. Most candidates will experience many rejections along the way to securing a training contract. Many LLB and GDL students’ Fridays will feature e-mails containing those dreaded lines … ‘after careful consideration’. Furthermore, you have no genuine idea whether these successful applicants have extensive law firm experience or other factors that may have given them an early advantage. In short, playing the TC-acceptance comparison game is misguided and it is very rarely productively used by candidates. Concentrate on your own progress, and the positive results will follow.
Moreover, learn to embrace the application failures. If you are being rejected from law firms, it means that you are pushing yourself beyond your current expertise levels and continuously learning to be a stronger candidate. This personal development and enhanced commercial awareness will greatly assist you when you start practicing too. Further, you may find that when you apply in subsequent years, your enhanced level of knowledge and polished application technique will make you a competitive candidate for an elite law firm, rather than a mid-tier law firm. Arguably, without the lessons learned from rejected applications, you would not have been able to produce an application of such quality.
- Make sure this is the right choice for you
Careers at City law firms (and particularly US ones) are notoriously some of the highest-paying graduate jobs available, and they attract thousands of applications per firm. But with the high salaries come the expectation that trainees, associates and even partners will work long hours, including the occasional day at the weekend. Many take the decision to enter the profession to work with interesting clients, on major cases, and to develop a career in an ever-changing and fast-paced industry. It is a great career choice, and we all enjoy what we do. But you have to make sure it’s the right choice for you.
- It only takes one firm to say yes – but we are not all identical twins
Ultimately, it only takes one firm to say yes to you. Only one firm needs to offer you a training contract or a newly qualified position. Therefore, please do not lose faith about applying to firms – even if it seems like you are just receiving constant rejections. Additionally, please keep attending panel events and applying to firms’ open days. In reality, you are almost certainly closer to being accepted for a TC than you may initially realise.
One final note before you depart. Please remember that we are not all identical twins. We do not all have the same talents, weaknesses, preferences, motivation or backgrounds. The 49 tips given above are provided by five Shearman trainees. However, each trainee’s experiences vary considerably. The five of us range across national boundaries, ages, career-history, subject areas, genders, legal backgrounds etc. Accordingly, you could probably have 49 distinct pieces of advice from each of us.
Thus, do not see the tips above as a compulsory checklist, but merely as 49 useful tools to help you as you progress in the legal world. Please, take what strategies are best for you personally and apply them in your own bespoke way.
As always, thank you for your time reading this Shearman article. We wish you the very best of luck on your legal journey.