A warts-and-all account of what to expect when you start a legal traineeship

The first thing to remember when starting as a trainee – and, in fact, in any new job – is that this is different to university and different to the Diploma. Obvious, I know, but worth remembering.

You are being placed in an organisation which has its own culture, its own way of working, and where work is already going on – that’s entirely different from being new at university. At the organisation you’re joining, everyone – and I mean everyone – has seen trainee solicitors come and go.

Learn the culture

With that in mind, what you need to do is figure out how the organisation works, what the culture is like and not upset that or disrupt it. A good start is simply making sure you know what the office dress code is before your first day.

For firms which offer different seats, it’s important to understand that different departments are likely to have different working styles and different cultures – just as you get into the swing of how the commercial property team works, you’ll be off to litigation. So: watch and listen.

People will already have established working patterns which suit them, and suit the organisation. This will be true of partners and senior lawyers, but equally true of support staff. Support staff will have developed methods of working with, and dealing with, the demands of fee earners.

If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: it is difficult to overstate how inappropriate the title “support staff” is. They are crucially (and increasingly) important to the delivery of legal services, and trainees who do not understand this or, worse still, treat support staff badly, will struggle.

I’ve heard of a trainee being slapped down by a senior partner for asking why a job advert for a paralegal paid more than a trainee role. Paralegals were worth more to the firm than a first year trainee.

Where do first year trainees fit in?

And that brings us to, what is a trainee solicitor to a law firm? Basically, three things. The first is simply being new – they can invigorate a team with new ideas, they are usually hungry to learn and they offer a fresh pair of eyes. This can help refresh a team.

As well as this, and importantly, trainees offer a firm income (now and in the future) – and risk. Lawyers are generally and understandably risk-averse people, and trainees pose some element of risk as they are not qualified and are still learning. More than that, solicitors are under intense pressure to get their advice correct.

Why does this matter to a trainee? In the first instance, it means knowing when to ask questions. There’s a balance to be struck between asking questions and pestering. When you’re given instructions, make absolutely sure you understand exactly what is required of you – if something is unclear, don’t be shy about saying so. It is okay to make a mistake or ask a question, but it will be annoying if you make the same mistakes or ask the same questions.

When you provide the work to the fee earner, be careful to set out in the cover email where you had any problems. Let the fee earner know what could be wrong. It’s far better to be up front than find out the hard way, with a judge or a client going berserk. One lawyer told me that the best piece of advice he received as a trainee was to treat your partner as your client.

Be prepared to be bored

There can be some monotony. Commercial practice sometimes requires fairly boring work for hours on end. The main redeeming feature is that one day you won’t have to do it any more. The people senior to you have spent their days doing the same hard yards. That isn’t to say commercial work is always dull. Far from it – but there is little point trying to say that everything will be exciting.

So why, after five years of study, do it? Most trainees, and many NQs, could earn more in other sectors.

The reason should be that one day you are likely to be the one who is shaping the deal or determining how a large case is fought. It takes years of training to hone that ability, but it is hugely rewarding. Providing clients with solutions to complex legal problems will be fulfilling and will lead to you being highly regarded. Clients value that expertise enormously. Moreover, that kind of experience, and those skills, can offer you opportunities in private practice, in-house or outside the legal profession – either here in Scotland or elsewhere globally.

This article is adapted from a blog posted to “New lawyers news” on the Society’s website. For further advice see www.lawscot.org.uk/education-and-careers/the-traineeship

The Author
Rob Marrs is senior policy and development manager at the Law Society of Scotland 
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