Life is hard for many would-be trainee or NQ solicitors at present, but advice is on hand from new lawyers during the 2008 recession who found their chosen paths blocked, but have since made good

In June 2008, I was a fresh-faced(ish) trainee solicitor about to embark on the career I had worked so hard towards. I was aware of the collapse of Northern Rock and was starting to hear about a “credit crunch”, but in the naivety of youth I didn’t spend much time dwelling on what this might mean for my career. On reflection this is, perhaps, where I first learned what “commercial awareness” really meant.

I went on to have a crash course in empathy and workplace realities, as I watched my new colleagues being put through gruelling redundancy processes or shifted to reduced working hours. My carefree student days were very quickly behind me.

I’m sure others will recall how they spent 2008, and I suspect it will largely be with a heavy heart. Each evening news bulletin reported another high-profile business casualty. But where most of us felt it pinch the hardest was in our own offices. Banks failed, work dried up, and for a time, the profession looked a little bleak.

It’s hard, therefore, not to draw comparisons with the world we now find ourselves in, as we brace for a second recession in 12 years. The root cause might be different this time but, sadly, the effect is very similar. A quick look on LinkedIn reveals many post-Diploma students still looking for their coveted traineeship, and newly-qualified solicitors looking for their
first position.

As a tutor on the Diploma at the University of Glasgow, I’m often contacted by students to discuss hints and tips for securing traineeships or work experience. Unsurprisingly, this conversation has changed recently. There’s just no escaping that there are currently more students than there are traineeship opportunities. In one recent call, I found myself reflecting on my experience of 2008 to explain that while it might feel rubbish now, things do get better. I recalled some fantastic success stories from friends and peers who didn’t get the smooth start to their career that they had planned.

That made me wonder if we – the class of 2008 – owe it to the next generation entering the profession to share the lessons we learned as we fought to establish ourselves and that we can now say have positively shaped our careers, even if we didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Those who entered the profession around 2008 are now roughly 10 years’ PQE, and well advanced on our career paths. I put out some feelers to see if there was a willingness to reflect on that period, and was taken aback by the eagerness I met. There was a desire to give something back, to share some optimism with new entrants. Trainees and NQs of 2008 are among the decision makers of 2020, and all were agreed that it was worth sending a reminder that opportunities still come about in hard times, particularly if you are willing to be nimble or show perseverance.

When the traineeship goes

Someone who felt the blunt trauma of the last recession is Bruce Langlands. He received a letter telling him his traineeship offer – secured 18 months previously – was being withdrawn with just five weeks’ notice.

“Devastated” is how he describes his feelings on reading the letter, which he can still recall vividly today. “There was panic. What was I going to do now?”

Thankfully, Langlands wasn’t left wondering for too long. Despite having held a career goal of becoming a corporate solicitor in M&As, he was presented with an opportunity of a traineeship at a personal injury firm and soon learned the value of keeping an open mind. Any initial feelings of resistance quickly gave way to a determination to fling himself into a completely different role.

“I never wanted to do personal injury work. I never thought it a worthwhile career choice. It wasn’t until I started that I realised I was helping people who, without that help, might not be able to pay their bills. It was really fulfilling and I wouldn’t have realised that if I hadn’t taken the personal injury role I never thought I wanted.”

It might be a cliché to say “and the rest is history”, but in Langlands’ case, it really is. He went on to immerse himself in personal injury law, culminating in his recent move to the bar.

Sorry, no NQ positions

The merit of keeping an open mind was a recurring theme. In 2009 Scott Whyte, now managing director at Watermans, was given the news that he, along with the other trainees in his cohort, would not be kept on in NQ roles. Whyte, who had aspirations of becoming an IP solicitor, found himself re-evaluating his career when he had the chance to interview for a role also at a personal injury firm – an area he had taken a seat in as a trainee and had not enjoyed at all.

Whyte admits he initially viewed this move as a plan B, going so far as to say that plan A hadn’t been mothballed at any point. He reflects on the determination to prove himself that helped him push through.

“I knew that if I went in and gave it a good go, there would be transferable skills that would help me move into another area of law,” he says. However, much like Langlands, Whyte found himself settling into the role and that he was an able personal injury lawyer. He thrived in the fast-paced environment and found the qualified role very different to his previous experience.

“It gave me a completely different perception of a qualified job in personal injury compared to my six months as a trainee. Going into it with an open mind was important, and making the most of the opportunity I was given was key.”

It’s hard to argue with that when you understand that just five years and a job move later, Whyte became managing director of Watermans, one of the country’s leading personal injury specialists.

Sector specific?

Reflecting on both of these stories, it’s fair to say there is little coincidence that the happy endings emanate from personal injury firms. Personal injury work was the boom area of the 2008 recession – as has historically been the case during economic downturns. I ask if there is a lesson to be learned in picking out trends when considering your future career. Both agree, but with a little hesitation: while there might be merit in thinking about careers in family law and corporate restructuring in 2020, they prefer to emphasise that overall market knowledge is what will keep you ahead.

Whyte talks about his interview preparation for the personal injury role and taking time to speak with a colleague who already worked in this area. “I needed to back up my sales pitch,” he recalls. “I treated a colleague to a coffee and bent their ear for an hour to ask them for every pearl of wisdom they had. It definitely made the difference in getting that job.”

For would-be trainee solicitors and NQs, that is sage advice no matter the condition of the global economy.

We go on to consider a renewed focus on traditional skills. Langlands agrees about the value of perfecting your interview technique. Thinking about the moment he decided to interview for the personal injury traineeship, he says: “I still had the insight to go for the interview. If nothing else, it had been two years since I’d last done an interview and I valued the chance to practise, even if I didn’t get the job.”

The same applies to your CV. When you’re panicking about job hunting, quantity might be tempting, but Whyte spoke about the importance of quality and flexing the muscles of your CV. “Don’t worry about going back to basics. Redraft it and make sure your experience and highlights are tailored towards the firm and job you’re applying for.”

Transferable skills

Having strong transferable skills will also take you far. Gillian Treasurer is now head of Legal at Scottish Rugby, a dream job for many solicitors. However, it was not the post she thought she would find herself in when she qualified without an NQ role to go to.

“I thought I wanted to be a private client solicitor,” she remembers. “When I qualified in 2011, things were still quite bleak and there weren’t enough jobs to go round. I had no interest in the jobs that were being made available. It was terrifying; but it turns out that it was the best thing that could have happened to me – it forced me to be creative about my career path and the way I thought about the skills I had obtained.”

Treasurer took a risk and applied for a commercial contract post working for a single client, despite having no commercial experience. “During my traineeship, I had a seat in the private client team where I was managing my own executry caseload. While it might appear that has no connection to commercial contracts, my experience of handling a high volume portfolio was the crucial skill that helped me get the job.”

She encourages students and new solicitors to be proactive and think about the practical skills they might not realise they already have that would help them transition into the working environment. “The ability to go into an office, work with a team and hit the ground running can often be more practical than a week’s work experience in a prestigious law firm. Practical skills are way more important than anything else.” In fact, both she and Whyte are agreed in saying “no experience is bad experience”.

The leap of faith paid off. The commercial contract role gave Treasurer a “grounding” that has become the foundation for her career. Having enjoyed working closely with the client’s in-house team, she started to consider the merits of an in-house role herself, and from there her career went from strength to strength. She acknowledges that while the industry she is in now might be considered glamorous to some, it is fundamentally a commercial role underneath; and that knowledge was gained by taking a brave decision to apply for a role where she had no hands-on experience.

Life in the high street

Much has been said about the idea of keeping an open mind about the practice area you work in, but what can be said of being flexible about where you work?

A lot, it would seem. The firm of Semple Fraser collapsed in 2013, in many ways a product of the 2008 recession. Gary Somers was a trainee at the time and, after being able to finish his traineeship at McClure Naismith, he again found himself looking for a job.

Having spent his traineeship working on large corporate deals, following a smooth progression until that point from school, to university, to a coveted big-firm traineeship, the next natural step was for him to move into an NQ role at a large corporate firm – even if not Semple Fraser. However, that progression came to an end when he found himself rethinking his next move.

Somers used this time to harness his resources. “I spent a lot of time working on speculative CVs, going for interviews, keeping an eye on Scottish Legal News, Lawscotjobs, the RFPG page and really keeping an ear to the ground.” It was after this period of grafting that he got the chance to take up a temporary role at a high street firm in Lanarkshire, to assist with a specific deal they were working on. He agrees that until that point he hadn’t envisioned his career taking him
to the high street.

“It was my first glimpse at general practice, and it gave me some key exposure to work such as wills and residential conveyancing, together with the practicalities of preparing files to be sent to a law accountant – that was new.” Somers credits this time for busting the misconception that life outside a big commercial firm meant a lower quality of work. “The work was really interesting, and not any less sophisticated or challenging – quite the contrary.”

When the opportunity to move to the Highlands presented itself later in his career, he grabbed the chance to embrace rural life with his young family. Now an associate at MacPhee & Partners in Fort William, he admits: “It was a brave decision, but it’s been a great move. No commute, fresh air, good schools as well as great quality commercial work and a positive work-life balance. Lockdown has especially brought this into focus.”

He goes on to commend the high street to students thinking about where their careers might take them. “The high street provides great experience for students, and at my firm our summer placement students often get quality, first hand exposure to a variety of legal work and learn some of the office practicalities, which prove pivotal and help build a solid foundation for their careers, going forward.”

Keep believing

Throughout my conversations, one message rang clear: things do get better. It wasn’t unqualified, though. As can be seen from every success story I heard, there was also a tale of hard work, grafting and refocusing in challenging circumstances.

I asked everyone what advice they would give 2020 trainees and NQs. You have read their top tips. However, the words that really stood out came from Gillian Treasurer. She said simply: “Don’t lose heart.” Those of us who are lucky to be able to look back at tough times in our career with the benefit of hindsight will say that while it might have felt make or break at the time, it does all work out in the end. The hardest part is achieving the understanding that there’s rarely a straight path to get there. My hope is that this article will contribute to that.

To the class of 2020, I wish you the very best with your endeavours over the coming weeks and months. I know you will do well.

The Author

Amy Walsh is a senior associate with Harper Macleod

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