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Legal traineeships and the perils of tunnel vision

28 August 2015 | tagged New lawyers news

Rob Marrs

Rob Marrs, senior policy and development manager at the Law Society of Scotland, reflects on his own past experiences of job hunting and the lessons for anyone looking for a traineeship.

The most difficult interview question I’ve ever had was for the graduate scheme of a car rental company. At the end the interviewer said: You’ve got good extra-curriculars, a strong degree from a great university and you’ve interviewed well. Why on Earth do you want to rent cars out for a living?’

I didn’t have an answer. I blustered something, of course, but it was clear I didn’t want the job. I didn’t want to rent cars for a living. I didn’t want to work for that firm. What I wanted was a job – any job, preferably a graduate job – and this job met that basic criteria. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job.

Those embarking on a professional degree have an obvious goal in front of them. Those who want to be doctors do an MBChb. Those who want to become dentists do the BDS. Those who want to become lawyers do the LLB. Law, admittedly, is a little different because a significant number choose not to go on to become lawyers but the goal of qualification is still the driver for most who commence the LLB.

A politics graduate (like me) usually doesn’t have a profession to aim towards when they start their course. Over the course of the degree they may be swayed by the City or the big graduate recruiters, decide to switch to law or teaching, or hope that they are one of the relative few who goes into politics and policy. Many graduate and hope for the best. There is little or no support or guidance and many people start making ‘’would you like fries with that?’ jokes.

Following the crowd

I raise this because of a response I often get when I speak to law students. If I ask them ‘what sort of traineeship do they want?’. Some answer: ‘I don’t care. I just want a traineeship’. It is easy on any professional course to get tunnel vision, to get swept along with the career path that everyone else is on, to get into a CV arms race – internships must be gained, professional profiles built online and extra-curricular activities cultivated carefully. Given the nature of the legal recruitment market it is understandable that any job is better than no job. The pressure is intense.

I wonder if those folk who answer ‘’I just want a traineeship’ have that tunnel vision? The focus on qualification by their friends, the Society, and the universities and – no doubt – familial pressure has led them to think that the only way forward is to qualify by any means necessary and any job will do. Their degree is highly valued and respected by other industries but they want to be solicitors.

 I wonder if they really do want a traineeship – any traineeship – or if circumstance has led them to believe that it doesn’t matter to them if they are a criminal defence solicitor, a domestic conveyancer, an in-house lawyer with the Scottish Government or a corporate lawyer at an international firm? There is a common ethos across the profession and common standards but most criminal defence lawyers wouldn’t want to start buying and selling houses, whilst most conveyancers don’t really want to be representing clients at 3am in the police station. It is a broad church profession, after all.

Think seriously about your options

This isn’t to put people off attempting to join the profession if they so wish. Some people genuinely are unsure of the sort of law they want to practice. Others don’t know because they haven’t – as yet – studied or experienced the area of law that they will be passionate about.

Rather it is a plea to really consider deeply the answer to the questions: what sort of traineeship do you want? What sort of lawyer do you want to be? What areas of law interest you?

When you consider those questions deeply it may be that you have one thing you’d love to do but there may be other things that come in second and third place. It also means that sometimes the advice is ‘don’t apply for every traineeship going’. If you don’t want to work in family, or don’t want to relocate to Inverness, then why apply?

As Lord Sumption noted last week, lawyers are becoming specialised earlier and earlier (in his view too early). This increased specialisation can mean that it is quite difficult for new lawyers to change tack post-traineeship. It isn’t impossible to switch from corporate work to criminal defence work post-traineeship but it isn’t easy. How do you get a job without experience? How do you learn the tricks of the trade? It takes guts to walk out of a firm, or out an entire sector, so do think carefully when applying.

Keep an open mind

The market doesn’t always help. There are more people who want to do criminal defence work than there are criminal defence traineeships. We know – from our LLB and Diploma surveys – that few law students dream of being a domestic conveyancer.  That, though, is an essential revenue source for a huge number of law firms.

Sometimes people will train in an area of law they didn’t think they were interested in and come to love it. Sometimes, at a larger firm, the seat they were dreading is the seat they love.

Traineeship recruitment is a buyer’s market. That means those who are looking for traineeships need to do everything they can to succeed. The first thing then is to work out exactly what you want - if you have no idea of where you want to go it is unlikely you’ll get there. Dream jobs rarely fall into our laps.

Like the poor soul at the car rental firm, recruiters know when you don’t want the job or – usually – that you understandably want any job going. The thing is there is probably someone else interviewing who really wants the job.

For more information about finding a traineeship (one that's right for you), visit our education and careers pages.

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