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Training contracts: Everything you need to know

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All of the top firms offer training contracts to law graduates, with some also offering spots to those from a non-law background.

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What is a training contract?

Completed over a two-year period, training contracts are well structured and offer huge opportunities. These include professional skills development, exposure to a range of legal activities and interesting clients, generous remuneration and a very high probability of continued employment once completed (the retention rate is over 80% in some firms).

How to choose the right training contract for you

As an undergraduate law student, considering the wide range of training contract opportunities available can seem daunting. If you have decided to become a solicitor, you will need to secure a training contract or legal work experience to complete your two-year compulsory period of training work for the SQE.

There are many available, so it’s worth considering different factors that might influence which one suits your personality and interests. We've pulled together five important considerations.

1. Practice areas

Practice areas are likely to be central to your decision in deciding which firm to apply to. There is a big difference between studying law and practising it, so consider which sectors are of interest to you and explore firms that specialise in this area.

Larger firms tend to cover a wide range of practice areas including corporate real estate, finance litigation, employment and tax. Spend some time doing research about the different departments within the firms you are applying to, and be able to talk passionately about why a particular practice area is of interest to you. 

2. Client base

Spend some time doing research about the different departments within the firms you are applying to, and be able to talk passionately about why a particular practice area is of interest to you. 

Spend some time thinking about the type of clients you want to work for, and the relationships you will build with them. High profile firms tend to have high profile clients, especially Magic Circle firms.

On the other hand, you might be more interested in working for smaller clients, which gives you exposure to more senior members of the organisation. When working for a smaller firm, you are likely to gain a large amount of responsibility pretty quickly, so your input will be visible. 

3. Culture and size 

The culture and size of a firm are often impacted by the practice areas and client base they work with. Larger firms tend to advise global organisations and will employ thousands of staff meaning the social scene amongst trainees is particularly vibrant.

The work is complex, and contracts are high value, meaning you will work long hours in a pressurised environment. Instead, you might also want to consider a training contract with a boutique law firm, famous for offering specialist advice in a particular area like IT or media. When considering culture, it’s worth contemplating the kind of work-life balance you want to achieve. Magic Circle law firms mean long hours, so although you will have some time for socialising, this tends to be with clients and colleagues. 

When considering culture, it’s worth contemplating the kind of work-life balance you want to achieve. 

4. Location

Have a think about where you would like your training contract to be based. If you love city living, perhaps you will be keen to pursue your career in the City and be remunerated with a generous salary. The largest firms are based in London, so there are plenty of opportunities there, as well as all the excitement that a capital city has to offer. However, London isn’t everyone’s first choice, so you might think about applying to a firm outside of London with more sociable working hours and a less pressurised environment.

5. Structure of Training Contract

Training Contracts are structured in different ways across different firms. The norm tends to be to spend six-month placements in different departments across the two-year programme. Some firms choose to have shorter seats in more departments, whilst others will place you in one seat for longer than six months. If you're unsure of which practice area you want to specialise in, consider applying to firms where you will gain greater exposure to different departments. 

Deciding which firms to apply to is a big decision, so make sure you have done your research before submitting any applications. Read about the wide range of firms that we are partnered with at Bright Network, including CMS Cameron McKennaAllen & OveryHogan LovellsTaylor Wessing and many more.

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The training process

For commercial lawyers, the training process will balance contentious and non-contentious work, early responsibility and support. An emphasis is also placed on professional and personal development. Trainees will take on four six-month seats during the two-year training period.

In addition, trainees are often encouraged to go on client secondments to well-known companies or undertake an overseas secondment to international offices within Europe or beyond - think Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo.

How you are managed

Trainees are assigned to and supervised by, partners or senior associates in each seat. The supervisor provides work, monitors performance and provides general guidance and support through the duration of the seat. Every trainee is also likely to be assigned a partner mentor for the duration of the Training Contract to provide advice and counsel on matters relating to the firm.

The application process

Most commercial firms tend to interview law students in the September of their final year, though an increasing number of interviews take place earlier. And many candidates are already known to the firm if they took on a vacation scheme with them in their second year.

If a training contract offer is made, it will normally be for two years ahead - for example, an offer made in September 2016 will be for a Training Contract that begins in September 2018. It is vital to apply in good time and make sure your applications are received by the firms of your choice well in advance of the closing date, usually 31st July. Check individual firm's opening and closing dates.

Not everyone that ends up making it as an excellent lawyer is absolutely certain this is the path for them from the age of 18. Many firms welcome applications for training contracts from graduates who have studied and then worked in other areas first - for example, banking, publishing or the arts - but subsequently, decide that indeed a career in law is for them. Equally, graduates who decided to travel and work on language skills following graduation are also welcomed.

How to prepare

1. Motivation

Those interviewing you want to know that you really want to be a lawyer and that you want to work with them in particular. This means you need to do your research on the specifics of that firm before, which of course you should have already done when you applied.  Make sure you show knowledge of the work they do and have good reasons for wanting to work there. To display evidence of your motivation, this would be the time to dig deep and bring up any legal work experience you have done and any extra-curricular legal activity you did during your degree. If you did a vacation scheme with the same firm, they are likely to bring that up, so make sure you can demonstrate how you profited from your time there. Think in advance about what you did well during that vacation scheme and areas on which you know you could improve upon - self-awareness around your own strengths and weaknesses shows maturity and humility - two highly-valued qualities.

2. Commercial awareness

If you are applying to work at a commercial law firm, then you had better have an idea of what actually goes on in the business. However, commercial awareness can seem like a maddeningly vague thing to grasp.

In essence, you need to understand the role that commercial law plays in the world and what factors affect it. Find out what areas of business the firm operates in, then start getting better acquainted with the goings-on in those areas, while making sure you don’t get caught out with the jargon. A start on this is being aware.

Brush up on your commercial awareness with the Thinking Commercially podcast - get the commercial awareness updates you need from commercial awareness guru, Chris Stoakes in hour-long episodes. Perfect for busy lawyers on the go!

3. Competence

Law firms want to see what skills you possess beyond academics. Required competencies may vary a little, but most lawyers rely on things like communication, resilience, teamwork, persuasiveness, people skills, lateral thinking and creative problem-solving.

Try to have examples to-hand of occasions when you have shown these sorts of skills; for example, they may want to know about a time when you have been in a leadership position or worked in a team. Part-time work at university or society activity can come in useful, giving you a good bank of experience to draw from.

Finally, while keeping all of that in your head, remember to relax, if you can. They also want to get a sense of what it would be like to work with you, so remember to be punctual, polite and have a personality.

Ready to apply for a training contract? 

Now you know everything you need to know about training contracts, it's time to get your applications in.