‘You’ll never be a lawyer at this rate.’ Those were the words (very kindly) spoken to me by a peer on the day of our first ever law exam, when I revealed that no, I had not answered question three, because I had not turned over the exam paper and I had quite happily called it quits at question two, surprised by the fact that so many of my colleagues were still scribbling away.
As someone who is now a trainee solicitor, I feel somewhat vindicated (although recently, when I accidentally printed 1,500 documents from a scanned file, his words did come back to haunt me). Before I started training, I often wished I had a bit more insight into what a traineeship is actually like. Do you really work until 3am every day? Will I only wear pinstripe suits for the rest of my life? Is there free coffee in the office? (No, no and yes, for those interested.) In light of this, it may be helpful for me to share some thoughts on what it is like to be a trainee solicitor. Below are the tips I have gleaned from three months working in a job that I really enjoy and feel challenged by in all the right ways.
1. Don’t worry about being the perfect candidate – they don’t exist
First of all, I should say that my journey to a traineeship was not the most conventional. I did the LLB at Glasgow and graduated in 2012. Between then and now I worked for a minority rights charity, studied for an LLM in International Law and latterly worked at the International Criminal Court. Whilst in my last job, I realised how important it was to me to actually qualify as a solicitor and I decided the time was right to train back home.
I did worry that this unconventional detour I took post-graduation would make it difficult to find a traineeship but this really was a misplaced fear. Most law firms are interested in people, not robots. Whatever experiences you have had, use these to your advantage. Being interesting and showing interest in the firm are, in my opinion, the most important things when applying for a traineeship. So don’t agonise too much about that rogue D for commercial law in second year.
2. There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ seat
Most trainees will do a few different seats – and not all of those seats will be in an area of law you see yourself qualifying into. People often talk about seats being ‘bad’ seats, usually because they never really wanted to work in that area. But the truth is, while you choose university courses largely based on your interests in particular areas of substantive law, traineeship seats are not like that. Your traineeship is all about learning different skills and these skills can be learned across a huge array of departments.
For me, I like working with and for people and I enjoy research and advocacy. Private Client and Charities was a natural seat choice for me and it is where I have started my traineeship. I love that I get a lot of client contact and my drafting skills develop every day. But I am equally looking forward to heading to Property next – I’m excited about the transactional nature of the seat, particularly developing relationships with solicitors on the other side of deals, as well working with a different kind of client. Finally, I finish up my traineeship in Commercial Dispute Resolution, where I can start to get to grips with all things litigation and put my research skills to the test, while learning about what advocacy really means in practice.
It is this variety that is the beauty of the traineeship – you get to explore many different areas before deciding where you belong. I often worried before I started work that if I didn’t train in a particular area then I wouldn’t be able to work there. This is not the case – your traineeship is designed to help you build up your skills and then you can use these skills to get to where you want to be. Importantly, keep an open mind. Many trainees I know have loved seats they thought they would dread – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
3. You are allowed to make lots of mistakes (but don’t make them twice)
Your traineeship is a safe place to make mistakes. Everyone knows you are a trainee – they were trainees once too – and they will help you fix anything that goes wrong. For example, in my job I get to do quite a bit of drafting. As someone who has only been in the department for 12 weeks, I am prone to making mistakes both small and (very) large. The important thing to remember is that someone always checks your work. Partners, solicitors and second year trainees have all taken time out of their days to explain why things should be done differently. This level of feedback is more than you ever get at university – it is constant and helps you develop incredibly quickly if you take it on board. The important thing is to learn from the experience and not constantly repeat the same mistakes. So make mistakes, take the feedback, and get better.
4. Enjoy yourself – you only train once
There are often a lot of scare stories about the traineeship – long hours, difficult clients, horrible bosses. Not only have I not encountered any of this, I have actually enjoyed myself. As a trainee, you get to learn something new every day from people who are excellent at what they do. A highlight of my work week is our discussion group where we talk about challenging legal issues that have come up in the department. Listening to what other people are working on can be really interesting – and a great opportunity to put yourself forward as a helping hand.
Outside of my department, the other trainees make working life that bit easier. The other trainees are a group of ready-made friends who will support you and laugh at/with you when you make a classic trainee mistake. Working with other young people who are smart, funny and supportive is hugely motivating and a real perk of being a trainee.
So for anyone looking for or about to start a traineeship – good luck! It is a great experience which is challenging and rewarding in equal measure and one which I am thoroughly enjoying. I just need to learn how to properly use the printer…
~ Seonaid Stevenson
Seonaid Stevenson is a recent graduate of the University of Glasgow Diploma in Professional Legal Practice programme, where she won the top Diploma student prize of 2015-16. She is currently undertaking her traineeship at law firm Maclay Murray & Spens LLP.