I should firstly say that I am no expert in legal careers having only my own fledgling one to draw on. I graduated from Edinburgh University in 2008 and from the Diploma in Legal Practice (again at Edinburgh) in Summer 2009. That was the first tough year for law graduates though I think it is even worse for those graduating now. I am now 23 and am a second-year trainee for Inksters, a small but very interesting and forward-thinking law firm in Glasgow. Any advice I can give is therefore from a small-firm perspective but I will try to share anything I think will be useful to this years’s diploma students.
I secured my traineeship after successive summer placements with the firm boxing files and doing general admin tasks. I think law firms are reluctant to take risks at the moment and would much rather take someone on who has a proven track record with them. That makes work experience even more important now than it has ever been. In my experience work experience tends to come through personal contacts so I suggest milking these for all they are worth! Friends’ family members can be an untapped resource. My parents are both in creative professions that are perhaps even more difficult to get into than law and I am often asked to put in a word on someone’s behalf. I try not to do it too often but it does sometimes work. Work experience is only a foot in the door, of course. No-one is going to take someone on in any further capacity if they don’t prove themselves to be bright, hardworking and eager to learn.
When applying for traineeships, I would urge anyone not to discount small firms. I have had an interesting and varied workload at Inksters from day one. Rather than spending six months in a commercial property seat, six months in a private client seat etc. any given day could involve minuting for divorce, drafting a disposition, speaking to a client about their Will, researching a point of law for a solicitor and raising a small claims action. In a small firm you never know what case will next walk in through the door, be it a straightforward house purchase or a Supreme Court case. It never gets boring. My traineeship is in Glasgow but judging by university contemporaries’ experience it is also definitely worth looking outside the central belt.
No matter how much we all learned at university, putting that knowledge into practice is a very different thing. I would often reply with “…it’s a steep learning curve” when people asked how I was getting on at first! The best bit of advice to coping with the traineeship itself I can give is to be as nice as possible to everybody, especially the legal secretaries/paralegals. They are likely to be much more patient after the tenth stupid question of the day than a supervising partner might be. A great legal secretary is extremely valuable to a firm – far more so than a new trainee! – and can wield a lot of influence within the office. A trainee going in with the attitude that they know more than the secretaries do having done a bit of reading and gone to a few classes in the area that the secretaries have been working in for years will make few friends.
A piece of advice I will probably need to keep repeating to myself for some years yet is to check, check and check again; print everything you draft out and go through it expecting something to be wrong with it. That is the mindset that whoever is checking it will be in and it’s better to find mistakes and correct them before your work reappears covered in someone else’s red pen. I always found diploma tutors to be quite lax when it came to marking – so long as you get the general concept they will forgive a few typos – but trust me when I say that whoever is checking your work will not be and that can be quite a big culture shock. Finally, if something does go wrong, the best thing is to be honest about it straight away. I have seen problems that seemed insurmountable to me solved by a two minute phonecall to the right person by an experienced solicitor.
I should add that despite the steep learning curve, being a trainee is a brilliant job. It is a really satisfying feeling securing a result for a client and, though I personally never thought I’d get there at first, there does come a day when you realise how far you’ve come without even noticing it. Just don’t give up in the meantime!
Louise King Trainee Solicitor