The finishing post seems in sight; after the years of the law degree, and the year of the Diploma, the end of studying is near and you are looking forward to the Traineeship and qualification as a practising Solicitor or Advocate.
However, as with any transition it is worthwhile pausing a moment to consider what you’ve done so far, and where you are going.
First a few words for those who don’t have their traineeship lined up. Don’t panic! We are in one of the periodical shortages of traineeships. You have presumably invested all this time and effort into coming this far because you have a passion for law – or is it simply inertia, having started on the route and not thinking to change. If the latter, maybe you ought to look at alternative careers. But if it is the former, then you can’t give up now just because you may lack the connections or simply didn’t fit into the niche required by those who have been offering traineeships.
Instead, think about how you are going to prove to potential employers why you should get that traineeship. Bear in mind, some firms are looking for trainees with the intention of them being a permanent member for at least a substantial part of their career; others are looking to use them for the 2 years then replace them. For the latter, offering to work cheaply may be an incentive; for the former you need to demonstrate what you will be able to bring long-term. So, even if you do need to do some other work simply to support yourself in the meantime, keep on not only with the applications but also making & keeping contacts within the profession and attending relevant courses or seminars – CPD events can enable you to do both. Sometimes simply the fact that you are still determined to get a traineeship can be a point in your favour, and don’t forget the options of volunteering for CAB or a Law Centre, or applying for paralegal positions.
So, the traineeship is the third stage of your qualification. In the degree you learned the theory & framework of law and the Scottish legal system, black letter law, and how to research what the law is in a given matter. In Diploma you learned the administrative and practical skills you will need in practice – how to do the paperwork and court work. In the traineeship you are going to learn the practicalities of being a lawyer – become a Solicitor or Advocate rather than a law student or jurist.
Exactly how your traineeship will go will depend on the firm you are doing it with, and what they see their and your respective roles are. All firms require to comply with the technical requirements laid down by the Law Society, but that still leaves a substantial leeway in HOW they do that. Some firms will go out of their way to give you involvement in as wide a range of business as they can manage simply to give you the experience. Others will quite happily set you to do exactly the same work for 2 years. In some firms the partners will see themselves as mentors, in others it is a mutual exploitation, your work in exchange for your qualifying.
Whatever traineeship you have though it is up to YOU to steer how it, and your future career goes. Although you may be looking at qualifying as the end of the road, it is only the start of your professional career which may well run 20, 30, 40 years or so. A good traineeship will give you a solid grounding, and it is up to you to make it a good one. Think about where you intend to be in 5, 10, 20 years time; not just in your career but in life generally. You may have been asked a question like this in your job interview, and you probably gave whatever answer you thought would most likely get you the job, but it is worth thinking about it properly for yourself.
Will your job be your life, or do you intend having a family? Remain an employee, become a partner/director in an existing firm, or start your own firm? Do you want a short career with early retirement to do other things, or is practising in the law its own reward? All of these affect what skills you need to develop, and since your traineeship is the foundation of your career, so you need to start these skills now.
If you do not feel that your traineeship is giving you all the skills you will need, take it into you own hands. Ask for involvement in any cases of the firm you think will give appropriate experience, even if that means extra unpaid hours. Look at CPD courses that cover the field you want; if the firm is not prepared to send you, consider taking a holiday and going at your own expense. You are doing conveyancing in Glasgow but eventually want to practice in the north? Join the Crofting Law Group and start learning about crofting law in advance. Buy you own books or periodicals in fields that interest you. No new training or learning is ever wasted, even if only to broaden your knowledge and tell you when you need an expert.
Finally a few tips for all new trainees from long experience of practice:
1. When you start your traineeship you probably know more up to date law overall than anyone else in the firm (even if individuals know more in their speciality); a wise firm will take advantage of this. On the other hand, everyone else in the firm (including non-qualified staff) probably knows more about working in and running a law firm than you do; you will be wise to remember this.
2. Consequential to first point: do not look down your nose at non-Solicitors in the firm. Every single one of them is there because the partners believe their work is necessary. Respect their experience – a secretary or paralegal with 20 years in the firm will probably remember more about the client base and document styles than any knowledge database system can pull out for you.
3. There is no work “beneath you”; all work is either “necessary” or “unnecessary”. Necessary work allows the business to function smoothly, unnecessary work contributes nothing. Necessary work should be done by whoever is capable at the lowest level of impact on profitability. Sending you to make tea while you take a break from VDU use, or do the “bun run” when other staff are busy doing other things, or when you are taking papers to court is actually an efficient use of staffing to do necessary work. If something appears to be unnecessary work, speak to someone – it may be you do not appreciate the actual purpose, or you may be helping the firms efficiency.
4. You WILL make a mistake at some point, and possibly cost the firm money in doing so. The secret is to catch it and deal with it as early as possibly. A few hours wasted time is cheaper than a fee discount for a client, which is cheaper than an SLCC complaint or professional negligence claim, which is cheaper than a massive public scandal. If you discover you (or anyone else) has cocked up, first step is to get it fixed ASAP reporting to whoever needs to know; blame can follow latter. A good firm will treat all mistakes as a “learning experience” the first time – trouble only comes if you make the same mistake again, and it will be proportional to the consequences so again swift action will still mitigate it.
5. Stick to your ethics at all costs. If you are not true to yourself, you will no longer be yourself. If partners ask you to do something you believe unethical, tell them why you cannot. If regulations tell you to do something you believe is unethical, you may have some hard choices to make…Your initial interpretation may be wrong, in which case discussion can show you something does in fact not breach your ethics, and sometimes a question can require you to balance which of two standards you hold is more important, but no one said a legal career would be easy.
6. The other side in a case or transaction is not “the enemy” even if they are the opposition. Professional courtesy and co-operation will make everyone’s life easier (and by implication more profitable by letting you get more work done), even if you are “fighting hard” on behalf of your respective clients. There are unfortunately a few practitioners out there who really are “the enemy”, and every transaction with them on the other side is a nightmare; do not descend to their level because, apart from ethical issues, Scotland is a small jurisdiction and word gets around.
Hoping you all have a long, satisfying legal career. See you in practice!
Many Thanks to Highland Lawyer for some great tips for new lawyers.