Tuesday, 15 March 2016

You're hired! Life as a newly qualified lawyer

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You're hired! Life as a newly qualified lawyer

The impressive retention rates posted by some law firms this spring demonstrate a buoyant market for newly qualified lawyers. But what happens when those trainee reins are severed and you’re let loose in legal practice? Kate Durcan speaks to NQs and training managers about their experiences.

They say you don’t truly learn to drive a car until after you have passed your test, but can the same be said for newly qualified (NQ) solicitors and their legal practice? After all, you go home from the office one evening a trainee and arrive the next morning a fully qualified lawyer, buying your own pastry and latte en route now that those endless trainee breakfast meetings have ceased.

‘It is a really big jump,’ recalls Natasza Slater, who qualified into the intellectual property and commercial department at City firm Howard Kennedy last September. ‘When you are a trainee there is a safety net and you are not held out as an expert. Now I’m qualified, people come to me for my expertise in IP.’

Fortunately, employers are realistic in their expectations and do not anticipate that NQs will morph from novice to rainmaker overnight. Iona Sinclair is the learning and development manager at international firm Mayer Brown. She says, ‘we recognise the importance of becoming a technical expert, but we also realise that this is only one part of what is needed to become an excellent lawyer. Lawyers also need support and guidance in terms of developing their professional skills. We provide this support and encourage a balance between fee-earning and personal development.’

Great expectations

One of the biggest challenges on qualification is the increased responsibility. ‘From day one of my training contract it was hands-on work, so it hasn’t really changed in that way,’ continues Natasza. ‘You are just more accountable and you are expected to know more about your practice area. It is nice to be able to focus on one area of law now and develop my technical skills.’

The amount of responsibility given to NQs varies according to the type of work undertaken, the type of firm, and how confident an individual feels. Those who qualify into litigation are likely to be more closely supervised than transactional lawyers, for example, due to the contentious nature of their work; a small firm may demand more from an NQ due to the size of the team, particularly if a senior colleague is absent and the junior has to hold the fort; and some individuals will thrive on added responsibility in contrast to others who need slightly more support.

According to Leanne Maund, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) of the Law Society, the experience of newly qualified solicitors is extremely varied: ‘It’s quite clear from our members that there is a degree of inconsistency of experience and treatment during your first year of practice, from the level of support provided to more anecdotal things, like the changing attitude of colleagues. Overall, the perception of newly qualified solicitors is one of apprehension. Although they are doing the same job, they feel more responsible for their work now they are admitted.’

Mastane Williamson is a commercial litigator at Bristol-headquartered TLT and qualified six months ago. ‘You think you have responsibility when you are a trainee, but now it is a level higher. I have my own caseload, with greater independence and input, and now there is a lot more thinking involved: people ask me, ‘what do you think we should do next?’ Her caseload ranges from matters she is solely responsible for to big cases in which she is part of a team. She felt ‘one hundred percent’ ready for qualification: ‘I couldn’t wait to get going. When you’re in a team for six months during your training contract, you are quite ready to stay and I felt confident enough to get going. We get a lot of support here. There is a lot to learn very quickly, and it is a big jump, but there is plenty of help.’

The day-to-day

As a litigator, Mastane does not have a ‘typical’ day, such is the varied nature of the job. There is plenty of drafting to be done, including witness statements and pleadings which she will handle herself, while other tasks include ‘sending umpteen emails’ to clients and the other side on a case. At least once a week she is out of the office, attending hearings or conference with her client and counsel – the barrister working alongside her team on a case. ‘In my team everything is checked, which is unusual for NQs,’ she explains, ‘but we are doing contentious work, so it is checked as a security blanket. It also makes the quality of my work better, especially if it is tweaked slightly.’

George Clarke is an associate at Herbert Smith Freehills who qualified into the firm’s corporate department last September. Since qualification, he has worked on two main projects, including the high-profile sale of retailer Homebase to Australian conglomerate Wesfarmers. Typical tasks included drafting the ancillary deal documents, negotiating with the other side’s lawyers, and taking charge of the due diligence report (a detailed investigation of every aspect of a business undertaken by a buyer before purchasing).

George explains that supervision is largely informal: ‘There are 13 partners in our department, so it depends very much on who you are working with, but you can go to their office at any time. However, the first port of call is usually one of the other juniors who has been through a similar situation recently.’

Learning for life

Thankfully, training does not stop the day that your coveted practising certificate is issued. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) requires all solicitors in England and Wales to comply with its Continued Professional Development (CPD) programme, currently being phased out in favour of the SRA’s new Continuing Competence regime. However the majority of law firms, both big and small, also provide additional structured training in both technical and practical skills: you are the future of the firm and it is in their interests for you to be the best you can be.

‘We want good technical lawyers, but we also want people who can grow the business,’ says Hannah Milford, talent manager at Howard Kennedy. In addition to her firm’s ongoing legal know-how training, it has sessions on non-technical skills such as business development, networking and client care, which Hannah is currently expanding, particularly at junior solicitor level.

Dannie Spencer qualified into the banking department at national firm Shoosmiths in September 2015 and is based in its Manchester office. She outlines the comprehensive training at the firm for all levels of fee-earner: ‘Once a month we have a national banking training session which we all dial into, as well as an annual banking away day, where we all get together. We also get involved in the annual corporate away day as well as the corporate monthly training.’ The sessions are run by a mix of partners, who will typically lead on complex document training, the firm’s professional support lawyers and even the NQs themselves: ‘It’s a really good way to learn,’ Dannie adds.

Making the cut

Although the NQ market is currently buoyant, like everything else dependent on the economy, it is cyclical. Many of today’s NQs faced a ‘horrendous market’ when applying for training contracts four to five years ago, due to the backlog of deferred trainees caused by the 2008-2011 recession. But whatever the economic climate, the period leading up to qualification can be an anxious time. ‘The issue is that being a trainee is stressful, because all you can think about is whether you’ll get a job at the end of it,’ notes Leanne Maund, chair of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division.

‘There is a bit of a misconception that if your firm doesn’t keep you on, then you are no good,’ says Natasza Slater, solicitor at Howard Kennedy. ‘But that is not the case at all – usually it is down to the business need of the team. For example, they might have taken on an NQ last year and are simply unable to take one on again this year.’

Hannah Milford, talent manager at Howard Kennedy, suggests trainees get proactive in standing out from the crowd as qualification approaches: ‘Time and again we see people who are dedicated and proactive really flourish here. It is something we look out for and this also makes someone looking for an NQ role really stand out: even if you didn’t do a seat in a particular department, if you demonstrate your interest in that area, for example, writing blog posts or delivering a training or knowhow session, these are good examples of the proactivity we really like to see and can get someone into an NQ job.’

Natasza offers this advice: ‘If you have a strong idea about the department that you would like to qualify into, it is worth making it known to the head of that department as soon as possible. Heads of departments are often in charge of their own budgets and taking on an NQ will be a budgetary consideration. Also, the department may be wavering about having an NQ so making it clear early on that you are interested will provide the department time and incentive to give serious thought to opening up an NQ position.’

Mayer Brown’s training structure is particularly impressive. ‘We run a development centre for NQ lawyers designed to assist delegates with the transition from trainee to associate,’ outlines Iona. ‘We recognise that this is a significant step and we want to ensure that newly qualified associates feel supported. The development centre focuses on what we feel to be essential skills and qualities: confidence, assertiveness and how to influence. It also covers practical information including risk and compliance pitfalls and how to avoid them, and law firm finances. The session is followed by a celebration dinner attended by partners and senior management.’ Alice Hill, who runs the development centre, adds, ‘As well as the development centres, associates have the opportunity to attend a number of standalone courses throughout the year. These range from individual coaching session to workshops on how to network, cultural awareness, legal drafting and negotiating skills.’

Good reviews

In addition to ongoing training, NQs are subject to continued performance reviews, similar to that experienced during a training contract, though less frequently and with fewer biscuits. In Bristol, Chris Allen recently qualified into the corporate and commercial department at Burges Salmon. He explains, ‘we have a dedicated HR person to chat things through with on qualification. After three months we have another catch up with HR, about whether we feel comfortable in our role, whether too much is being asked of us, or if we are worried about how we are doing, that sort of thing. We also get assigned a partner who we have a chat with two months into qualification, and then a more formal review at the end of January. Then there is a six-month catch-up, and of course you can approach them if anything crops up.’

At Herbert Smith Freehills, reviews are equally vigorous. ‘Formal reviews happen every six months with a designated partner in the group and a second partner that you can nominate,’ outlines George. ‘We’ve just had the performance review documentation sent around yesterday. It covers what you have done over the past six months and what you want to achieve during the next six months.’

Crucially, the purpose of performance reviews and training during a solicitor’s first year is not to identify high flyers, but to lay a solid foundation for a future career. ‘NQs are doing the groundwork for a couple of years, so we are not yet looking for partnership material,’ reveals Hannah at Howard Kennedy. ‘The first few years are about understanding the team and developing their legal skills – it can be a short, sharp, shock to suddenly be responsible for giving advice and as trainees approach qualification, they can get quite anxious about that. So it’s not about striving for partnership.’

The NQs interviewed all felt that their training contracts had prepared them well for practice. ‘During my training contract there was always an opportunity to take on increasing levels of responsibility, especially as the two years went on,’ says Chris at Burges Salmon. ‘There were instances when you were thrown in at the deep end, for example because a more senior colleague was busy, and you have to handle the situation yourself. But you realise that it’s not that difficult. We were always encouraged to take responsibility for our own work.’

So while there is undoubtedly an increase in independence, responsibility and expertise needed when you qualify, there is also a good deal of guidance, mentoring and training available out there. And you are more in control: ‘We are given laptops now and have the freedom to work from home once a week as part of the firm’s flexible working policy,’ enthuses George. ‘I haven’t yet taken it up much, but I plan to. So there is a better work-life balance.’ Now, that is surely worth the sacrifice of trainee pastries.

kate.durcan@legalease.co.uk

Last modified on Tuesday, 07 November 2017 14:45