02 December 2016

By trainee solicitor Emily Geens. 

Before you start your training contract, it's easy to listen to third party accounts of seats and allow them to shape your opinion of what a department will be like. After all, many trainees will never have worked in a corporate environment before and, as a result, will rely on the guidance of those who have been through the training experience.

The problem with this, however, is that everyone’s training contract is a unique experience and each trainee will inevitably have different interests and talents.

For me, I definitely fell for the myth that disputes would be "scary" and that, being a compulsory seat, I would need to suffer a four-month stint in this department at some point in my training contract. I had heard, and believed, that I would have to stay late every night, that it was a stressful environment in which to work and that litigators are, by their nature, argumentative and difficult.

Eating my words

Although I am yet to decide whether disputes is for me, I have learned one very valuable lesson from my experience in the department – I shouldn't be so susceptible to past and present trainee opinions. 

Despite what I had first heard about disputes, I definitely didn’t have to work the long hours I had first imagined. Although there was a late night every so often, it was these times that I remember enjoying the most as I was involved in interesting matters and I was given more responsibility.

Speaking to Disputes Partner, Andy Burnette, he admits that the department "doesn’t have any expectation that trainees should work harder" and that if trainees do stay a little longer occasionally, it's because a matter is coming up to a critical phase. His advice to trainees is "if there is no reason to still be at work, get out and enjoy your evenings"

For the majority of my time in the department, I did just that and was out of the door by 6pm. I think there is a belief that certain departments expect you to work later, but I honestly think that this is a myth and it's simply not the Burges Salmon way of working. 

Good all-rounder

The "stressful environment" I had first envisaged was also a misconception as I found the work to be more adrenaline-filled than traumatic. I enjoyed myself as I often found that I was working on really interesting matters where I was using a combination of black letter law and strategy to solve people’s problems. This is one of the main reasons I went into law in the first place so to have this feeling when I am merely a trainee can only be a good thing. 

I agree with Andy when he says that "litigation work is a bit like being a detective: you have to try and figure out where it all went wrong." It is this element of disputes that I really enjoyed as it fed an inner curiosity that I didn't appreciate I had. So, while some may describe the seat as stressful, I found that I enjoyed the adrenaline and excitement. 

The People

Andy believes litigators get a bad rep as they are often seen as "horrible dragons" who are "argumentative and fight other people’s battles for a living." Although I can see why trainees take this view when they first start their training contract, it really is a fallacy. In reality, you are often working in a close-knit team and everyone – from the partner down to the secretaries and business support – is taking a key role in fulfilling tight deadlines.

Importantly, you are shown recognition for working hard in disputes, which I learnt first-hand when a partner left a slice of cake and a coffee on my desk to thank me for my efforts while working on an injunction. He didn’t have to thank me as I had thoroughly enjoyed myself (despite a few late nights and nerve-wracking moments!) but it is these little things that I will remember most from the seat. Looking back on my time in the department, I do cringe when I remember thinking at the start that everyone in disputes was a dragon...


Litigation may not be for everyone; however, it is time to dispel the myth that it's a horrendous trainee experience. Whether you are made for corporate, banking or property, or whether you are looking forward to the more advisory world of pensions or tax, litigation will breathe life into drafting a contract. To become a brilliant all-round lawyer, you will need to prepare yourself for the occasions when litigation might arise, whatever type of law you choose to practice.

So, whether you love it or hate it, you should embrace the experience of your disputes seat and learn from it – don’t be another trainee to feed the rumour mill. Thinking more broadly, you should go into every seat with an open mind – you may surprise yourself.

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