What distinguishes one big commercial law firm from another?

During training contract applications, people always wonder: what distinguishes one big commercial law firm from another? Here's a hint: it's not international clients or full-service capabilities.

30 December 2016

By trainee solicitor Mathew Keller

As a training contract applicant, you may not think that the corporate responsibility (CR) culture of a firm is very important in choosing who you want to work for. For some people it is indeed a high priority and I commend them for it. For many, however, the decision is often centred on the type of work a firm specialises in, a firm’s reputation, salary, location etc. Personally, when I was applying to firms, CR values were just a bonus. Thinking that I may go work with people who care (or at least said they do) about social and environmental matters was a pleasant afterthought.

I have done volunteer work in the past and I know that this is something I enjoy, but I never really associated these kinds of activities with work. Business was business, everything else was private.

That was the case until I reached the third month into my training contract, when I volunteered for a so-called Business In Focus day. It was hosted at the Burges Salmon offices in Bristol and carried out in partnership with IntoUniversity and Fairfield High School. It is an event aimed at students (Year 9 in this case) to further develop a range of inter-personal and communications skills, to boost their confidence and to expose them to real experience with professionals. The reality is that they do not as easily have access to these kinds of training and learning opportunities as others do.

The brief for the day was simple: four volunteers from Burges Salmon would be split up between two groups of students. Either group was assigned a city which they had to pitch to a “Global Games Committee”. They had to attend a series of meetings and prepare pitch documents so as to convince the committee that their city should be the next host of a fictional international sports event.

I’ll cut right to the chase on this one – this was one of the most exhilarating and emotionally rewarding experiences of my training contract to date. I went from trying to gently guide the pitch process to passionately taking part in the pitches myself. I saw kids go from quiet and reserved to taking charge of the situation and confidently speaking their mind. Honestly, it’s an awesome feeling when one of your 13 year-old team members saves you from answering a difficult question during a pitch-presentation because she knows she can handle it (better than you).

Also imagine the surprise on my face when a young, seemingly reserved member of the opposing team delivered a speech with such rhetorical swagger that I almost rooted for them (almost). All in all, I saw a group of bright, enthusiastic young people learn and progress and genuinely enjoy doing so. Seeing them open up like that was incredible.

As I'm sure you can gather I feel a lot of passion when I talk about this experience. I genuinely believe that I was allowed to take part in something beautiful that day and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

But that is not the only thing I took away from that day. In fact, getting back to why I am writing this for you as a training contract applicant, I learned an incredibly important lesson in doing all of this. And it’s simple:

Business is not just business. Work is not just work.

The culture and the values surrounding you when you go through your training contract will have an immeasurable impact on how much you will enjoy walking to your office every morning.  I am sat here with a smile on my face, recounting that day; extremely grateful to Burges Salmon, IntoUniversity and the teachers at Fairfield High, for allowing me to experience something which taught me more about myself, the people around me and the firm I am working for. It let me add some value to my community and feel pride in the fact that I am surrounded by people who share the same values.

So as a general piece of advice for any applicant right now: pick the firm with the right culture for you because trust me, it will mean so much more to you tomorrow than you can imagine today.

Key contact

What distinguishes one big commercial law firm from another?

Pick the firm with the right culture for you because trust me, it will mean so much more to you tomorrow than you can imagine today.
Mathew Keller, Trainee Solicitor

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