What I learned in my first year as a trainee solicitor

A training contract is incredibly challenging and will have you spending more time outside your comfort zone than in. Here is what I have learned so far.

22 September 2017
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By trainee solicitor Mel Mahon

For years I worked towards getting a training contract and realising my ambitions of becoming a solicitor. I often wondered what it would be like to work as a trainee solicitor. Now that I am at that point I will tell you what I have learned and how you can develop these skills before your training contract begins.

1. Networking

Networking is integral to law firms as they are people focused and developing new contacts is how they win their work. Burges Salmon encourages us to go to junior lawyer and young professional networking events. It could be argued that we don’t need to network externally as we are trainees, but if we don’t then we miss an invaluable opportunity to develop this skill early on.

I have attended multiple industry forums, networking events and client drinks where I have had to walk into a room knowing nobody and find somebody to strike up a conversation with. Don’t worry as most people are in the same situation as you, frantically trying to pull together some semi-comprehensible topics of conversation moments before entering the room.

The best tip I can give is to ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’ Try to display confidence and illustrate a degree of competence on the outside even though your stomach is turning on the inside. Ask lots of questions. This takes the impetus off you to speak which gives you more time to think of other things to talk about or further develop the conversation based on something they have said. Pretty soon the conversation will be flowing back and forth and you will wonder what was so scary about it after all.

Try and speak to lots of new people in one evening rather than spending the whole time with the one person. Excuse yourself from the group and say that you are going to make your way round the room, or if there is only one other person, invite them to come with you to talk to another group.

There are many opportunities to build this vital skill before you start your training contract. Law fairs and graduate recruitment events offer a great way to develop your networking abilities, as is running for your university’s law society. The older generations may complain about us having to go 'find ourselves' when backpacking abroad but if you go by yourself, you are forced to interact and forge friendships. Before you walk into that conference room remind yourself that you did this on the other side of the world wearing elephant print pyjamas.

Read: Networking advice for aspiring lawyers

2. Attention to detail

I will admit that I personally have written a part time job application waxing lyrical about my attention to detail only to later find a typo. This is probably the most important skill a trainee solicitor can learn as the impact of getting something wrong can be huge. A single spelling mistake in your work immediately detracts from its value. It could be a very well written advice note but once a typo has been found, whoever is reviewing it may start to think, "What else is wrong?"

You can hone your attention to detail before starting your training contract through your coursework and work experience. My best piece of advice would be to put the work down for an hour and come back to it with fresh eyes. I will add a little bit of time on to my estimated completion time so that I can put the work down. When I do, I will print the work off, mark it up and then, depending on how big the task is, I might ask another trainee to look it over.

Put the coursework down you say? Yes, put on Netflix for an hour, you deserve it.

3. Communication

Something that goes a long way to being trusted is having good communication skills. This often involves giving people frequent updates on how your work is progressing. While it may initially seem unnecessary, when you think about the fact that the person instructing you might be getting chased by a more senior colleague for this completed piece of work, it makes their life easier if they know exactly where you are. You look good and they look good.

You can develop this on your work experience or on vacation schemes. Often you might get pulled in two different directions with similar timeframes and a quick word with whoever instructing you gives them confidence in your ability to stay on top of things and get the job done.

4. Teamwork

Is this starting to look like a clichéd careers list? Well that’s because employers rate these skills so highly. One thing that I have learned (and am still learning) is about other people and how best to work with them. Some people might be more direct and solutions focused, some people might like to take their time to look at a problem logically before coming to a conclusion and some people are creative in how they solve problems. All of these personalities are found in the legal profession and it’s about understanding others and how you can adapt your approach to work with them.

Presentations or group activities at university are great ways to work with others and improve your ability to work as part of a team. While one overly confident student might get away with the 'my way or the highway' approach to a presentation at university, it won’t be long before they are forced to learn how to work with others in the workplace.

Read: The Burges Salmon running club – a different type of teamwork

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What I learned in my first year as a trainee solicitor

Before you walk into that conference room remind yourself that you did this on the other side of the world wearing elephant print pyjamas.
Mel Mahon, Trainee Solicitor

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