05 July 2021

By trainee, James Edmonds

Which area of law do I want to qualify into? It’s one of the most important and most difficult questions for any law student or trainee. While the subjects you enjoy at law school can be a starting point, you really need some experience of working in a particular area before you can decide whether or not it’s for you. As a trainee in my penultimate seat, I thought I would share a bit of my experience about how the process of working out where I want to qualify has been for me.

I started in the Real Estate department here at Burges Salmon. I really enjoyed seeing the impact our work had on the surrounding area and on big national projects. Real Estate is largely a ‘transactional’ department, which means we give advice on and facilitate deals to develop, build, buy and sell property (amongst other things). These deals often involve multiple contracts or documents which interlink and work together like the moving parts in a machine. Really interesting – but I found my brain doesn’t really work like that. Others are better at ‘seeing the deal’ and working out where we need to tweak documents or argue for changes to make sure the deal works smoothly and achieves the client’s desired result. It helps in Real Estate is to be a natural ‘big picture’ person. The work can be fast-paced and you need to take pragmatic decisions quickly.

I then moved into Pensions. This is primarily an ‘advisory’ department – we give advice to pension scheme trustees, administrators and employers on questions like ‘can we make this payment under the terms of the scheme’s governing rules?’ or ‘are we complying with our obligations as trustees if we take this course of action?’. This requires more of a focus on particular questions, applying a close reading of the law or relevant documents with careful attention to detail to get the right answer. This suits me better – I am a logical person and I don’t like uncertainty very much! You also have that bit more time to consider carefully what you are going to advise or do. Of course, as you progress in seniority you need to become enough of a big picture person to understand the needs of a sophisticated team of trustees or a large scheme employer, but that’s something you can develop.

My next seat was UK Tax. This is effectively our Private Client unit, advising clients on matters such as wills, probate, estates and the associated tax issues (mainly relating to IHT and CGT). Again this was an advisory seat, and I got on with it for the same reasons I enjoyed Pensions. With Private Client, compared to Pensions, you are a little bit closer to the human side of things in that you will often be working for individuals or dealing with delicate family situations following a death. In Pensions you are a bit closer to the corporate world – often dealing with the pensions aspects of significant deals or advising a sponsoring employer in financial distress. So in terms of the ‘real world’ implications of our work the two seats are interesting for different reasons.

Next was Dispute Resolution. This is (no surprise) a ‘contentious’ department, where our role is to help clients who are in dispute with others understand their position, assert their rights and take pragmatic views of what can be achieved in difficult circumstances. This requires a whole set of abilities, from analysing facts and legislation, weighing up options, making tactical decisions and being creative to drafting documents and preparing for court hearings. I enjoyed the fast paced nature of the work and the fact that it was intellectually challenging with events unfolding in real time. The work is also very varied and you can find yourself exploring many different areas of law.

I am now in the Employment unit. This is a bit of a hybrid – we give advice to employers but also help them defend Employment Tribunal and other claims so there is a significant contentious element too. The unit is busy and most people are ‘all-rounders’ giving advice and dealing with claims. The law moves quickly and so we spend a lot of time making sure we are up-to-date on the latest issues. I am enjoying the mixture of work here and the ‘human’ element is really at the forefront: a definite plus for me.

So which department do I want to qualify into? Well, I have to tell the firm first! But hopefully you can see how I’ve been thinking about what suits me: what I’m good at and what I enjoy, as well as the ‘real world’ implications of our work and how much that interests me. The culture of a department and the people there also matter hugely as well – but remember that people will move and teams will change, but your practice area is something that is likely to stay the same for a while (though it is of course possible to change if you decide to want to).

Key contact

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Penny Bowring Resourcing Specialist

Legal Resourcing

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