“Being proactive is the name of the game,” says John Smith, a newly qualified solicitor at leading independent law firm Burges Salmon. “As a trainee, you could probably get away with keeping your head down and muddling along. But I don’t think that is the right way to go about it. You need to actively seek out experience.”
Smith (pictured above) encourages trainees who really want to do something “to go and ask for it or go and find it”. “No one is going to second-guess your needs” he adds, explaining that “firms value trainees who offer to help and get involved”.
The rookie lawyer, who is based at Burges Salmon’s HQ in Bristol, was lucky enough to secure a training contract at the firm which was voted Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Firm of the Year 2017, achieving some of the highest scores in our survey for training and quality of work. But his “don’t be shy” attitude would apply anywhere — indeed, perhaps even more so at firms that place less emphasis on developing new recruits.
Originally Smith planned to be a doctor, but he turned to law after a law student came to talk at his school and suggested he read ‘About Law’, an introduction to different areas of law written by Professor Tony Honoré. He recalls:
It was a page-turner for me. What I took away from it was that law impacts every single area of our lives — and that felt like something I wanted to be involved in.
Having secured a place at Bristol University, Smith repositioned his sights to becoming a barrister, after watching a BBC documentary series about the bar which chimed with his love of drama. But law firms caught his attention while at university thanks to their presence on campus. Four vacation schemes later, he had worked out he was more suited to the solicitor route, partly thanks to his growing interest in the commercial world.
By the time he started his training contract at Burges Salmon in 2014, Smith was pretty clear in his mind that he wanted to specialise in employment law. So he aimed to tailor his training towards that goal. “To a certain extent you do need to control your own destiny when it comes to seats, and be clear about what your preferences are,” he says.
At the same time Smith believes that trainees should keep “an open mind”. He continues:
Clearly, there will sometimes be a business need for trainees in certain seats. So you will have to be open to other areas.
For instance, Smith was pleasantly surprised by his four months doing pensions law. “It wasn’t something I had ever considered previously but I ended up really enjoying my seat there and the team were fantastic,” he says. At Burges Salmon each trainee has a meeting with the people team half way through each seat to discuss how it is going and to plan for the next seat. Trainees do six seats of four months each rather than the more orthodox four-seats-in-six system.
Your training is a key stage in the transition from student to solicitor, to get to know the whole firm and build your own internal network, believes Smith. “It is a great opportunity to meet other people at the firm and work with them,” he says. “You are laying the foundations for excellent working relationships in the future.”
Those two years are, above all, about getting experience and exposure to real cases or transactions. The more responsibility you have, the steeper the learning curve. “Although you cannot always control how much responsibility you’ll be given, and must accept that different departments will take different approaches, this is something you can also try and influence by having the right attitude,” he says.
Part of this is about building up a rapport with partners or senior lawyers who will be key in determining what kind of work trainees in the department do. Smith comments: “I was initially very worried about saying and doing everything perfectly and this sets up a false barrier. I should have been a bit more relaxed. You have to remember that they have chosen you for a reason. And they are human after all.”
Smith is three-quarters of the way through his first year as a qualified employment solicitor. He says he is learning a huge amount and what worried him even three months ago no longer does.
But in that transition from student to solicitor, you are going to make the odd error. Smith says this is part of what training is about: “Mistakes are inevitable so ‘fess up to them immediately. Don’t, whatever you do, try and cover over them. Your traineeship is when you will be forgiven. Mistakes are what you learn best from.”
It’s good advice. As one very wise person once put it:
A person who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
For more information on our Professional Skills Course please visit the course page.