COMMON QUESTIONS & INSECURITIES

4 December 2015.
By Will Foulkes.

Anyone who wants to become a solicitor in the UK needs to get a training contract with a law firm. These training contracts last for two years and form the professional part of a student lawyer’s training. At the end of the two years, provided all has gone well, the trainee solicitor becomes qualified and can start to practise law unsupervised. The training contract is therefore an essential part of becoming a solicitor and convincing a law firm that you are a worthy candidate to join their firm and be trained by them, is the biggest hurdle to overcome. The journey to getting a training contract can be challenging, not least because there are many different steps to be understood and completed, but also because of the high level of competition for each place. Because the places are scarce and hard to obtain, applicants can find themselves confronting some quite powerful fears and insecurities as they progress. We want to address these now.

Why is it important to address these concerns?

The short answer is that the potentially debilitating power of our own insecurities should not be underestimated. The most obvious negative impact of our fears and insecurities regarding the unknown, is that they can stop us applying altogether if we deem ourselves unable either to beat the competition and get a training contract or ultimately to work at a certain firm. However, they can sabotage us in ways we don’t realise as well. The most common is a student not giving his all to an application form for a top law firm because deep down he does not believe that he has a chance of working there, but he submits an application simply because he feels he ought to.

In order to avoid these scenarios, we have put together some common insecurities with ways of how to address them based on feedback from successful candidates. It is important to note that everybody feels some of these at some point. If any of them apply to you, take heart you are not alone. The good news is like all fears all you need is a strategy to deal with them.

 

“I’m not smart enough to be able to work at the top.”

If you are studying a degree in a recognised subject, with a good academic record, then chances are you have what it takes in mental power to be a lawyer. There is a myth that being a lawyer requires you to know the answer to any question in your field, and by extension therefore, to have a fantastic memory and power of recall. Working as a lawyer is about being able to know where to look to find the answer to a client’s question and using your imagination to think of a solution to a problem, rather than learning vast amounts of case law by heart. Research ability is therefore key, and something with which most degrees equip you.

Other skills such as drafting and negotiation are learned on the job. You need to be able to know how to write well, but you don’t have to be Dante. In fact it may even serve as a disadvantage if you are used to writing in a long form style, as this is a field where being clear, concise and to the point is a necessary ability and for some it is difficult to shed the desire to elaborate beyond what is required.

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“What academics do I need? Do they only offer positions to people with 1st Class degrees?”

Let’s be honest, almost all the top firms ask for AAB at A-level and a 2.1 at university. That said, if you did not get (or are not on target to get) that, then all is not lost! If there are extenuating circumstances you will be able to discuss these in your application form. The reality is, that what you achieved at university is more relevant than what you achieved at school. So it is easier to explain away less than stunning A-levels if your university academics are consistently high. They will ask for a full transcript of all the marks you ever got, along with the names of the modules you took. So if you are reading this towards the beginning of your degree it is worth working hard throughout, rather than the “sprint finish” approach favoured by the people of the “first year doesn’t count” school of thought. But ultimately it is what you get at the end that really matters so make sure it is a 2.1 or, dare I say it, a First. In a world where almost everyone has a 2.1, if you can get a First then you have taken the first (no pun intended) step to differentiating yourself from your peers.

 

“I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge or one of the other highly respected institutions.”

More and more top-tier law firms are diversifying their intake so you do not need to be concerned if you did not go to one of the top institutions. The reality is that they still look to the top universities because tradition dictates that the smartest people must go there and therefore by extension that they are the best source of future lawyers. There is an enduring competition between the top firms to get Oxford and Cambridge graduates, so undoubtedly that gives those students an advantage.

However, graduate recruitment teams are actively looking for good quality candidates from different universities, and the problem is that there is a real but falsely placed sense of inadequacy from students at other universities that means that they are holding themselves back. I have talked with a lot of students who, before talking to me, weren’t even thinking of applying to certain firms because they thought their university alone would disqualify them. This is a terrible myth. If you know you are good, give yourself the opportunity to show it and  let them know who you are.

People can have a presumed advantage over you for all manner of reasons, they went to the right school, they know the right people etc. But some people let the excuse of others being better than them hold them back. I know, and you know you are better than that, so let’s start by eliminating this fear of the imagined opponent. Whenever you have a moment of insecurity, triggered either by meeting someone who seems amazing or by hearing about him/her, think to yourself, “whatever they have done in the past I have more now in the present. And because I want it more I will work harder and I will not rest until I achieve what I set out to achieve.” Be the tortoise that comes from behind and overtakes the hare.

 

“I wasn’t the captain of the rugby team or president of the law society. My extra-curricular activities were mainly partying.”

It is true that you will be up against some people whose CVs look impossibly well rounded. The good news for us more normal people is that there are not very many people like that. Also, the unfortunate reality is that people who are a bit too good, don’t tend to be very popular because most people’s reaction to them is to be a bit intimidated. Nobody likes to feel second best (especially hiring partners) and so the faintest impression of arrogance or self-promotion can result in them being rejected.

All graduate recruitment want to see, and the reason they ask for your extra-curricular activities, is that you are able to achieve academically while having a life outside the classroom. Basically that you did not just get your good grades because you spent every waking minute slogging it out in the library. Being a lawyer does require you to be very adaptable and to pick things up quickly and then be able to turn round almost immediately and explain them to a client. So a balanced student life shows you can do well without it just being a result of hard grind.

Another reason is that they want well-rounded people who can get on with clients, not complete nerds. If your main activity was partying, you can indeed play that up into “good social skills” but you want to think about adding a few more activities, such as a charity run (which required you to organise your training schedule and be self-disciplined enough to stick to it) or talk about your work experience.

 

“I don’t know why I want to do law.”

This is a question that you are almost guaranteed to be asked on the application form and at interview, so it is best that you get a real answer now before you take things any further. By real I mean one that you believe yourself. It is all very well saying the right thing to an interviewer and managing to convince them that your passion really is corporate law, but ultimately you are going to have to do that job and if deep down you hate the idea of the work, but love the idea of the pay-cheque it might be a good idea to question if this path will really lead to a fulfilled life. You have to want it for the right reasons. Money should not be the first.

If you are studying law, then you will have some idea of what a job in some law firms will involve. However, for commercial, corporate and financial law, you won’t really. A law degree is useful background knowledge, but in practice it is the skills that you learn on the LPC and on the job, that you will use day to day. Therefore it is worth finding out what the job entails i.e. what kind of work you will really be doing, not just as a trainee, but also as a junior and senior associate.

It is all very well doing basic and uninteresting work at the beginning (we all have to start somewhere) but if it ultimately leads to something which is still boring but with more stress then again query if that is really something for you. So look not just to the trainee work but also to that of associates and even partners.

That said a lot of people do really enjoy the work. Working as a lawyer for a large international firm can offer you a variety of challenges that it is difficult to match in any other type of work. In many jobs (such as roles in investment banking, corporates, advertising etc.) you are there to do exactly that, a job. You have a role to fill, whether that is making trades, writing reports on how well a section of a business is performing, selling products or the more mundane administrative tasks that large organisations require people to do in order for them to function.

Working as a lawyer on the other hand requires you to have a certain amount of knowledge but then to be able to use that knowledge in an incredibly adaptable way including running a transaction from an operations perspective and guiding your client through the different stages, advising them of their obligations and steering them away from pitfalls, giving advice on what they can and cannot do and how to best achieve what they want to achieve commercially. It can feel empowering to be advising someone of great stature in the corporate world how best to do something, and to ‘add value’ by suggesting ways of doing things that have not previously been considered.

Technically you are providing legal services to your client, but in reality you are holding their hand through sometimes very time-pressured and stressful processes where they rely on you to be the calming influence in the storm. There is a steep learning curve, and you will be challenged regularly and forced outside of your comfort zone, but to many (myself included) this is a good thing as you do not have time to get bored. There is no concept of clock watching, waiting for 5.30pm to come around so you can chip off home to your pot noodle and Eastenders.

Each day is dynamic. This uncertainty can be frustrating because you do not know when you will be able to attend social events but at the same time it stops you becoming stale. With technology allowing remote log-in, most firms will be flexible and allow you to work from home when the occasion demands it, so if you have a pressing engagement you will more often than not be able to leave the office and finish up your work later.

 

“I have heard some scary stories about the hours lawyers work. I have never done anything like that and I am worried that I won’t be able to hack it.”

The truth is nobody knows when they start how they will stand up to the challenges of this job and people do fare differently. How much you can/want to work is an individual thing. I will say briefly (more later on work practices) that there is a great deal of exaggeration and under-productive working methods in this profession. For some it is a case of bragging rights. For others they take longer to learn, or are less willing to decide that what they have done is satisfactory and so continue to rework material.

There are those who simply don’t know any other way than working long hours. That was how they did it at university and that is how they continue at work. Finally there is an internal pressure, created by each round of trainees, that nobody wants to be the one leaving early all the time as it looks like they are not getting any work (because they are bad) or because they fear being seen as shirking their share of the work burden.

Undeniably if you are going to work as part of the legal elite you are going to have to work long hours sometimes. But that doesn’t have to be all the time. At the end of the day though you need to be responsible for protecting your own time and making sure you get out when you can. A wise man once said that to do great work you must also learn to be idle. Too many people in this profession think that in order to produce good work you need to be busy all the time. On the contrary, having some down time (read — a life outside the office) is essential for you to come at your work fresh and energised. You will do better as a result. Believe this now, and be prepared to ignore the frightened majority who will tell you otherwise when you start.

When you are required to work hard and late, dive in. Working and studying are very different, and whilst you may feel that you could not study all night, you can work all night. As you would think, things tend to take longer to do and what you produce is rarely your best work (and should probably be checked…) but you will be surprised what you can manage. It is very rare that you will be required to work for sustained periods of time without much sleep and it is usually recognised when you have done so and you are given a chance to recover.

In short, don’t let the stories of working hours put you off. They are frequently exaggerated and when it does happen it is not nearly as bad as you imagine.

Hopefully this is useful. The key message is that these sort of questions and insecurities come up for everyone, the important thing is that you do not let them get the better of you. Instead start taking practical steps to improve your knowledge and increase your confidence in your own ability.