Basically, a training contract is the step between your academic life and your life as a fully qualified solicitor.
Most training contracts are taken on a full-time basis and last two years. Part-time options are much rarer: they last three years and allow you to learn while you earn, balancing the LPC (or GDL) with part-time training at a firm. There is also a part-time option for those who have already completed their LPC. It involves working a minimum of two and a half days per week for up to four years.
Training contracts must comply with SRA guidelines. The most important of these are:
- It’s a training contract not an employment contract: this means it is nearly impossible for you to be sacked. For a training contract to be terminated there must be mutual agreement between the firm and trainee, a cancellation clause (like failing the GDL or LPC), or a formal application to the SRA when issues cannot be resolved internally. Instances of trainees being fired are extremely rare: one famous sacking was that of 300 hunk Gerard Butler, who was rumoured to have been fired the week before qualification because he was always drunk and miserable.
- Trainees must gain good experience in at least three areas of English law and experience both contentious and non-contentious areas of law. Some firms send trainees on litigation courses that allow the fulfillment of the contentious requirement without them having to do a full contentious seat.
- Trainees must complete the Professional Skills Course.
The norm is to spend time in four departments over the two years (six months in each). Each stint is called a seat. At some firms you’ll find yourself doing six four-month seats or some other more bespoke arrangement. At very small firms it’s likely that your training won’t be as structured. Repeating a seat is common, more so during six-seat schemes. Typically, repeat seats are in either the firm’s largest department or the department in which you hope to qualify.
Besides the SRA’s contentious/non-contentious requirement, some firms may require that you do a seat in one or more particular departments over the course of your training. For the other seats, firms usually ask you to identify your preferred departments and try to best accommodate your wishes. However, be forewarned that the most common gripe we hear from trainees is over the fairness and transparency of seat allocation – keep in mind that you can’t always get what you want.
You will be allocated a supervisor in each seat who will be responsible for giving you assignments and (hopefully) helping out with any questions you have. Supervisors are typically mid-level to senior associates/assistants or partners. Usually you will share an office with your supervisor or sit near to them in an open-plan setting. You may also have the opportunity to spend a seat (or part of one) seconded to one of your firm’s clients or in one of its overseas offices. Appraisals are important and most firms will arrange a formal meeting between trainee and supervisor/HR at the end of each seat and probably also midway through. Appraisals typically count when firms are deciding who gets to take up client or overseas secondments and those coveted jobs on qualification.
What the experience entails:
- Long hours are almost a given; however, they are more likely when you work at a large, international or corporate/finance-foused firm. They are less likely at litigation-led firms and smaller domestic advisory or boutique firms.
- There is a hierarchical structure to law firms, and while this is felt more strongly at some firms than others, trainees should be prepared to start at the bottom.
- Luckily, you will have the rest of your trainee intake as back up. Trainees tend to be close-knit and most firms provide some sort of budget for trainee socialising. Larger firms with larger intakes of trainees tend to have more active social scenes.
- You’re not guaranteed a job at the end of it. If you’ve done well, the firm will retain you on qualification, finding you a job in a department that you’ve come to love… or in a department that needs new junior lawyers. The firm that trained you is not obligated to keep you: your contract with the firm is for the period of your training only. Our research shows that about 80% of qualifying trainees stayed at their firms in 2011, the other 20% either elected to look elsewhere or were forced to. You should regard your training contract as a two-year job interview.
The main thing to remember is that the purpose of training is to learn about several areas of practice and find your spot in the profession. One training partner put it perfectly when he said: “Trainees should view the training contract as an opportunity to be a sponge and soak up all the right ways to be the lawyer they want to be. Keeping an open mind and soaking up the most idiosyncratic things can really put you ahead.