You'll hear a lot of rumours about being a lawyer. Here are seven tall tales that aren't true.
MYTH 1: Trainees are often 'chained to the photocopier.'
Responsibility levels are usually pretty decent at commercial law firms. They hire trainees in order to do commercially important work, not admin tasks which can be done by someone on £10 an hour. Much of the work will require some intellectual effort and the ability to plan and organise. Expect document management and scheduling. But do not expect to be asked to draft a treatise on the law of the seas.
MYTH 2: It's unusual for a law firm to have a small trainee intake.
You may think a lot of commercial firm have big trainee populations, but you'd be wrong. Of the firms in the True Picture only three have a trainee intake of 100 or more and just ten have one of over 60. Most firms have a small or mid-size intake. Relatively speaking an intake of 30 trainees is quite big. Don't let firms pull the wool over your eyes: an intake of 60+ is massive, 25 to 60 is large, ten to 25 is medium/average and under ten is small.
MYTH 3: A 'face-time' requirement is common at law firms.
Trainees often say they're only expected to stay late if there's work to do, not for the sake of it. This is normal. At some (more traditional) firms it's common to shadow your supervisor's hours, but mostly you stay late because there's work to do. If work/life balance is important to you, find out how often trainees actually work late, not if they have to stay regardless.
MYTH 4: Most law firms are strictly hierarchical.
Hierarchies exist but are rarely felt directly. We've never heard of a firm where trainees call the partners 'Mr' and 'Ms' (though one probably exists somewhere). Trainees usually work within co-operative teams, and often feel treated as equals. At the same time, no firm has a truly flat hierarchy. The partners are the boss and earn the most. The trainees do as they are told and are at the bottom of the lawyer totem pole.
MYTH 5: It's rare for a firm to be friendly or have an 'open-door' policy.
It's a well-worn cliché, but many law firms – if they don't have an open-plan layout – genuinely have a policy requiring lawyers to leave their doors open if they're not on a call or in a meeting. Whether or not this means the individuals in the office are actually more friendly and approachable is question that's up for debate. Read the True Picture on each firm to find out.
MYTH 6: Lawyers are always in court shouting 'objection' at the judge.
Even solicitors who work in litigation departments don't usually spend much time at court. The most you can hope to do as a trainee at a big or mid-size firm is to go along and watch a barrister in action, or deliver documents to the judge. If you're at a smaller firm (especially outside London) and work in an area like employment or crime, you're much more likely to get active court experience.
MYTH 7: Graduates are nastily competitive about who gets to stay with the firm at the end of the traineeship.
Most trainee cohorts get on pretty well and don't stab each other in the back when it comes to retention. NQ retention can be a competitive process. But trainees know they will be judged on merit and attempt to excel on this front – going above and beyond expectations by staying late and doing extra work – rather than doing over their peers. Where NQ processes differ is in how well organised, transparent and fair they are.