Being a trainee: 8 realities of the job

London sunset

At the Chambers Student Guide we're not in the habit of sugar-coating anything. Here are some blunt truths about being a trainee solicitor.


TRUTH 1: Don’t expect nine to five.

Dolly Parton didn’t sing about a solicitor’s clocking-off time in her famous ditty for good reason. The long hours at City firms are well documented: a standard day is usually 9am to 8pm. And at one typical City firm trainees told us of outliers of “weeks of staying until 2am” and “six weeks where I rarely left before 11pm.” At smaller firms and practices outside the City the hours are better, but even here you can occasionally expect to need to come in early, work through your lunch break or stay late.


TRUTH 2: Don't expect to do intellectually challenging work.

Law is an intellectual discipline to study at university, but the trainee experience ain't so. Expect to do plenty of administrative tasks like form filling, taking notes, calling people and arranging meetings. Because of the rigours of the law these tasks are all important and may make your head hurt, but they are not what you’d call intellectually or academically challenging. Once you're qualified you may actually get to grapple with the law. 


TRUTH 3: Don't expect to be giving clients legal advice.

Yes, most trainees get client contact, but they are usually just in contact with someone to ask for documents, arrange meetings, get things signed off etc. If you're working with a big company the person you're in contact with is usually just another lawyer. Only at high-street and legal aid practices do trainees regularly give direct advice to clients (usually individuals), and even this will be supervised.


TRUTH 4: Don't expect to be on the side of the angels. 

As a commercial lawyer you can expect to be asked to do transactional or advisory work for businesses or organisations which the general public may see as unsavoury, eg offshore companies, tax avoiders, tobacco firms, shady governments or oil companies. Some trainees find it hard to reconcile representing a client they take moral issue with; others take a more detached stance with the view that all parties, no matter who they are, must have fair legal representation if we’re to uphold the rule of law. We tackle this issue in more detail on our feature on Ethics and the law.


TRUTH 5: Expect to start at the bottom of the totem pole.

Law firms are hierarchical institutions – more so than businesses in most other professions, especially the creative sector. The partners are at the top and they call the shots; trainees do as they are told. Within this structure you work your way up as a lawyer year by year, slowly increasing what you earn, how much responsibility you have and your influence over the business. 


TRUTH 6: No two law jobs are the same.

Each law firm and each area of practice offers something different. There is no one solicitor 'type' – different skills and attitudes are needed for different roles. So don't let anyone convince you that just because you don't have what it takes to be a lawyer in a certain area, you can't be a lawyer at all. And listening to one lawyer about their job doesn’t mean you know what lawyers do. The True Picture can help you differentiate between employers.


TRUTH 7: Law firms love themselves.

Most law firms aren’t quite as vain or image-brainwashy as Apple or Google, say, but you are expected to buy into the firm’s ethos. In fact, getting a training contract is a challenge if you fail to embody the firm at interview. Law firms are getting more and more marketing savvy so as a trainee you can expect to get involved in plenty of (after hours) business development and networking events with your glad rags and serious face on.


TRUTH 8: It's a tough gig to get for a reason

Hopefully you know that getting a training contract is a competitive affair. (If you don't then 
read this.) And there's a good reason for that: being a trainee is demanding. You're expected to work hard all the time, deal with competing demands, always be responsive, get to know several different practice areas, impress your seniors... and then there's retention to worry about. But if you want real a challenge from your career, law might be it. 


This feature was first published in January 2016.