Jo Cowen
Posted on 16 Jul 2018

Trainee blog: Contentious work - to be or not to be

I've lost count of the number of times throughout my training contract that I have been told that I must be one or the other – that is, contentious or non-contentious. Although many trainee solicitors will have known from the start whether they were going to be a litigator or a transactional lawyer, I spent a lot of time at the beginning of my training worrying why I did not have an immediate preference.

What's the difference?

Contentious legal work relates to a dispute between two or more parties, which could involve litigation, mediation or arbitration (amongst others). Non-contentious legal work does not involve a dispute. It could either be transactional, for example advising a party on the sale of their business or the grant of a tenancy, or it could be advisory, such as providing tax planning advice.

My non-contentious seats

The first two departments I worked in were both purely non-contentious, but very different. My first seat in Education was a mix of advisory work (providing guidance on queries such as foreign teacher status and disability discrimination) and transactional (academy conversions and creation of Multi Academy Trusts). My second seat in Commercial Property was purely transactional with a focus on leasehold deals of varying sizes.

My contentious (and mixed) seats

In my second year, I knew that I had to give contentious work a try. My third seat was in Employment which was a mix of contentious/ non-contentious matters. The non-contentious side included drafting employment contracts and advising on issues such as poor performance and redundancies. The contentious work involved acting for both claimants and defendants on a wide range of disputes ranging from whistleblowing to sham redundancies. I am now in my final seat and my time is split between our London Corporate and Commercial Litigation teams. The Corporate part of the seat is purely transactional and involves advising on the sale or purchase of shares in a business. Unsurprisingly, the Commercial Litigation work is purely contentious! I draft court documents, prepare trial bundles and have visited the Royal Courts of Justice on a few occasions.

How do they compare?

Non-contentious work generally lends itself to shorter, more regular instructions and arguably the ability to build longer-lasting client relationships. There is also the opportunity to be involved with lots of legal drafting.  In my non-contentious seats, particularly Commercial Property and Employment, I tended to be given higher levels of responsibility and client contact, mainly due to the fact that there were a number of smaller matters that suited being run by a trainee.

My contentious seats have often involved more collaborative working within a bigger team. Some disputes, particularly if they end up going to trial, can last for years and therefore you're unlikely to see a dispute from start to finish within a six month seat. However, it is great to be involved with the different stages so that you are able to appreciate the huge amount of work that goes into each phase of a case. In contentious work, you also tend to have better control of your diary as deadlines are set far in advance by the court – this allows you to predict your own busy periods months in advance.

Which one am I?

Both! My training contract has taught me that it's ok not to be purely contentious or non-contentious, and it's also fine to start off thinking that you might be one and end up changing your mind (that's the importance of the seat rotation process). I am qualifying into the Employment team in September and one of its major selling points is the mix of contentious and non-contentious work. I like talking to clients daily and supporting them on their general queries, but advising on the occasional dispute is what makes a mixed department so interesting.

If you have any other questions on being a trainee please tweet us @MMTrainees.