Trainee blog: What you should not know about getting a training contract

A recurring trainee job is to assist annually with the orientation, support and general stewardship of applicants for future training contract places. This is a tidy opportunity in many respects: you (a trainee) can revel in the relief of never having to undergo anything as eye-widening as an assessment day again; there is invariably a free lunch with the applicants, always a good one; and, from your safe place on the right side of the bottleneck, you can observe people on their best form, interpreting your environment with fresh eyes and making broadly excellent personal sales pitches. A vacation scheme is like a nature documentary of hatchling turtles on a midnight pacific beach, all scrambling past sundry dangers to reach the safe open sea; you just want them to make it and for David Attenborough to narrate the whole thing.

The way to behave in a high-stakes professional interview scenario is a kind of inorganic presentational compromise. On the one hand, applicants need to exhibit their deep selves, their unique experiences and the traits that make them personally suitable. On the other, they need to show professionalism, acceptance of an office environment and an enthusiasm for a vast industry that contains everything from unit trusts to Tomlin orders. Judicious research and some legal experience will arm you for this aspect but, by definition, you will have only a beginner’s knowledge. Commercial awareness, the essential component of a successful application, is more an introductory understanding of the topography of the profession and its clients, and interviewers also look beyond this and assess the dicey element of pure potential – how they think you will deal with things that you don’t yet know you don’t know.

The first six months of my training contract were a wind tunnel – even having been a paralegal at the firm for three years before beginning my training, the pace, intensity and nakedness of starting something entirely new, and then starting again at every seat change, requires some real flexibility of expectation and robust self-belief. Starting each new seat was not unlike the application process – putting your safe experience to one side, albeit somewhere you can still reach it, and projecting yourself onto a whole alien landscape.  

Towards the final months of training, you are expected to stand generally unaided and present developed solutions where possible.  This is no issue in smaller, procedure-driven matters, but trainee involvement in the hefty stuff, like High Court trials and grand development projects, and in reality just anything that isn’t fundamentally comprehensible and straightforward, can still sometimes feel like showing up to help build a tower block with a toy tape measure and a clown nose. Although it gets easier there are, particularly in the early months of each seat, an awful lot of known and unknown unknowns.

A healthy respect for what you don’t know is useful; primitive humans were right to fear the dark because it probably had a panther in it. Caution about the unknown does not end on qualification and, when you ask qualified lawyers how long it takes to shed the feeling of never being completely sure that what you are doing is right, generally they wryly tell you 'x' years, 'x' being the number of years since they qualified; some quickly add that they are just joking and some do not. All of them say that confidence comes with experience. Reassurances notwithstanding, when I watch partners giving total masterclasses in difficult meetings under extreme pressure, I sometimes encounter the same feeling as when watching clips of BMX riders backflipping flights of stairs - this athlete is disrespecting gravity in a way that is in no way provided for by nature, so how do you gather the technique and the gumption to do something like that for the first time? How do you practise something that unforgiving?

A training contract is a combination of traditional learning, observing the techniques of people with years of experience and transposing what you know onto what you don’t. Your supervisor steers you, approves substantive work before it leaves the building and maps out strategy and approach, and this then is a time to take chances: form your own hypotheses and perform the acrobatics of a solicitor over the safety net of your supervisor’s final say. I was delighted to learn that BMX riders initially try out tricks involving near-guaranteed harm in foam pits, like old swimming pools filled with padding, which sounds both safe and just lovely.

Your entire training contract and beyond will be about dealing with things you have never seen before so, beyond good academics and a working understanding of the industry, as an applicant your interviewer wants to be reassured that you can think quickly, argue by analogy and make up for inexperience with energy, attentiveness and patience. You are having your fortune told and you want it looking sensational.