Trainees: wannabe solicitors or bona fide dogsbodies?

Now in the final seat of my training contract, increasingly I have been looking back at my last 20 months as a trainee solicitor, and considering how typical my experience has been. In particular, how are my peers in other firms treated and how does that treatment ultimately affect the calibre of their training contract?

The shocking news of intern Moritz Erhardt collapsing and dying after allegedly pulling 3 consecutive all-nighters at the London bank he was trying to secure a full-time post with sparked a debate about who was protecting budding employees. The idea that someone could literally work themselves to death trying to impress a prospective boss, fortunately turned out to be more salacious than gospel, but the story got me thinking about the lengths to which desperate young people will go to try and secure a job in competition with the mass unemployed. Crucially, to what extent are employers willing to take advantage of the young graduates' clear desperation? And how will this situation affect their future careers, a point particularly pertinent to trainee solicitors, who may well find that although a training contract gives you the foot in the door to a potential job, that does not automatically mean it will provide you with the calibre of training to equip you for your future career. 

I often hear horror stories about trainees/interns who are effectively no more than a glorified tea caddy or who spend 90% of their two years' training fused to a photocopier in their bid to secure a job. The more amusing 'trainee jobs' that I have heard include being asked to untie a particularly tricky knot, and locate a phone charger for a battery-dead Partner! That having been said, as a trainee there is actually a real advantage in being involved in the 'basics', (as long as that isn't all you are doing), as it affords you an invaluable working knowledge of your firm, something that often more senior solicitors lack totally! Similarly, the interpersonal and networking skills derived from playing the role of catering staff at our numerous marketing events, are extremely beneficial. Whilst there have been a few occasions where the trainees at Michelmores have had to form the manpower behind a large document proofing task, I can count the 'menial' jobs I have been given on one hand. Recently there was a mammoth document proofing exercise where everyone, from Partners to secretaries had to pull together to hit a deadline; and there was absolutely no hierarchy in who would stay to do the grafting that was required.

Throughout my training contract I have been given real responsibility in each department. I have been actively encouraged, not just allowed, to run files and conduct client meetings with little supervision. I discovered that I began to work more proactively when I was allowed to work independently. Therefore, almost all of my personal and professional development has been directly linked to the level of responsibility that I have been trusted with.  This built my confidence in terms of my general 'solicitor skills' and meant that overall, I learnt a lot more than I would had I been chained to a photocopier. My first supervisor actually chastised me for offering to make him a cup of tea, telling me that I needed to remember that I was here to train to be a solicitor and not to make the drinks. It makes me feel hugely fortunate not only to have secured a training contract, but to have had the benefit of the firm's investment in my personal development as an individual and the calibre of training that affords me for my future career. 

Ultimately, the question has to be asked, should you seek to secure a training contract at any cost? Is a training contract where all you do is photocopy and make tea (or similarly undemanding tasks) really a training contract worth having? The accolade of being a trainee with a big name magic circle firm, may on closer inspection transpire to be a only a badge, with no real substance. Prospective trainees should be encouraged to remember that a training contract is meant to be a symbiotic relationship between trainee and firm, and not a one-way street sometimes akin to slave labour. It is hard to remember in such a competitive arena that you need to get the most out of your training contract, and it may be all too easy to be swept up in being offered an opportunity, without considering the calibre of what you are really being offered. 

This article was first published in Private Client Adviser on 10 June 2014 and is reproduced by kind permission (