Approaching Qualification

Having been there myself many moons ago (the 20th Century) I can relate to the nerves of steel required in the run up to finding out whether you will be kept on by your current law firm or, whether you will have to look elsewhere for an alternative NQ role. It is not unheard of that despite the fact that everyone within your firm should find out at the same time, some departments ‘spill the beans’ at different times. There is also the case of a trainee who repeats a seat in a particular department (usually their final seat) which can potentially give away the fact that they will be kept on. It may be the case that you have been told from a very early point in your training that there will not be any positions available on qualification. You may not want to stay where you are anyway. You may even want to leave the law!

No matter what the position is you have to be prepared and this means you have to make sure that all bases are covered. I am going to use September qualifiers as an example in my tips below.

You should be keeping a record of the legal experience that you are gaining at your law firm. No doubt you have a diary or note book that you have been compiling since the beginning of your training contract. Make sure that the interesting parts of your experience, particularly in terms of legal experience on different types of files are picked out and then, in summary format (and taking care not to disclose any names of parties to prevent breach of confidentiality) of no more than 3-4 lines each example, mention them under the specific seat it relates to. Incidentally, legal CVs are rarely two pages long. I would say three to four pages is more the norm. So, as an example, if you had a seat in the Commercial Litigation department, you might have been involved in a shareholders dispute in which case you could mention on whose behalf you were acting, the value of the claim, what was your involvement in the handling of the case and the outcome.
Whilst checking your CV please make sure that your grades are clear. I have seen many CVs which have omitted to say they had a commendation or distinction in their LPC. If you have it, shout about it. I am not saying that is what will get you a job but it’s a positive and it should be in black and white on your CV.
Find out from your HR team or the Partner responsible for trainees what the process is for applying for a job within the firm you are at and when it takes place. It may be the case that you will be informed of what jobs will be available across the firm and that you will have to make a choice. In any event, you will need to find out when a final decision should be made as to who goes where.
Once you know the timetable above you need to set aside 2-3 days of your holiday entitlement for interviews at other law firms. My personal opinion is that you should not wait to look around for alternative options outside your law firm once you are aware of the final decision internally. I would start looking around a month or so earlier. Keep it under your hat too. Law firms tend to make their minds up around May/June but I have heard of some that have made decisions even later! Pure torture! A positive to this is that many people go on interviews elsewhere and realise they could be on to a much better thing.
If you are going to look elsewhere to play safe, once you have your CV in decent shape, you need to consider which recruitment agency is best for your needs. One or two agencies should suffice and certainly no more than three at NQ level (you should only need one or two thereafter). Arrange to meet them in person if you can so that you can gauge whether they have good market knowledge and how long they have been in legal recruitment (particularly whether it has been in your local area). Equally important is whether you feel you can get on with the consultant, that he/she is going to be professional at all times and that they will be on your side. Make sure it is agreed that under no circumstances can they send your CV without your prior consent. Once you have given consent make sure you make a note of where you have allowed them to send your CV. In this way you can avoid duplication between recruitment agents. They will not be your friends for long if you do not communicate with them.
What happens if you are offered a position, but it’s not your preferred field or, you just want to know your options and are not sure what best to do? If in doubt, speak to a consultant as the area of law you select is most likely to be your area of law for life (people do not have the opportunities to cross over to other areas of the law as easily as 15-20 years ago). There is a real probability you will be pigeon holed. Some people choose to hold on until they find a job in their selected specialism. That is perfectly fine but do not stay out of the law for long. Some law firms, conscious of the fact that they are unable to offer their trainees a role on qualification, allow them to stay on a bit longer until they find something. How kind.
What if you are told there will not be a job for you at your current firm, you interview elsewhere and are offered a job which you accept, only to find out on the eleventh hour that your current firm now have a place for you? Well, that is when you are going to have to do some serious thinking. You have to keep everything in perspective, considering what it was about the firm that made you accept the role and whether, staying at your current firm would actually be a better job for you. If you took the other job purely out of desperation, it’s a no brainer as you will most likely stay where you are. Whatever you decide, communicate to your consultant. After all, he/she has worked hard for you and please telephone the law firm you are turning down (if you decide to stay where you are) and apologise. Do not email them, you are a professional so act accordingly and do not be a coward.

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