‘I Wish I’d Known That I’d Eventually Get A Training Contract’

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In the latest instalment of the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, Financial Times general counsel Tim Bratton laments worrying so much about his early job hunt failures.

I wish I’d known then…

…that those law students with the loudest voices do not have an exclusive right to be lawyers. My university certainly had more than its fair share of students whose confidence was not always proportionate to their ability. I wish I’d known that those with louder voices than mine in tutorials did not necessarily know more than me – and certainly had no more chance than I did of being a lawyer.

That playing the networking game is important even when a student. I can remember a morning spent in a hotel meeting room, where about 30 of us had been invited by a City law firm following a drinks event the night before. I naively had no real idea what for. When I arrived I found a clearly quite forced and artificial debate in full flow between some students and representatives of the law firm. I froze, not really seeing how I could contribute to such a manufactured conversation, nor having any desire to do so. The outcome was that many of my peers got summer placements with said firm, but I did not. I wish I’d known that superficial networking is occasionally necessary to get noticed, however unfair that may seem.

That I would eventually get a training contract. Like most law students, I found it difficult to get one. Multiple applications, multiple interviews, multiple rejections, deferring a year etc…It is difficult not to become disheartened and think that you will never find the holy grail. Some degree of failure is almost inevitable for everyone except the very top applicants. You have to keep plugging away – that won’t guarantee success, but nor will giving up. While it is important to tailor applications and interviews for the individual firm, there is no escaping the fact that getting a training contract is to some degree a numbers game. I wish I’d known that a lot of rejected applications didn’t necessarily mean I would not eventually secure a training contract.

That joining a law firm does not mean you need to want to be a partner. Let’s be honest, how many students interviewing for training contracts even know what it means to “be a partner”. Yet it’s kind of assumed when you join a firm that you must aspire to be one. And so as a trainee or a junior lawyer you kind of have to pretend – even make yourself believe – that you too want to join this hallowed club. Here’s a tip: get a job in a law firm, enjoy it for what it is, get some cracking experience and don’t even think about whether or not you want to be a partner until you are five years or so into it. If you then decide that’s what you want to do, great: go for it. If you decide it isn’t, that’s equally fine. I wish I’d known that it was okay not to think too hard about what a long-term career in a law firm would look like.

That corporate law is important, fundamental to the way the world works and can even be fun. As a junior lawyer I shied away from corporate work. I avoided it until my last training seat, at which point I was grateful to find myself working for a partner as keen as me to watch World Cup ’98. My dislike for corporate work continued when I qualified, generally loathing the support role I provided on acquisitions via my developing my IP/IT specialism. Certainly, I didn’t take the trouble to think about why ‘corporate’ was the biggest department in the firm, nor how all the different parts of an acquisition fitted together.

It was only years later when I was in-house that I began to understand what all the fuss was about. I now find the conclusion of a corporate project one of the most satisfying things to do as a lawyer. I wish I’d known that corporate law shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, and as completely distinct from IP, IT or media. I wish I’d known my way around a share purchase agreement before I moved in-house.

That lawyers don’t tend to run companies. Accountants and MBA grads do. Just think about that when submitting your application for a training contract. Really!

If I’d known all these things then I might have stressed just a tiny bit less about my law studies, a lot less about obtaining a training contract and a lot lot less when a trainee. Oh yes, and it might have taken me less time to know my escrow from my earn-out (look it up!).

Tim Bratton is the general counsel of the Financial Times and author of thelegalbratblawg.