Fact or Fiction? The truth behind life in a City law firm

An anonymous lawyer offers some myth-busting advice on what he wishes he’d known when trying to break into the profession

1. Every night is not an all-nighter

With recent research suggesting that more than 90% of young lawyers have felt under too much emotional pressure at work in the last month, it’s not surprising that many associate being a lawyer with punishing workloads and crippling stress.

Some firms are known to be greater slave-drivers than others (think US firms or magic circle) while in certain departments (like corporate or asset finance) insanely busy periods of all-nighters spent getting big deals “over the line” at any cost are often followed by boring lulls.

In my department, commercial property, you’re constantly busy juggling a large number of matters. But there will always be jobs which can wait until tomorrow. If you get it right (or don’t take it obsessively seriously) you can leave at a sensible hour and keep all your commitments outside of work. And keep most of your weekends too.

2. Soft skills are key

In the days before the start of my training contract, I remember frantically revising my Legal Practice Course (LPC) notes. I thought I’d be expected to know everything.

What actually gets you through the day as a trainee is knowing how to use your firm’s document management and IT systems. Then there’s appreciating the importance of your secretary as a life-changing source of firm knowledge and temporary bullshit-spouter if you’re not quite ready to speak to that client who’s called for an update. Being composed enough to give advice down the phone to a client while your supervisor is in the room (trust me, she’s listening) is also important.

My bulging file of LPC property law notes gathers dust above my desk to this day. I’ve had to remind myself of the difference between a lease and a licence a few times but getting the deal done ranks far above the fineries of black-letter law. Law school was useful in getting me through the door. But once you’re in you have nothing but your wits and soft skills to save you.

3. Qualification is not that bad

Almost from day one of my training contract, the prospect of “qualification” (when the firm decides who it will keep and who it will not) loomed large. Final seaters going through the process uttered bitter war stories about the horrors that lay ahead.

The uncertainty of whether you might find yourself without a job is unpleasant. Be prepared also for a bit of tension with others in your intake who might stop talking to you as they keep their cards close to their chest.

But it soon passes and you’re back to normal. Even if you are not kept on, you are likely to find a job elsewhere. I interviewed at a number of other firms. It was surprising how what had often felt like meaningless trainee paper-pushing actually seemed valuable to a number of others.

4. Mistakes happen, a lot

I made loads of mistakes as a trainee and I continue to make them. The prospect of that heart-stopping moment when you break out in a cold sweat as you realise what you’ve done never ends.

The further I got through my training contract, the more I learned which mistakes mattered and which didn’t. Misspelling a client’s name in an email to them is, while embarrassing, far removed from failing to submit a Stamp Duty Land Tax Return within the statutory deadline on the spectrum of cock-ups (I’ve committed both sins).

All errors can be rectified. When you make them, all you can do is try to learn from it and prevent the same thing from happening again.

5. Most people are quite nice

At my firm, there are about five or six complete bastards. That’s not bad for a workforce of 700.

In my experience, even the most senior head of department will converse with the lowliest trainee if it helps them do their job. Most partners remember what it was like to be junior and have fairly realistic expectations of trainees. So don’t worry. Unless you’re working for a complete bastard.

6. Legal practice is booooooooooooooooring

I’m not going to lie. As a trainee and as a junior associate, you will often be given work which is mind-numbingly boring. It breaks my heart every time I get a hapless trainee to check an entire commercial lease which has been copy-typed into a Word document against the original PDF version for typos. Honest.

But not all work is tedious. As a first-seat trainee I found myself addressing a High Court judge. While you sit at your desk slogging away through soul-destroying tasks, there will be people around you working on some potentially interesting things. Listen in and take an interest. As you climb the ranks, you will be given more responsibility and juicier tasks. Most departments are likely to give you as much work as you demonstrate you are capable of handling.

7. See the wood for the trees

Whether it be the sadistic bastard partners trying to terrify you right from the start, scarred final-seaters at the end of their training contract, or anonymous posters on online forums warning you ominously “Do not do it”, there will always be people trying to scare you about what a future in law might hold.

For every scary partner, there’s a nice one, for every hideous team whose work and culture you despise, there may be one you enjoy and fit right in with. Try to keep an open mind and take the advice for others with a pinch of salt. You only really know what something is like when you experience it for yourself.


Unnamed Lawyer is a non-law graduate from a Russell Group university, who crossed over to the dark side and converted to law. He is now an associate in the commercial property department of a City law firm.

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30 Comments

Anonymous

The first piece of genuine, impartial and sensible advice I have read on this website which, usually, just seeks to scaremonger as much as possible.

(84)(0)
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Anonymous

Shut up
I need everyone to stop acting as if Legal Cheek doesn’t normally uphold standards in their articles similarly to the one written above anonymously. All this fuss being made “bravo” “thank you for writing this” I’m sorry but the article wasn’t particularly well written or articulate it simply provided an insight. Wish everyone would calm down gosh.

(2)(7)
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Anonymous

“Law school was useful in getting me through the door. But once you’re in you have nothing but your wits and soft skills to save you.”

This. 100% this. If you’re a new trainee reading this (generally very good, informative and accurate) article and you only take one thing away it is this.

Just to put it in context, I was up against one other person when it came to qualification into a particular specialist department. She had done her dissertation and an LLM on that specialist area, as well as taking the standard and advanced optional modules on that area on the LPC. I had not even considered that area before I was forced to do a seat there, and had never had any formal education or training in that area whatsoever. I still got the job, though, because of my soft skills which I worked at and developed throughout my training contract. She is still not working in that area, six years later.

No one in the firm expects you to be an expert on a particular area of law. In fact, they generally expect you to be pretty useless at it because the law in every specialist area is vast and nuanced and the very best that academic training can give you is a foundation, not substance. So focus on being an excellent trainee and the legal knowledge will come to you (over years of practice).

(28)(7)
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Scep Tick

That says a huge amount about how much legal knowledge is valued. Some way below whether people can get on with you.

The most important bit of advice therefore is it doesn’t matter if you’re red-hot in a particular field, or even in law generally. That is assumed; and in practice you don’t need much legal knowledge, just the procedures and the precedents. But if you can charm the metaphoricals off a PLC…

(6)(0)
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Anonymous

You are right insofar as detecting typographical errors can be automated, but software for converting .pdf to .doc format can sometimes input incorrect words, particularly if it is a .pdf scanned document and it has to try and recognise text. In this situation, it wont always flag as a typographical error, because it is has replaced one word with another instead.

It is always worth proof-reading regardless of the value of the transaction, but if there is a lot of money involved then it is the best way to easily mitigate a potentially large risk.

(6)(0)
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Anonymous

A Scottish firm, the name of which escapes me and which was sadly swallowed up by an international, apparently used to get two trainees to sit in a room and read commercial leases backwards to one another to spot errors.

(2)(2)
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Anonymous

It’s a miracle! There haven’t been any posts from tosspots on this thread saying how tough and demanding their firm is but what big ‘dolla’ they screw down, and generally pretending to be the solicitor version of Gordon Gecko.

Nice article Mr/Ms Unnamed Lawyer. I enjoyed your sensible account.

(10)(0)
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Student interested in a law career

Terrible Legal Cheek journalism is one thing, but it’s hard to know what to believe when there’s so many tossers in the comment section.

(5)(4)
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The imaginary Lord Denning

Totally fictional, written by people who are failed lawyers and present an imaginary Alice in Wonderland portrayal of life as a lawyer, and do untold damage to any child who aspires to be a lawyer. This site should be shut down.

The truth is lawyers will not speak to LC, so LC is left to fairy tales and deletes all those who disrupt its make believe world.

(4)(14)
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Anonymous

It breaks my heart every time I get a hapless trainee to check an entire commercial lease which has been copy-typed into a Word document against the original PDF version for typos. Honest.

It seems unbelievable to me that anyone with any intelligence would not know that you can simply copy and paste text from a PDF!? Oh, the PDF is ‘locked’? Then go back to the source of the document and ask them for an unlocked copy, or better still the original document. Still no joy? Print the thing out, scan it back in as a PDF (if your photocopier doesn’t do this then you are stuck in the 1980s), then OCR it with Acrobat (some copiers even do this on the fly).

Right, so someone is still going to have to read it, but at least a bit of effort on your part would have saved someone else’s fingers. No wonder dealing with lawyers is so expensive, not an ounce of initiative between the lot of them.

(1)(12)
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BigLegalSucksBalls

You’re missing the issue here: this happens when the client wants a repeat but dumped its previous law firm for various reasons. They have the scanned PDF from the previous deal and you ask you secretary to do an OCR on it but it throughs a few errors if the scan is bad quality. So you need to go through it sentence by sentence to check.
NB: I’m not touching here copyright issues which go down the rabbit hole in such scenarios…

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Tim

Here’s a few other tips for breaking into the profession:

Do NOT be female, black or disabled.

But being racist, sexist and disablist will help you fit right in.

(2)(24)
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Anonymous

Utterly ridiculous.

With regard to gender, it’s a fairly even split when it comes to Trainees. Imbalances higher up are due to the historical situation which is being rectified over time.

As for race/disability, although it is not entirely equal (although not half of all people have a disability so that’s unrealistic with regard to the disability point anyway), it is a far cry from being a big disadvantage – and improving with time. Separate pathways into the profession exist for disadvantaged minorities. Moreover, law firms cannot unlawfully discriminate.

Your post is uninformed at best, and moronic scaremongering and excuse making at worst. If you are black/female/disabled, do not be put off from trying – work hard and ensure your application stands out and you stand as much of a chance as anyone else.

(3)(0)
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Anonymous

‘It breaks my heart every time I get a hapless trainee to check an entire commercial lease which has been copy-typed into a Word document against the original PDF version for typos. Honest.’

It breaks your client’s heart more having to pay by the hour for this. Honest.

(3)(1)
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Anonymous

It would break their heart even more to have a lease which is incorrect, with an error that would have been picked up by a proof read by the team member with the lowest hourly rate.

(11)(0)
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