Magic circle lawyer turned career guru Husnara Begum offers up her nine top tips to making a smooth transition from rookie to junior associate
How time flies. I have gained almost a decade’s experience supporting final seat trainee solicitors through qualification, initially as a legal recruiter and now as a career coach and outplacement specialist.
So, what have I learnt during these years about how to smoothly navigate this key career transition from trainee to a fully-fledged solicitor?
Think short, medium and long-term
It’s natural to focus on people when choosing practice areas to qualify into. But that shouldn’t be your only reason. Other factors to consider include: What direction would you eventually like to take? Are you planning to stay in law long-term or will you eventually want to try something completely different? Would you prefer to move in-house at some point? The latter point is a key consideration because some practice areas lend themselves much better to an in-house position while others are more suited for particular industries. Also, how do you feel about issues such as work/life balance? If this is an important consideration for you then qualifying into a non-transactional department is likely to be a better option.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Before making a final decision on whether to stay put it’s worth picking up the phone to some recruiters to gauge the state of the external market for newly qualified (NQ) solicitor jobs. This will hopefully give you a steer on whether to move on or stay. If you are thinking of moving on it’s definitely worth asking yourself whether this will be seen as a career enhancing move or potentially limit your options further down the line. For instance, if you move from a law firm into an in-house role on qualification then it may be challenging to return to private practice in the event you conclude the grass isn’t in fact greener.
Don’t take it personally and avoid playing the blame game
Missing out on an internal NQ position and the potential risk of unemployment can feel like a personal blow and for so many trainees on my outplacement programme this inevitably results in them feeling anger and resentment, especially towards their firms’ graduate development teams. This is completely understandable but blaming your exiting firm or team and then pulling the shutters down is counter-productive because you risk burning bridges. What’s more your current employer may be in a position to help by offering opportunities in alternative departments, temporary client secondments or even introduce you to other firms. Similarly, when talking to prospective employers about why you don’t have an internal NQ job, avoid being overly negative and focus on training contract highlights any pull factors that attract you to the teams you are interviewing with.
The lack of an internal NQ position is not a barrier to securing an external role. Indeed, for some trainees this is a blessing in disguise because it presents them with an opportunity to actively explore alternative options and potentially join teams that are a better fit or even a step up. That said, if you don’t hold an internal offer then expect to convince recruiters that this isn’t a result of under-performance. You can do this by offering to show redacted version of your appraisals and asking partners for personal references.
The NQ jobs market has always been competitive with the volume of candidates outstripping vacancies in most practice areas. And for as long as I can remember external NQ jobs in commercial litigation, and even more so in arbitration, are the most difficult to secure. With this in mind, it’s important to keep an open mind and if you’re struggling to find leads for jobs in your first choice practice area then it may be worth extending your search to others (preferably related ones). Other concessions worth considering are moving in-house or a potential relocation within the UK or overseas.
Follow the jobs
Using a recruiter who has been recommended to you is generally a good idea, especially if he or she has already made placements into firms that are of interest to you. That said, limiting yourself to one recruiter is not always the answer because agencies have an exhaustive list of clients and once approaches have been made to all of them then that really is the end of the road. It’s therefore worth speaking to a selection and staying in regular contact with the ones that have suitable vacancies as oppose to those who come across as friendly and helpful. After all, a recruiter might be as nice as pie but he or she is only as good as the vacancies they are instructed on.
Recruiters are not career advisers
Though experienced recruiters are a great source of market insight and can also offer advice on how to help plan your future career it’s worth remembering that when you make initial contact with them they will be determining whether or not you are what they call a ‘placeable’ candidate. With this in mind when talking to recruiters it’s important to present the best version of yourself because they will want more than an impressive CV to make you their priority candidate.
Networking really does work
Networking plays a very important role during the internal qualification process but it’s also a great way to unearth vacancies that don’t ever get to recruiters. But networking in the context of job search techniques isn’t just about going around with a begging bowl asking contacts if they can offer you a job. People in your network may also be able to help with CV review, interview preparation and also share inside information on teams you are considering applying to.
Treat advice with caution
I vividly recall one trainee on my programme say to me that when he told colleagues, friends and family that he had missed out on an internal NQ position, everyone including his neighbour’s pet dog was quick to fire advice at him. As well intentioned as this might’ve been some people are simply not qualified to offer advice (they can of course offer you words of encouragement and emotional support). Meanwhile, some advice is simply opinion and should be treated with caution. With this in mind it’s worth canvassing opinion from a broad mix of sources and if appropriate asking for evidence. Similarly, make sure any actions you take or decisions you make are based on fact and not assumptions.
Husnara Begum is a career coach and outplacement specialist with a particular focus on working with final seat trainees and junior associates. She has teamed up with the Law Society to host a free careers event for NQs where she will sharing more of her unbiased tips and advice on preparing for qualification. The event will be taking place at Chancery Lane on 28 April. Register to attend.