The key differences between law school and legal practice – a trainee solicitor’s perspective

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By Grace Makungu on


From lectures to law firms, Grace Makungu details her experiences

My journey into the legal industry didn’t follow the typical trajectory of immediately securing a training contract after university. Instead, after graduating from Kingston University, I worked as a paralegal at several City law firms whilst completing my Legal Practice Course part-time.

During this, I secured a training contract at a full-service South-East law firm. I am currently in my second seat in the firm’s lending (finance) department having completed my first seat in dispute resolution. The transition from studying law to working in a law firm environment proved to be incredibly different. Although the experience varies significantly depending on the area of law, I draw out some of the key distinctions that emerged during my transition.

Theoretical vs Practical

Studying law largely involves diving into theoretical concepts and understanding the ins and outs of legal principles. However, when it comes to putting that knowledge into practice, you quickly realise that there is often not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Each case is unique and requires a thoughtful and tailored approach as outlined below.

As a law student, you spend a lot of time absorbing and memorising cases and statutes alongside some obscure Latin phrases. While this knowledge is important, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Once you start working in a law firm, it’ll be a given that you at least have an understanding of the basic principles in whatever area of law you’re working in. As a trainee, you are unlikely to be expected to be an expert in any specific area. The true test arises when you need to apply your knowledge to real life scenarios. This is where your research skills become important, as you may be tasked with conducting research and presenting your findings to your supervising partner or another lawyer who requested the work.

In practice, it’s not always about following the letter of the law. Sometimes, you need to think outside the box and find practical solutions that may not be obvious from textbooks. At university, it is often about identifying and applying the correct legal principles and reaching conclusions, whereas in practice, it’s about being creative in finding solutions that work for the client.

Working in a law firm will mean you’ll be faced with real life issues involving real people and / or companies with problems. Being empathetic is key, especially in sensitive areas like family law where emotions often run high. Understanding your client’s concerns can make a big difference in how you help them and while it is essential to focus on what your client hopes to achieve; this doesn’t mean mindlessly following instructions. Sometimes, it means having honest conversations with the client even though it may be something they do not want to hear. It’s about guiding the client towards the best possible outcome, even when it’s not easy.

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Disclaimer: you are unlikely to be expected to have these difficult conversations as a trainee!

Although your law degree lays the groundwork, it’s the practical experience that truly shapes you as a lawyer. It’s about being able to blend the theoretical knowledge with real world problem-solving to find the best solution that meets client needs.

Time recording

Understanding and effectively managing time recording is a skill in itself, yet this part of legal practice is often not taught at university. Mastering this skill early in your career can greatly benefit you once you qualify as a lawyer as time recording is standard at many private practice law firms.

Time recording serves multiple purposes within legal practice. Primarily, it allows firms to accurately assess the cost of the work being undertaken to bill clients accordingly. Additionally, it provides insights into productivity levels, helping to determine if targets are being met while also assessing workloads; for example, by identifying individuals who may require more work or those who may require more support, amongst other reasons.

Different law firms use various time recording platforms, such as Intapp, Carpe Diem, and others. Regardless of the specific platform, the fundamental importance lies in ensuring that all billable and non-billable hours are accurately recorded. This includes not only time spent on case related tasks but also non-chargeable activities like marketing and Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

Business development

Your supervisors won’t be expecting you to generate business as a trainee — but it’s never too early to start building your own network and get a handle on business development. It’s important to recognise that being a lawyer is more than just completing your work at your desk and leaving at the end of the day. A “clock-in, clock-out” mentality is not the best attitude.

LinkedIn is a great starting point. You may have noticed individuals frequently sharing events they’ve participated in, for instance, and these often serve a career development purpose. Whether it’s building client relationships, professional connections, or promoting your firm and its work, it all contributes to business development.

In today’s digital age, professional platforms like LinkedIn provide opportunities to engage with wider audiences, offering a wealth of knowledge through published articles and posts. If attending events in-person feels daunting, you can still participate by commenting on LinkedIn posts or sharing your own commentary on relevant news articles relating to your firm’s practice areas. Being active on LinkedIn boosts your visibility and expands your networking opportunities, which makes it a valuable tool for professional growth.

Grace Makungu is a second-seat trainee solicitor at TWM Solicitors and is based in London. She completed her LLB at Kingston University and worked as a paralegal in a range of City firms alongside undertaking her LPC.

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