How to deal with upset colleagues – a post for January

Happy 2018 everyone!

Apparently January is one of the most unhappy months for many people – something to do with either the post-Christmas buzz or the stress of dealing with Christmas. So I thought I might revisit a topic that has interested me throughout my training contract so far – namely, how terrible most lawyers are at dealing with upset colleagues. Especially – although not exclusively limited to – male lawyers not knowing what to do when female colleagues are crying. The problem is exacerbated, I think, if your firm has open-plan offices. So much more awkward than having offices that both literally and figuratively compartmentalize the problem.

When a colleague has started crying or has been visibly upset, the typical response from others seems to be one or more of the following:

  • Ignore the problem” – Everyone stares at their computer intently, determined to avoid eye contact with the upset colleague.
  • Pretend everything is fine” – A variation of “Ignore the problem”, but extends to people giving the upset colleague work to do, while blithely pretending that nothing is wrong and everything is business as usual.
  • Mutter darkly to self” – Usually under one’s breath. Comments may include variations on “I don’t know why she’s bloody upset”, “I can’t fucking believe she’s crying again”, “Oh forcrissakes not the waterworks”, and “This is what happens when you take female trainees”.

My personal belief is that many lawyers – especially older, male lawyers – aren’t particular good with dealing with emotional stuff, especially in a public setting, and sort of “freeze” when a colleague starts crying, before defaulting to one of the above three settings.

So as a public service, I’ve decided to put together a flow chart that outlines suggestions on what to do when a colleague is visibly upset.

Enjoy.

Flow Chart.png

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Commercial Lawyer Meeting Bingo (aka 50 ways to retain your love for meetings)

Now we’re well into the festive season, the team at the Secret Trainee have come up with the below suggestions for “Commercial Lawyer Meeting Bingo” (aka 50 ways to retain your love for meetings) in time for the inevitable pre-Christmas flurry of meetings for deals that absolutely have to get done by Christmas Eve (or, as it often transpires, before mid-December, because that’s when the fund managers and senior bank director need to go skiing by).

Given the state of current affairs, there’s something of the political in there as well. Feel free to print out for all those boring meetings. Also, if you like a flutter, there’s scope to turn this into a betting game = just turn the figures below into odds – e.g. +1 becomes 1/1, +2 becomes 2/1 etc.

  • Revert +1
  • Close of play/business +1
  • Drill down into +2
  • Take a (commercial) view +2
  • Brexit uncertainty +2
  • Touch base +2
  • Connect/reach out +2
  • It’s on my radar +2
  • If Corbyn gets in +2
  • (We’re getting) pushback +2
  • Singing from the same hymn sheet +2
  • Ping [name of someone] a message +2
  • Drop [name of someone] a line +2
  • Low-ball +3
  • Sense-check +3
  • Dynamic +3
  • (Thinking) outside the box +3
  • Nationalisation +3
  • In the loop/Out of the loop +3 (as in “I have no idea what’s going on”)
  • Full disclosure +3
  • Boilerplate +3
  • Get over the line +3
  • Blue Sky Thinking +3
  • Chime in +3 (as in “Can I just chime in”)
  • Price point +3
  • Pain share +3
  • My understanding was that… +3 (as in “I don’t have a clue but…”)
  • Undercooked/Overcooked +3 (as in “this deal is undercooked”)
  • Vanilla +3
  • Red flag +3
  • Dovetail +4
  • Hammer things out +4
  • Dot the i’s and cross the t’s +4
  • Leverage all our resources +4
  • Gain traction +4
  • Belt and braces +4
  • Scope creep +4
  • Inshoring +4
  • Take ownership of +4 (as in “so-and-so really needs to take ownership of that document”)
  • Moving the goal posts +5
  • (Sending investors) running for the hills +5
  • Hand-holding +5 (as in “so-and-so definitely needs hand-holding – they haven’t a clue!”)
  • It’s like herding cats +5
  • Black box +5
  • [Name of other side’s lawyer] doesn’t have a bloody clue +5
  • Give the dog a bone +5
  • Silver bullet +5
  • Any reference to Chinese hacking/ stealing technology +8
  • Abortive fees +10

 

 

To BD, or not to BD, that is the question

Anna, who works at a mid-size City law firm, is back with some thoughts on why business development is so important for lawyers…

“Business development” is a phrase which is often thrown at trainees and junior lawyers without quite enough emphasis as to why it is so crucial for them to get it right. In the context of a law firm, “business development” means maintaining existing client relationships, and acquiring new ones. It goes without saying that a firm’s clients and their respective businesses are its lifeblood; without them it simply would not exist. As a result, I was surprised upon starting my training contract to come across so many trainees and junior lawyers who appeared to lack interest in networking and making these profitable business connections. I personally do not understand this mindset at all. If you took away our clients’ businesses, and all the creativity, passion and hard work that go into them, out of the equation, then our work as commercial lawyers would consist almost entirely of administering, reviewing and tinkering with highly technical documentation. Zzzzz.

For me personally, meeting with clients and discovering what their businesses mean to them, has been the absolute highlight of my training contract. Below are, in my opinion, ways for trainees and junior lawyers to attract business to their firms and in so doing, get a ton of brownie points from their supervising partners …

 

Read as much as you can

When I start work on a new client matter, I like to find out as much as I can about the client’s business. The business’ website is an obvious place to start but you can delve deeper on its social media channels, published annual reports and by its reading its accounts (a public document, you may be surprised to hear) on Companies House. If it’s any major business of note, the Guardian will probably have something entertaining, albeit negatively biased about it.

This extra reading goes hand in hand with generally increasing your “commercial awareness” by keeping a close eye on the business press. The FT is my go-to broadsheet but I also like reading up about start-ups on more specialist websites; the Economist is good as well, and there’s always The Week if you’re lazy. Having a good understanding of general market trends, complimented by an in-depth appreciation of your client’s company and industry, will make you stand out when networking and appear on the ball. Your clients will remember you fondly for this. It goes without saying that entrepreneurs prefer working with lawyers who display a genuine interest in the work that they do – a fact which seems to elude a surprising amount of trainees and junior lawyers.

Mail
Not the Daily Mail, though. Don’t read the Daily Mail. Especially if anyone in your office is a gay fencer or a member of a European law group.

 

Make yourself known

Take every opportunity within your firm to accompany partners to client meetings and attend client events. Some of the latter can be quite swanky. For example, my supervising partners and I have attended quite a few film screenings and drinks receptions in 5* London hotels. These are great fun and enable you to chat with your clients (who will likely be tipsy and therefore, in a jolly mood) in a more relaxed setting than the office. Additionally, take initiative and attend networking events outside of work, be it related to your sector or practice area, or purely recreational. London has associations and clubs for every single interest under the sun (origami anyone?) so you are bound to find something relevant for your firm.

Leaders
You thought I was joking…#lawyersdoorigami

I have been attending SME-focused events, where I have been able to entice two new clients to my firm. However, even if I had not succeeded in winning new business, I would have still gained a lot in terms of my overall development just by chatting to the entrepreneurs present. You never know who might walk through the door at these events, especially in a global city such as London.

 

Good manners cost nothing

I would like to drive this point home. Ignore all the stories about successful businesspeople being ruthless, cut-throat and willing to walk all over anyone who stands between them and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. True, there are businesspeople and lawyers who have got rich this way but from what I have seen, they thrive on a high turnover of short-term business relationships that they eventually burn by behaving badly and inevitably ripping off their clients and employees.

Leaders
Don’t be like Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct and Newcastle United Football Club*

The most successful lawyers I know cultivate long-term relationships through a solid work ethic, a high level of integrity and fair-mindedness and by treating everyone they work with in a courteous and civil manner. For example, if somebody (a client or another lawyer) refers a new matter to them, they will show that person their appreciation by taking them out for a drink or following up with an invitation to a relevant event. They will then be referred more work and so the virtuous circle continues. I’ve even seen M&As where the seller’s lawyers recommended my supervising partner to the buyers! Assuming that they didn’t think he was a complete numpty who was ripe for exploitation, it was a genuine compliment and an unexpected source of work.

In short, when you start working at any law firm, you can spot pretty quickly who the bad eggs are…Don’t become one of them. Socialise, be generous with your time, and it’ll (generally) pay off.

 

 

*Oh, and by the way, for some extra information on Mike Ashley, you might be interested in the below:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/02/mike-ashley-15m-lawsuit-lifts-lid-tycoons-alleged-alcohol-fuelled/

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/business-innovation-and-skills/news-parliament-2015/working-practices-at-sports-direct-report-published-16-17/

 

Tom’s tips on avoiding work

An entry from Tom, our expert procrastinator and guest columnist. His skill lies not only in finding ways to procrastinate and avoiding work, but also ways in which he is seen to be constantly at work. He notes also that the below works for most office jobs…

1) Set up a discussion group

Time gained – 30-60 mins per week

Set up a trainee discussion group for trainees in your intake/department/practice group (depending on how big your firm is). You should be able to get away with at least half an hour a week – an hour if you’re bold. If questioned or asked for justification, say you’re trying to foster greater networking initiatives” among your fellow peers, and that the point of the discussion group is enabling trainees can talk about “legal updates in the commercial sector” and to “share examples of best practice” (for instance, don’t give typing, or in fact, anything to do to Shelly the secretary because it’ll come back full of typos).

2) The walk

Time gained – 10-20 mins per walk

Grab a file. Any paper wallet or a ringbinder will do – just make sure it’s full of paper and it’s got the name of a “project” on it. The cooler* the project name, the more plausible. Once you’re ready, start walking purposively around the office floor. Now – it’s imperative to walk at a brisk medium pace, maintaining your gaze at eye level, looking straight ahead. On no account must you hesitate or hover, in case someone more important asks you if they can help, or tries unilaterally to direct you to someone in your way.

*Cool in the mind of the average corporate partner. Something like Project Unicorn Rising.

3) Pretend to be at a graduate recruitment event

Time gained – leave at 5pm

The larger your firm is, the more plausible this method is, as this diminishes the likelihood of your supervisor checking or knowing whether or not there’s any graduate recruitment events going on ay any one point. Basically, this is a perfect excuse to leave the office at 5pm at any given point during the legal graduate recruitment season between September and December. And as a last resort, if you’re ever called out on this by anyone who’s actually checked with graduate recruitment, you can always try to bullshit your way out of it by taking your accuser aside into a quiet room and say, “Well, I didn’t want to say this in front of everyone because it might be unprofessional, but I thought I might say that [insert name of person from graduate recruitment] had had quite a lot to drink that evening, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t remember much from the evening…”

4) Client/Industry sector networking event

Time gained – leave at 5pm

Similar to 3), but slightly more impressive, as it suggests that you know clients. Or rather, it suggests that you think you know clients/people in your industry sector, when in fact the people you know are on graduate schemes at companies that instruct law firms. But the beauty of this is that no firm will actively discourage trainee lawyers from developing their professional network.

5) The medical appointment

Time gained – up to 60 mins

This is perfect if you fancy a lie-in or getting out a bit early – just schedule a pretend medical appointment at the start or end of the day. Alternatively, you can really pad out your lunch break by up to an hour through a carefully scheduled appointment. It’s helpful if you put the imaginary appointment in your Outlook diary at work, marked either “private” or labelled “private medical appointment”. These days, no-one will ask about it for fear of finding out something truly awkward or embarrassing, like STDs or polyps or an unfortunate rash or something else that’s potentially squeamish.

6) The IT failure

Time gained – (up to) all day

The last resort – the alleged IT failure. That paralyses your work email and Microsoft office – or at least, those features that you’re asked to use. Acting contrite, implying that the same problem is widespread, and complaining about IT gives the impression that you’re trying to be helpful. “So sorry Susan, but for some reason my computer’s not letting me run any comparisons today. I have called IT but apparently they’ve got a backlog of the same issue, and they’ll only get back to me later today.” It’s also a handy excuse for not answering emails. The particularly bold might even put an out of office response along the lines of “Many apologies, but I am currently experience IT problems and am unable to answer your emails at present. Please contact [X] for any urgent queries; otherwise I will respond to you later today/tomorrow etc”. IT problems also mean you can’t work remotely either, so if you typically leave the office a bit earlier (picking up kids etc) and then log on from home, the second bit becomes a complete non-starter #success.

Of course, this could all backfire if there’s a ton of non-billable work that doesn’t involve IT. Like old-school bundling/filing. So do watch out.

10 things we didn’t know about City law when we started our training contracts (Part II)

Part I is here, but read on below for Part II

 

6) Coordinating lawyers is like herding cats

No matter how you split up a large organisation (departments, practice groups, teams etc), and no matter how many policies you try and implement, trying to coordinate lawyers in general is like herding cats.

Take our recent drive (in my department) of trying to get people to allocate work to a central secretarial work flow – that is to say, to get people to send any work by email to a central secretarial email address, and have someone heading up the secretarial team allocating work to individual secretaries on the basis of how busy they were. The response to this was varied, in that people chose to ignore the new policy in a variety of ways – by basically doing what they had been doing beforehand (passing work to individual secretaries by hand, email, central dictation system etc).

Or to take another example (of many), as anyone who’s tried to organise a work event of any sort with lawyers, even the most basic of after-work drinks will require multiple emails, electronic calendar diary invites, at least two reminders in person, for the organiser to go around the office five minutes before setting off to round up people, and for them to collect the phone numbers of any stragglers who just have “one more email to send” (and who invariably turn up around 2 hours later, if at all).

7) People aren’t as clever as you think they are – nor do they need to be

Many trainees suffer from imposter syndrome, although oddly enough, the most confident person in my intake is the person who graduated with a 2:2 from a non-Russell Group university. Knowing that many of my fellow trainees feel out of their depth has been reassuring. Even more reassuring is the fact that I knowing many fairly senior people in my firm are much less clever than I initially thought they were – and indeed, by their own admission. One partner, for instance, mentioned to me during a graduate recruitment event that he probably wouldn’t have gotten a training contract if he were applying now. When he was applying (around 2 decades ago), he knew absolutely bugger all about City law and business – getting a 2:1 from Oxbridge (tick) and turning up to your interview on time (tick) was essentially the bar to nabbing a TC at the time.

To take another example, I once asked an associate in my team why a major client of ours (a large fund) used the nominee company structure they did. The response was “something to do with tax efficiency, but ask someone in tax”. There’s a small chance that the associate in question simply couldn’t be arsed to answer, but there’s a part of me that suspects that they didn’t actually know. And, as I found out over the course of my seat, I didn’t actually have to know what tax advantages that particular corporate structure had – procedural notes on our system would answer basic tax questions, while any tax queries not covered would be farmed out immediately to our tax team.

So the next time you don’t understand something – don’t worry. Chances are that, if it’s not covered on Practical Law, then a fellow trainee or colleague will be able to understand it. And if they don’t understand it, well, you could always ring a barrister…

8) Corporate-speak

At university, I used to be told off by my law professors all the time over my use of grammar and language – especially for using Americanisms. I imagine they’d be apoplectic at how most City lawyers communicate.

People no longer contact or get in touch with each other; instead, they always have to “reach out” or “connect”. If there’s an ongoing relationship between two people who wish to meet up, they “touch base”, which sounds like some euphemism for an illicit sexual encounter (as in the totally not-made-up sentence “I’m looking forward to touching base with Janine next week – I’m hoping to pump her for any useful information”).

Employees no longer perform well or meet expectations – they “fulfil KPIs”. If you send me a message, I will “revert”, as opposed to replying, as a normal person would say. And yes, I fantasise about punching every person who says “blue-sky thinking” in a non-ironic way.

The rise of corporate-speak is also driven by the need to appear professional and to airbrush any problems. Quite literally, in fact, I drafted a client email with the sentence: “having reviewed the matter, we note the following potential problems”, and received it back from my supervisor with “potential problems” crossed out and replaced with the decidedly more neutral “points to note”. Stylistically, as well, it seems people are aiming to avoid negativity at all costs. I have been told by more senior people at my firm that words such as “unfortunately”, for instance, should be replaced by phrases such as “as it turns out”. Because, obviously, there’s nothing more positive than being told that, “as it turns out, your company [is insolvent][is responsible for corporate manslaughter][owes HMRC loads of money in back taxes] etc.”

9) Secondments mean 9-to-5

While in Part I I talked about the pitfalls of working til midnight, doing a client secondment for part of your training contract is absolute bliss.* And yes, that 9-to-5 does include time for a decent lunch break, too.

Obviously, as I found out during my own client secondment, things can get pretty hands-on – I’ve had to field phone calls and give a fair amount of advice to colleagues outside of the legal team. But generally the supervision has been good, and I’ve not felt out of my depth at any point, despite the relatively small size of the legal team. I suspect this is because more complex matters are farmed out to solicitors (or, on certain contentious matters, the opinion of counsel is sought).

So, yeah – if you can, as a trainee, do a client secondment. If only because they tend to be fairly relaxed and the hours are good they’re good for building up your network and great experience for seeing things from a client’s point of view.

*With the exception of secondments to any major investment banks – in which case, expect to work 70-75-hour weeks, according to an acquaintance of mine who did a stint at the good ol’ Vampire Squid in 2015…

10) Most lawyers in my intake have secret dreams

Okay, so this might just be my trainee intake, but I’ve found out that most of the trainees at my firm are people with secret dreams. For them, law is the day job until they have the financial stability to do what they want.

I didn’t honestly expect most trainees to genuinely have a passion for commercial law, but I also didn’t expect my intake to be lukewarm – at best – on the idea of settling into law as a stable and permanent career, and becoming partner in 10 years’ time, as one might think was the case.

I think this might be because most trainees in City law aren’t inherently greedy and money-grabbing – those types of people would have done investment banking instead. At the same time, most trainees in City law are risk-averse to the point that having financial security (buying a house within 5 years of graduate and having significant savings etc) is a key priority. Virtually everyone I know at US firms is planning on doing at most 4 years, for instance, and then moving in-house or to a non-US firm for a better work-life balance.

But among the trainees I know, there are those who want to go back into academia and carry on what they loved at undergraduate level, be it jurisprudence or modern languages. There are those who want to run their own charities – ranging from social mobility foundations, housing charities, or legal aid clinics. There are those who want to run their own legal practices, but away from the auspices of City law. And then there are those who want to go into politics – a very well-trodden path over the last few decades or so.

Who knows how many of the trainees I know will ever achieve their dreams. But I genuinely hope they do one day, and make a conscious decision to do so before they settle down with a ludicrously expensive mortgage and send their children to private school, and make other financial decisions which mean that they’ll have to go onto the partnership track. After all, when you’re young, you have to dream, don’t you.

10 things we didn’t know about City law when we started our training contracts (Part I)

Another Buzzfeed-type article following the “rule of 10” – musings are from the team at The Secret Trainee, and our fellow trainees. Part II to follow but in the meantime, here are 10 things we didn’t know about City law when we started our training contracts:

1) Having nothing to do til 4:30pm, then getting beasted til midnight

Perhaps one of my pet hates is having absolutely bugger all to do all morning, all lunch, and all afternoon. While fun to start off with, there’s only so much browsing one can do of BBC News, Roll on Friday, Legal Cheek and the FT. And after a while, Practical Law and my firm’s training manuals tend to send me into a soporific stupor. Which, at around 4:30pm, is precisely the point when someone more senior walks by your desk and gives you a load of urgent stuff to be done by 9am tomorrow, necessitating a late-night shift ending in the early hours of the morning.

This has happened to me several times this seat already, and apparently the reason for this is that many clients tend to have meetings during the day, during which decisions are made, and that they like the legal documentation to be compiled or updated for meetings the next day. To them, lawyers are like the little elves, beavering away at night, drafting and fixing contracts to be ready in the morning. When I queried the efficacy of this approach, the lawyer I was talking to simply said that this was what we were paid for, which frankly I couldn’t really argue with.

2) How tech illiterate people are

A partner at my firm is in his fifties, and still doesn’t like using email – he dictates all but the most basic emails to his secretary (which is apparently what Donald Trump does with his tweets), and has her send them on his behalf. He also fills in his time-sheets by hand, and hands the paper sheets to his secretary to type up the next day. I repeat – he is only in his fifties.

It would be funny if he were just the exception to the rule, but in general, most solicitors lag behind the average curve when it comes to being tech-savvy. Many partners I know struggle to use smartphones – quite a few still use Nokia “bricks” from the 1990s – while a partner I worked with was seriously impressed when I showed her how to use our firm’s secure dropbox service to transfer large pdfs to clients electronically. Apparently, she – and a lot of other partners – had previously relied on either sending CDs or USB sticks by post (!) or sending the pdfs by emails in multiple batches of, say, 5 or 6 at a time, to the recipient.

These are just a few of the many examples of tech illiteracy among lawyers. With people like these at the top of the legal industry, it’s no wonder that the law lags woefully behind technological advances like cloud storage and IP rights.

3) Killing trees

In a paperless era, the amount of paper used in law firms is frankly shocking. Whether or not you’re preparing bundles for counsel (who inexplicably want 30 ringbinders’ worth of evidence, correspondence etc printed single-sided, A4, and in colour), or just putting together multiple counterparts of your standard 600-page Agreement for Lease, with all the technical works specifications appended to it, it’s frankly appalling to see the sheer waste of paper in an era where electronic contracts are fairly widespread (albeit with lower-value commercial transactions, such as residential tenancy agreements).

A colleague of mine who recently came from rival City firm mentioned that his old firm trialled the idea of printing quotas for everyone. It was a complete failure, as the system was completely unenforceable and old habits die hard – evidently many lawyers are still attuned to the era of “correspondence folders”, when letters and emails were printed out and kept in hard copy for reference. I give it another half-century until people start signing contracts online and reviewing legal documents on Kindles. In the meantime, City firms would do well to start planting trees.

4) Inability to do Maths

Quite a few solicitors are shockingly poor at Maths. Which is a tad worrying, given the eye-wateringly high sums of money that are involved in the kinds of transactions that solicitors deal with. While solicitors working in the City tend to have a better grasp of arithmetic – nowadays, the assessment centres tend to have numerical reasoning tests to weed out the mathematically illiterate, I have seen qualified solicitors who have trained at top City firms struggle over calculating VAT and SDLT on multi-million pound transactions – taking over half an hour to do fairly simple, albeit somewhat fiddly sums (accompanied by much under-the-breath cursing). During my last seat, my supervisor – somewhat embarrassingly – miscalculated the amount that our client had to pay in various Land Registry fees, and only realised a day after emailing the client for funds on account.

I hear from fellow trainees that solicitors who deal with financial services tend to be more Maths-savvy, though, which gives me some hope. And in mitigation for the others, I would put the inability to do Maths among solicitors down to the fact that almost no-one in law – not even in City law – has done a Maths, IT or Sciences degree (and only around half of lawyers I know have done A-level Maths). Still, if I ever end up in-house, I’m definitely going to be triple-checking every single sum that any lawyers in private practice end up having to do for us…

5) Being given secretarial work to do

I got chatting recently to a group of fellow trainees about why City trainees get given so much work that is essentially secretarial in nature. One spoke of spending most of one week essentially running “redline” comparisons between different versions of contracts (it was a hectic deal). I myself had done a fair number of comparisons myself, along with typing up manuscript amendments to draft contract documents. My supervisor likes reviewing documents on the train, you see, and marking them up with a red pen. Other typical trainee tasks that don’t require a university degree include photocopying, scanning, bundling and creating transaction bibles.

It’s not that I actually mind doing these things, to be honest. It’s more the fact that I worry about the inefficiency of it all. Part of me suspects that a lot of trainee grunt work is meant as a sort of extended initiation – an administrative rite of passage, before you are allowed to qualify as a solicitor. Another part of me thinks it’s because certain partners and senior associates like having a pet trainee to do menial tasks. Either way, it’s hardly the most profitable use of the firm’s resources…

 

Part II to follow…

Generation Z: how not to cock up your vac scheme

*This blog post has been written by Anna, our guest contributor who works for a medium-sized City law firm. As you can tell, she’s not a huge fan of the *younger* generation. Certain details have been changed or kept deliberately vague in order to protect the identities of the firm and contributor.*

 

This summer we hosted 30-odd vac schemers from both law- and non-law backgrounds – the cream of Generation Z*, if you like. As a current trainee, I got stuck with the task of babysitting welcomed the opportunity to actively host the vac schemers, mentoring them and ultimately providing feedback on them to the recruiting partners. Over the course of what was quite a long and slow summer (our work is becoming ever less plentiful as the ongoing Brexit catastrophe continues to scare away investors), only a very few vac schemers impressed me to such an extent that I actively hoped that they would be hired. The rest made a series of noticeable faux pas that I will endeavour to outline in this blog post …

1. It is up to YOU to engage US

As a vac schemer in most City law firms, you only have one to three weeks to make a good impression on the people you work with. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for you to, for want of a better expression, “put yourselves out there” – both professionally AND socially. It was depressing to see a lot of vac schemers forget the social element. There were so many weeks in which the vac schemers barely made any conversation with me and the other trainees. This was frustrating, especially towards the end of the summer when I was quite tired of the revolving door of vac schemers and of essentially repeating the same awkward conversations every week. Certain vac schemers’ reticence could have been due to shyness or nerves but to be brutal, neither reason is justifiable in a thoroughly client-facing profession such as this. Take every opportunity to ask (appropriate) questions and to engage us in conversation. Be interested and interesting, and you will certainly be remembered and given good feedback. Be bored and boring, and people will either bitch about you for the next few years, or – worse still – completely forget you were ever there.

2. That being said, avoid too “niche” conversation topics

An important part of flourishing as a solicitor is having a good social persona and knowing your audience. If you can quickly gauge what your targets (be they colleagues, or potential clients) are interested in, and hone in on that, then you will make a good impression. This also applies to vac schemers when talking to trainees, associates and (most crucially) partners. It is best to avoid esoteric topics of discussion such as Asian homo-erotic cinema (this actually did come up on one of the weeks I was a lead mentor). Several members of Generation Z were clearly unaware of the pitfalls of potentially contentious topics, such as UK party politics, Trump, and Brexit. The legal profession is overwhelmingly pro-Remain but you never know when there are secret Leave voters lurking about. Avoid, avoid, avoid!

For the socially illiterate, below is a list of acceptable topics for discussion at a London law firm. Most of these involve moaning about something – because most people like a good bitch. One of these is a joke. See if you can spot it:

  • The poor quality of the tea and coffee in the communal kitchen
  • What projects/matters your colleagues are currently working on
  • Your colleagues’ children (remember to show an appropriate level of empathy)
  • Your colleagues’ hobbies
  • House prices in London
  • How awful the Tube/public transport is
  • How estate agents are terrible human beings
  • The weather
  • Weekend plans (although obviously avoid any mention of hard drugs, orgies or anything too deviant)
  • How DLA Piper are, like, the worst law firm ever

 

3. Be conscientious and stick to deadlines

Take any work given and (pretend to) act keen. If you find this difficult, try practising your “Thank you for giving me a ton of photocopying to do” smile in front of the mirror – 5 minutes a day should do the trick.

Much of the work that you will be doing as a vac schemer will be mundane and low level, which remains the case as a trainee. Do not complain (or scowl) and use the opportunity to learn about that area of law by asking intelligent questions and displaying an interest. Yes, printing endless bundles of documents for an employment tribunal hearing is mind-numbingly boring but if you take time to discuss the case at hand, you may be surprised at how much you can learn about the law, the businesses we work with and about managing clients. Always prioritise partners’ tasks first, followed by those of associates, then trainees.

Never miss a deadline – this is a cardinal sin and may cost you an interview. If it looks as though you may not be able to hand in a piece of work on time, do the right thing and explain to the partner in question (in corporate speak, this is called “managing expectations”) so that he/she can hand it over to someone else.

 

4. Do not turn up to work drunk or hungover

Equally, if you’re on a vac scheme, do not tell even the trainees stories about that time you went out in Brixton and got really drunk. People will simply think that you a) do not know how to behave in an office and b) are unable to hold your drink. In the boozy world of law, the latter is quite an impediment – you’ll end up being judged by not only the social crowd, but also the steadily increasing numbers of teetotal cycling and fitness obsessives.

Unless, Generation Z, this is the look you’re going for…

 

 

 

*This is obviously ironic. The cream of Generation Z clearly either doing something more worthwhile or lucrative than commercial law…

Why commercial law? A trainee retrospective.

While helping some wannabe commercial lawyer friends this summer with vac scheme and trainee contract applications, I was intrigued by how difficult we found answering one question in particular. One question that came up time and time again, in virtually every application: Why commercial law?

And of course what they ended up putting down on their application forms wasn’t really why they were going into law. But it got me thinking about why people do actually become commercial solicitors. After all, it’s not something that’s terribly “public-facing” – when people think of lawyers, they generally think of barristers in court. At the same time, the types of law that come to mind are criminal, family and personal injury – most people haven’t a clue about what commercial solicitors do (including myself, before I started researching halfway through my law degree). And in fact, it’s not as if one can simply wander into a training contract after uni – at the very least, you need to do the LPC or mini-pupillage, plus a conversion course if you’re a non-law graduate. Even then, it’s hard to get anywhere without multiple stints of work experience.

To underline the latter point, I found out that a recent vac scheme student at my firm – a second-year law student – had done 2 other vac schemes that summer before ours, and had attended a rival firm’s “First Year Law Student” programme the year before. (The vac schemer is question also listed his attendance at 4 or 5 law firm networking events and workshops on LinkedIn, which frankly must be taking the piss).

Anyway, after asking my fellow trainees (and my hopeful lawyer-to-be friends) why they really went into law (and if David Davies can claim he’s qualified to negotiate Brexit, then I can claim that a sample size of 10 is a fair representation of what City trainees think). Here’s what I found:

Money”

Money – the same old story. And it’s hard to argue, really. What with personal household debt skyrocketing and consumer savings at an all time low (see links 1 and 2 for some terrifying statistics), it seems harder than ever to get ahead in this economy. Add in the typical uni student’s worries about student and/or maintenance loans, and the ever-diminishing prospects of owning a house* in this day and age, and you can see why the chance to be paid to study the LPC and/or GDL, plus a starting salary of £30-50k per year, suddenly looks so appealing. And that’s even before considering the opportunities for those willing to mortgage their souls to the devil at US firms out there, looking to hire NQs at £105-140k per year. Outside of accounting, investment banking and management consulting, the vast majority of London-based graduate schemes pay between £18-25k starting salary, with a far more modest salary progression. The rather sad, but understandable consequence of this is that commercial law attracts a lot of people who want financial security, but are not great at Maths (ruling out accounting), want to be taken seriously (ruling out management consulting), and don’t want to be loathed by the general public (ruling out investment banking).

*Much has been made about the British “obsession” with buying one’s own house. Usually by policy wonks or representatives from the Buy-To-Rent housebuilding lobby, who argue that renting is really far better for us, that being tied to a bricks-and-mortar asset is quite inflexible and impractical, and that it’s very safe and commonplace in countries like France and Germany. They do, however, do leave out several key points – such as the fact that people who rent in France and Germany have far higher levels of legal protection, and that 10 or even 20-year leases are relatively common. Compare that to the standard 12-month AST that most British renters have, under which landlords can move you on at 3 months’ notice after the first sixth months, and you see why I want to own my own house one day.

Studied law and didn’t know what to do after uni”

After “money”, this was another common reason why the people I asked chose to go down to City Solicitor route. They opted to study law at uni, got dragged along/enticed to law fairs and workshops, and ended up doing the same law firm applications that their friends and fellow law students did. By the time they were close to graduation, they had accrued enough brownie points (vac schemes, law firm workshops and networking sessions, volunteer and extracurricular experience) and application tips from those around them to having a decent go at training contract applications.

Didn’t study law and didn’t know what to do after uni”

See above, but usually a year down the line due to law firms’ restrictions on non-law undergraduate students applying for vac schemes and training contracts until their final year (whereas law students can apply from their penultimate year onwards). Very common for history and classics students to ultimately head down this route, usually if they’ve worked out at some point during their degree that they hate teaching on account of the grounds that they find working with children a complete hassle and dislike the admin and paperwork that teachers have to deal with. The irony of such people going into law is amazing.

Making mummy and daddy happy”

In a few cases, people went into law because mummy and/or daddy were lawyers. In addition, about half of the people I asked went into law at least partly because mummy and/or daddy pushed them down the commercial law path, either before or during uni. Most of said respondents also confessed that mummy and/or daddy also worked in professional services, and so were able to facilitate the path by arranging for unpaid work experience in the commercial legal sector, either at an in-house legal team or in private practice. One respondent said – rather sweetly – that their dad wanted him to follow him into medicine, but that he wasn’t clever enough at school, so had to settle for studying law at uni and getting a training contract at a Magic Circle firm.

A burning passion for commercial law”

Nope. Out of all the people I asked, no-one mentioned this…

Was in another profession, saw what commercial lawyers were doing, and thought they could do a better job”

One respondent was two years into another career in professional services, but was frustrated at the lack of career progression opportunities. She then saw what an in-house lawyer at her company was doing, shadowed them for a day, and was frankly amazed at i) how easy their work was (compared to her own job) and ii) how appallingly it was being done by the lawyer in question. She figured that, if the lawyer in question (an NQ who’d trained at a magic circle firm) could have gotten a job at a top City firm, then she could too. Further research revealed the average starting salary for trainee solicitors and the prospect of earning 6 figures a year upon qualification. She applied for training contracts, got an offer from a US firm, did the GDL and LPC, and never looked back…

Annoying Supervisors

Following Roll on Friday’s recent features on “Terrible Trainees” (with accompanying links to Trainee Tips), I thought I might do a feature on “Annoying Supervisors”, based on what my pool of fellow trainees and I have experienced thus far during the training contract. Aside from the Micro-Manager – the likes of which are renowned across the profession – we came up with the following 5 types of supervisor that we encounter all-too-often.

1. The Eavesdropper

The Eavesdropper doesn’t just like to listen to your phone calls. They LOVE to listen to your phone calls. Professional AND personal. When the Eavesdropper was my supervisor, I didn’t mind her so much when she overheard my personal conversations with Ikea, Amazon et al asking for refunds, or commenting on my dinner reservations (and cancellations). In fact, they frequently came up with good suggestions in the post-call debrief. No – what really f**ked me off was getting a client call and then getting bombarded by aggressive questions from the Eavesdropper afterwards: “Was that X? Did he ask this? Did you mention that? Why did you talk about this?” After about the seventh time this happened, I jokingly suggested to the Eavesdropper that I set up an automatic conference call facility linked to their phone for client calls, so they could take their own notes – a suggestion which had absolutely no effect at all.

2. The Oversharer

There are actually two breeds of the Oversharer, strictly speaking: the Conversation Oversharer, and the Telephone Oversharer. The Conversation Oversharer tells you too much about their private lives over coffee breaks and team lunches, about topics ranging from their weird health conditions (“Did you know, it’s been 4 years since my hysterectomy/operation to remove intestinal cysts”) to their f**king boring recent/impending house purchases (“So we found this place just outside Reading, within the commuter belt, new-build, really good school district, only 45 minutes from Paddington, an absolute steal at 500k and there’s wonderful potential for an extension round the back if we want another bedroom, plus there’s a man-shed for Rob in the garden…carries on ad infinitum”). In the event of the latter type of oversharer, I find that I often have to stop myself yawning when they start going off on one, and resist the temptation to shout “No-one fucking cares, you know!”

On the other hand, the Telephone Oversharer holds loud personal phone conversations on their desk phone. This is particularly awkward in an open-office setting (or where you’re trapped into sharing an office with your supervisor) when they’re on the phone to their other half and enter passive-aggressive mode (“Yes, darling, of course your dad knows best about buying a house because he used to be an estate agent, and after all, I’m only a lawyer, so what do I bloody know”). This is worsened only by the Telephone Oversharer slipping into late-night outbursts of full-blown crying and/or swearing and screaming as part of a work-induced nervous breakdown (“Fucking hell! Fuck [insert name of client contact]. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Cunt! I hope he fucking dies!”). At 10pm, I once nipped out to the loos and came back into the office to see my supervisor in full hysterical flow – whereupon I walked straight back out the other way towards the kitchen, made myself a coffee, and came back 15 minutes later, after they’d calmed down. We both ended up pretending the incident never happened, and never spoke of it.

3. The Hands-Off Supervisor

The Hands-Off Supervisor is super chilled. Ice-cold doesn’t even cover it. The Hands-Off Supervisor will give you tons of responsibility. Drafting emails to clients? Won’t so much as give them a glance before waving their sign of approval at them. Running and coordinating your own files? Off you go. Negotiating documents with the other side? Have a go – see what they say.

The flip side is that laissez-faire supervision will, when taken to extremes, mean that you’ll spend quite a bit of time not really knowing what you’re doing and making things up as you go along. Which is fine, if you’ve got a lot of initiative and a high appetite for risk, but isn’t great for your heart rate. Also, if you f**k up, you’ve got to factor in the possibility that your supervisor doesn’t actually take responsibility, and instead drops you in it…

And of course, you need to watch out that the Hands-Off Supervisor doesn’t turn into…

4. The Lazy Supervisor

The Lazy Supervisor is a nightmare version of the Hands-Off Supervisor. The Hands-Off Supervisor is super chilled, whereas the Lazy Supervisor doesn’t give a f**k and only volunteered for supervisor duties for extra brownie points for their partnership track. The Lazy Supervisor basically runs with the line that “Trainees should be proactive” and uses this as a front to do the barest minimum of supervisory duties.

Chasing up appraisal forms and other trainee-related paperwork takes 3 times as long as it should do with the Lazy Supervisor, who will often try and fob you off with the excuse that they’re completely inundated – when in fact you know that they spend all day looking at online house listings, cars or Mail Online. As a trainee, knowing that you and your work are lower down your supervisor’s list of priorities than Katie Hopkins’ latest orthographic vomitings or a new-build two-bed semi within the commuter belt is always a bit disconcerting.

5. The Miscommunicator

In many ways, the Miscommunicator is the most annoying and dangerous type of supervisor. Most people will have encountered the Miscommunicator is some form or guise – especially if they’ve been a trainee in a department where you work for multiple associates and partners. In short, the Miscommunicator is someone who is bad at giving instructions (typically because they go off on wild tangents) and then invariably blames you for the miscommunication.

For instance:

Supervisor (S): Hi Megan, could you look at this Building Contract and answer the relevant DD report questions on Project Silver Dragon.

Megan (M): Sure. Is it on the data room?

S: It should be. Let me just check….and…it is. Ooh. Actually. That reminds me. Collateral warranties. Did I ask you to check we had the complete lot?

M: No…

S: Well we should check that. The list of what we’re meant to have is also somewhere on the data room. Check we’ve got all of them for the subcontractors and the consultants and the contractor, …

M: (scribbles furiously)

S: … in favour of the fund, the developer and the tenant. We need to make a note of liability caps too. And no loss provisions. Have a read of them.

M (continues writing): Okay.

S: And when you’re done, chase up the other side for any outstanding documents. Email deets are on file.

Etc. etc.

One day later, after having done all the above tasks

S: Megan, did you do the section of the DD report commenting on no loss provisions and liability caps?

M: Um, no – I thought (flicks desperately through notes) that you only wanted me to read them and…discuss them later, presumably?

S (smiles patronisingly): No, I *did* say I wanted you to review the liability caps and no loss provisions and have a go in the DD report.

At which point you find your verbatim record of what the Miscommunicator said, and have to make a split second decision on whether or not you call out your supervisor on giving shitty, unclear instructions (not recommended), or if you decide to grit your teeth and take the criticism, and make a mental note to regurgitate all instructions – however simple – back to your supervisor in future (recommended).

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