10 pieces of advice for final seat trainees

Former magic circle lawyer Husnara Begum shares her wisdom with those preparing to qualify

While the autumn 2018 qualifiers settle into their new roles as fully-fledged solicitors the next batch of final seat trainees await their fate.

During my time in practice, securing an internal newly qualified (NQ) solicitor position in your first choice department typically involved an informal coffee with the head of department or your trainee supervisor. These days most firms operate robust (albeit imperfect) internal qualification processes, requiring trainees to prepare CVs and undergo technical interviews. It is therefore vitally important to plan your qualification with careful consideration and great precision.

So below are my top ten tips to help those of you who are currently mulling over your post-training contract options and want to put yourselves in the best possible position for securing those all-important NQ roles.

1. Do some honest self-reflection

Start by doing some honest self-reflection by asking yourselves how has your training contract gone? What went well for you? Where is there room for further improvement? What aspects of your work have you enjoyed the most and why? Which is/are your preferred practice area(s)? When thinking about which team(s) you’d like to qualify into please avoid overly focussing on the people. Think about how you would like to spend your working day? Are you a bookworm and like research or do you enjoy client contact and negotiating?

2. Think short, medium and long-term

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.

3. Do you want to stay in law?

A small handful of trainees who have been put through my outplacement programme have decided against applying for NQ roles and instead opted for a fresh start. Though this proved to be the right route for those individuals, changing careers as an NQ is a high-risk strategy because it can prove extremely tricky to get back into the legal profession if you leave it at a very junior level. As such, please give this route very careful thought and guard yourself against doing anything knee-jerk.

4. Aim high but be realistic

Some practice areas and departments are known for being over-subscribed so keep an open-mind about second choices. Related to this, use common sense — if a particular practice area is strategically significant for your current firm then chances are that is where most of the NQ vacancies will be. Similarly, remember that the external NQ jobs market is extremely competitive with the volume of candidates outstripping the number of roles. And to make matters worse firms are less likely to hire NQs on an opportunistic basis, especially as they have their own trainees to look after as well.

5. Get networking

As I already mentioned above, most firms operate formal qualification processes that involve partner-led interviews. Saying that, savvy trainee will undoubtedly be organising informal coffees/chats with relevant partners and other senior/influential members of the team(s) they want to join as NQs in order to make their preferences clear. Such meetings also serve as helpful platforms to get some constructive feedback on your performance.

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6. Prepare for internal interviews

Contrary to what so many trainees believe, internal interviews can be just as challenging as ones for external positions. They are also very different to training contract interviews, which are typically competency based. Interviews for NQ roles are often technical with candidates expected to be able to intelligently discuss legal issues thrown up by matters handled by them.

7. Spruce up your LinkedIn

If you’re thinking about making applications for external NQ roles then now’s the time to update your LinkedIn profile so any recruiters reviewing it will have a clear idea of when you are due to qualify. It’s also important to include seat choices and academic credentials. And that’s it. Also, remember the more active you are on LinkedIn the greater your chances of being spotted by a recruiter. Related to this, get to work on a draft CV.

8. Call some recruiters

Pick up the phone to some recruiters (preferably ones that have been recommended to you). No harm will come out of having confidential conversations with some carefully selected recruiters as they can give you an overview of the NQ jobs market. If the recruiters inspire trust and confidence then agree to stay in touch. Avoid, however, blindly posting your CV on jobs boards or emailing it to an agency before picking up the phone to a consultant first. Also, please do remember that recruiters are not careers advisers. Their job is to find the best possible candidates for the vacancies they are instructed on. So do say some of the stuff they tell you with a gigantic pinch of salt.

9. Make some direct approaches

Supplement applications via agencies with direct approaches. Although the majority of NQ vacancies with larger commercial law firms are handled by recruitment agencies many firms will welcome direct applications. So don’t be put off making direct applications because they don’t take long as you think. And if possible do try to apply through your contacts as they are typically best placed to ensure your CV gets to the right people.

10. Be honest

Never lie to potential employers about missing out on an internal NQ role. Securing an internal NQ role will enhance your chances of bagging an external one as well. But the truth is that most candidates will not be sitting on internal offers meaning you’re not alone in having to explain the “elephant in the room”. The key here is to offer an honest explanation of why you weren’t offered an internal NQ role. When doing this it’s important to avoid being overly negative about the firm you are exiting and instead focus on pull factors.

Husnara has teamed up with the Law Society to host an 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 22 November. Register to attend.

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