Final seat trainees: here's how to find an NQ job at a new firm

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It’s widely accepted that a training contract is a two-year-long job interview with no guarantee of a newly qualified (NQ) associate position at the end. So if you’ve just entered your final seat and wondering what’s going to happen once you’ve finished your training then please take note.

If you delay looking for external NQ roles until your firm confirms it’s unable to keep you on or after you’re offered a role in your your second choice department then it may be a case of too little too late. On the flipside, and on a more positive note, if the firm you’re training with doesn’t meet all your needs and future expectations then you’re of course free to move on to pastures new.

Whatever your reason for exploring external NQ jobs the first point to remember is that although the number of firms taking on outside trainees continues to be on the up the volume of jobseekers will continue to outstrip the number of available ‘live’ vacancies. So before you start firing off your CV to any legal recruitment agencies my advice would be to put yourself in the best possible position for landing an NQ position with your current firm.

As such, speak to relevant partners in the team you want to qualify into and register your interest as early as possible and definitely in time for the vacancies list to be circulated to trainees. From experience, most potential future employers especially the elite US firms that I typically represent favour candidates who choose to leave of their own volition over those that are being pushed out or at the very least are being encouraged to move on.

So even if your heart is set on taking the plunge I strongly advise against taking any steps that may prejudice your chance of securing an internal NQ role. Consequently, ensure any contact with recruitment consultants is handled discreetly and flag to them any concerns you may have about your hunt for an external role leaking back to partners at your current firm. Incidentally, from experience such a risk is minimal and most credible recruiters are used to dealing with this type of scenario.

So if given the choice of staying or going what route should you take? This is the question I get asked most frequently by final seat trainees and unfortunately the answer is not that straightforward. What works for one candidate may end in failure for their peers along the corridor. However, one thing I do know is that in the absence of any obvious push factors then any move you make, especially as an NQ, should enhance your CV. So, for example, moving to a firm with a better reputation will on the whole be viewed as a positive provided you stay put for a while because the quickest way to tarnish your CV is to move between roles too frequently.

The other question that comes up a lot is what to do if you don’t get offered a position in your first choice department and or office? Again this is down to personal preferences. If you feel very strongly about a particularly practice area then I’d recommend having a tentative look at external roles. But don’t forget what I said earlier about ensuring you have a second choice with your current firm as a backup and how this will also put you in a stronger position when making external applications.

Incidentally, related to this is the following question – if I qualify into my second choice practice area, can I move to my first choice at a later date? Again, this is a very tough nut to crack. Strictly speaking switching between practice areas post qualification is extremely difficult. That said, I do know a handful of associates who have done this. So if you do find yourself in this situation I recommend asking your current firm what the chances are of you moving departments and what sort of timeline you are expected to work towards?

Though firms have taken measures to make the qualification process as fair and as transparent as possible the reality is that an ‘unofficial’ parallel process of ‘informal’ coffees and lunches may be playing out in the background. So as harsh and unfair as it may sound I’d recommend joining the games and jostling for position. But please do it with professionalism and integrity.

Finally, watch out for my next post, which will offer tips on how to get the best out of recruitment consultants.

Husnara Begum is a legal recruitment consultant and soft skills trainer

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