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Five steps for survival as a first-seat trainee

Written by: Michael Hornsey
Published on: 29 Jun 2015

First-seat trainee? Still feeling shell-shocked? If you’re still getting to grips with your new work environment, these five steps will help you get your bearings.

Michael Hornsey article image

Step 1: Accept your environment
Clients essentially see their business lawyers as “Chief Risk-Mitigation Officers”: they advise on legal risks so that clients can decide whether to take them, organise security for loans, draw up enforceable agreements and perform specialised tasks (like public M&A) that in-house departments simply cannot or do not want to perform.

For all the talk that lawyers should demonstrate “commercial awareness” it remains true that clients need lawyers who are more risk-averse than they are. This is why an obsessive attention to detail matters: you don’t want to put the wrong company name on a form and therefore miss the deadline for bringing a claim or have a notary hold up a transaction because you used “ltd” instead of “limited”.

Step 2: Learn quickly
You can focus so hard on getting the law right, following firm style and saving the document in all the right locations, but if you forget to press the “scan double-sided” button on the photocopier it will all be in vain. The key is to get used to the routine tasks and processes so that they become second nature. After the first few months you start to get routine tasks done automatically, which allows you to focus on your work. It is extremely frustrating until this happens.

I have post-it notes with phone numbers of people I can call if I need a pointer – if, for example, I can’t access the Madrid document library I’ll phone Tech Support or if I need to use a program I’ve never used before I’ll ask my PA. Other trainees are a great source of help too: you are all learning the same things but in a different order. If someone used the printing room a lot in their first week, they are the obvious person to call when you go down there for the first time two months later.  

Step 3: Focus on your real client
In a sense you are the first link in a document supply chain: you extract the information, your supervisor processes it, the in-house lawyer integrates it with his organisation’s system and serves it to his board of directors. As a trainee, your client is your supervisor and your work should always be “client ready”.

Not everything a supervisor asks for will seem right – you might wonder why you have to use a model document when you can see a perfect precedent from another deal in the firm database. On closer inspection, however, the precedent may be perfect but only if your company is registered in the British Virgin Islands! Following instructions precisely will avoid such situations occurring and stop you having to learn the hard way.

Step 4: Mitigate your own risks
When being given instructions, write down everything said to you and repeat it back before you leave the room so that you’re sure you understand what you’re expected to do. “Update these articles of association in light of the Companies Act 2006” might sound like a clear instruction until you sit back down at your computer and feel like you’re at the start of a Uni exam you haven’t revised for.

I also find a simple checklist can be a great tool to help you run through a document before handing it over. The simpler the error, the worse it feels to have made it. Here are some I find particularly frustrating to get pulled up on:

Ten things to check before handing a draft to your supervisor

  1. Make sure any document referred to is given the right date e.g. make sure “accounts for year ended 31 December 2014” is not dated 2015;
  2. be consistent with the use of highlighting square brackets e.g. [all in yellow];
  3. bracket entire ideas e.g. not “the signature by a director [of the balance sheet]”;
  4. use the in-house formatting levels so that items can be cross-referenced;
  5. spell out all dates fully so that there is no room for confusion (especially from contacts in the US or China);
  6. make sure inverted commas are not in bold unnecessarily e.g. “(the “Act”)”;
  7. read back through amended passages to make sure they make semantic and grammatical sense;
  8. check that headings do not contain any irrelevant information e.g. if no new directors are being appointed delete the second half of “Declarations of interest and new director appointments”;
  9. make sure there is not a capital letter in the middle of a list following a semi-colon e.g. “The following documents were presented to the meeting: (a) The report and accounts…”; and
  10. ensure the penultimate item on a list is followed by a conjunction e.g. "; and".

Step 5: Know if you’re being treated unfairly
At some firms you share an office with only your supervisor, which can create an extremely intense atmosphere. You should always remember you have been given a training contract because the partnership as a whole, not just your supervisor, wants you to train there.

Sometimes more senior lawyers amend your work for the sake of it and are unfairly sharp in their feedback. Some they aren’t even nice people. You should still try to learn as much as you can when working with them because dealing with difficult people is a very valuable skill.

If you are having problems, though, you should bring it up with your HR. Your firm has a duty to provide a safe work environment and should look after your wellbeing. There are always ups and downs - sometimes your confidence might require muting; sometimes you might need a little more resilience - but no one should feel intrinsically incompetent and it’s called a ’training contract’ for a reason.

Michael Hornsey is a trainee at a large London firm. He Tweets @MichaelHornsey and blogs at Intrepid Trainee. Read his previous articles for Lawyer 2B.

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