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How to Excel in Your First Seat as a Trainee Solicitor

trainee solicitors sat around a table

“There’s no secret to success in this world. The key is graft.”Sir Alex Ferguson

I am celebrating the completion of my first year as a trainee solicitor, having commenced my training contract on 4 September 2017. (Remembered as it is also the date because it’s Beyoncé’s birthday.) I have vivid memories of my first day which involved arriving super early, arranging my desk. Having made my cup of green tea infused with lemongrass and logged into my laptop.  I had already been added to the email groups for the matters that I had been assigned so from day one I had quite a few emails to read. Make sure you make an effort with your colleagues from the as it creates a pleasant working environment.  It also ensures you’re at ease when asking questions and managed to have a laugh with your colleagues.

Looking back on my first year, I have compiled my bank of tips. I hope these help you chart your path to success as you embark on your exciting next chapter as a trainee solicitor. So notepads and pens at the ready! (A tip before you enter a fee earner’s office but more on this later.) 


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Prioritising workload

At the beginning of your first training contract seat, it is important that you find the most effective way of managing your inbox. It is hugely important that you keep on top of your emails. Prior to arriving at the office, I have a look at my Microsoft Outlook over breakfast. This means I can begin to picture the day ahead.  A trainee’s time is not their own. You will need to be flexible as you never know when you will be asked to assist with a new matter which may involve re-ordering your to-do-list for the day.

Personally, I go old school and date the page in my note pad (underlined with a highlighter of course). Each day I write down the tasks  I need to complete. I make a judgment call on the order and prioritise when I will tackle each task. Judgment is a key attribute of any successful lawyer. It is a sensible approach to ask the giver of a task when they need the work completed by. Also factor in that tasks often take longer than first anticipated. It is of equal importance to keep track of the emails arriving in your inbox. This way you do not miss further instructions for tasks. You can manage expectations and give yourself adequate time to produce high quality work. 

Email Etiquette

Moving on to email etiquette and how best to respond to emails in a professional manner. In response this is best deduced from the style adopted by the sender.  If you are initiating the correspondence, I would always start my email with the formal salutation of “Dear”. It goes without saying that you should avoid sending emails without the attachment(s) referred to or emails with typographical errors. This creates a poor impression. I have always been of the habit of removing email addresses in the “To” and “Cc” fields when drafting responses to emails in case I accidentally click “Send”. I will reinstate the addresses once I am happy with the email I have drafted.

Whilst there is no such thing as the “perfect email”, strive for an email that uses the appropriate greeting and sign off i.e. Many thanks/ Kind Regards/Warm Regards. It should clearly express the information to be conveyed. I’m quite partial to using tables and using either light grey or pale blue shading for the headings row…

Navigating your firm’s document management system may initially prove tricky but the sooner it is conquered the better. The IT department will provide you with training but copious notes will not be a substitute for exploring all that your firm’s document management system has to offer. If you have any apprehensions than discuss them with your peers, secretary or IT department. It is essential that you are confident in your ability to; (i) file documents in the correct folder with the department’s preferred naming style i.e. [Year][Month][Day] Witness Statement of [XX] and; (ii) locate documents on the system to be emailed across to a fee earner or to serve as a template when you have been asked to draft a covering letter for the service of statements of case such as particulars of claim or a defence.

Trainee admin tasks

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”Vincent Van Gough

In your role as a trainee solicitor, you are likely to be asked to carry out all or most of the following tasks: (i) filing documents on the document management system or HMCTS e-filing service; (ii) booking meeting rooms and sending round calendar invites; (iii) preparing court bundles; (iv) liaising with clerks at chambers; (v) arranging transcription services for hearings and trials and (v) drafting covering letters, research notes and attendance notes.

All of the above are tasks that need to be completed to the best of your ability. The rest of the team are relying on you being organised, conscientious and meticulous. It is crucial that you appreciate that trainees are expected to make a valuable contribution to the team dynamics.  To be more actively involved in matters and given greater responsibility, you will need to show that you a diligent team player. Do not shy away from the so called ‘less glamourous’ tasks. Personally, I would not equate the legal profession with glamour. (Even Mike Ross had to spend time in the legal storage room!)

Preparation of court bundles is a prime example of needing to execute a typical trainee task to a high standard. If the bundles provided to the court for pre-reading by the judges do not match those in the possession of the counsel, things could get very awkward. Imagine if counsel invites the bench to turn their attention to a specific page and it’s missing in their bundle. I would definitely recommend asking your fellow trainees to assist with bundle checking. Although make sure to give them as much advance notice as possible. One of the advantages of being one of a small cohort of trainees is that it is very much all hands on deck when there is a mountain of bundles to be checked. 

Research notes and attendance notes

Having read law at university, I feel very much in my element when carrying out research on legal issues. One reason I wanted to pursue a career as a commercial lawyer was my interest in both law and business. It is important to take a step back and consider how your research note will facilitate the team’s understanding of the legal issues underpinning the client’s commercial problem or goal. You must ensure that you understand the scope of the research task so take notes and if in doubt ask! It is a far better course of action to seek clarification or discuss whether you should explore a possible avenue.  Do not labour for hours over a task and suffer in silence. This is not a productive use of your time and occupational stress should be avoided.

In my experience, research notes tend to be required fairly urgently so depending on your workload this may require spending part of your weekend finalising your note so that it ready for review on Monday morning. However, only you can make that call depending on the instructions given. I’m happier emailing my team a research note over the weekend rather than leaving it to Monday morning to carry out the final proof read. There is always the very real possibility of being given a new task that requires my immediate attention.

Undeniably, research notes can be prove challenging especially if you are looking into a very niche area of law. Practical Law will not always be your saving grace when facing a legal quagmire and it is useful to consult practitioners’ texts. Notwithstanding, attendance notes of meetings and conference calls can be particularly tricky as you have to record the content of the discussion. The end product should be an accurate summary with headings where appropriate rather than a transcript. I have found that my touch typing skills can only take me so far.  I have signed up for the minutes training being offered at my firm so that I can produce more comprehensive notes. The training contract is a learning curve and you are constantly enhancing your skillset and improving your repertoire.

I wish you all the success in your career and hope you live your best Suits life in increments of 6 minutes!

Author: Hilda-Georgina Kwafo-Akoto

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