What is a training contract?
A training contract is the two-year period of on-the-job experience that you must complete once you've graduated from law school in order to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales.
The route to becoming a lawyer at a large commercial firm usually includes gaining a place on the firm's training contract programme.
How are they structured?
Your firm must provide you with experience in at least three different areas of law, including some contentious (dispute-related) and some non-contentious work, which at commercial law firms is normally done through placements, known as �seats", in various departments. Trainees usually do four six-month seats , but three or four-month seats and more flexible systems are also found.
What seats will I do?
At a large commercial law firm, you're likely to spend a year to 18 months of your training contract in finance and corporate seats. Your remaining time might be spent in real estate, tax, intellectual property, or another of the firm's smaller departments.
The requirement that you do some contentious work could be fulfilled by a seat in your firm's litigation, arbitration, employment or construction departments. However, many firms will offer you the option of doing a short course in dispute resolution instead, which allows those who know they don't want to qualify into contentious work to spend more time on non-contentious seats.
Who decides what seats I do?
You (mostly)! A few weeks before every seat rotation, you'll be asked where you want to go next and your preferences will be taken into account along with everyone else's. Not everyone gets their first choice every time, but most firms try to ensure that trainees go to the departments in which they're particularly interested at some point. Priority is often given to trainees in the later stages of their training contracts, which means you may not be asked for your preferences before your first seat.
How will I choose my seats?
It's best to choose departments whose work you're interested in and/or that you think might have space for you when you qualify. You might want to bear the following points in mind too:
Your first seat should ideally be spent in a large and broad department with a strong reputation. Being here will give you a good introduction to your firm's bread-and-butter work and a sound base of skills for the rest of your training contract.
Your second and third seats are the ones to spend in the departments you're interested in qualifying into. After your first six months, you'll have got into the swing of things and will be ready to impress.
It's usually better to avoid waiting until your fourth seat to try an area you think you might want to work in permanently. Qualification decisions are made several months before the end of your training contract, so you risk not having enough time to convince the department to accept you - or to decide for yourself whether it's where you want to be. You could use your fourth seat to get a grounding in a specialised area of law that might help you in the future, or to gain further experience in the area you want to qualify into, or to go on secondment...
Can I do a secondment to an overseas office or a client?
Most large commercial firms offer both seats abroad and client secondments, usually for those in the second year of their training contract.
Who will train me?
Firms must ensure you're supervised by English-law qualified solicitors. Trainees will be given a mid-level or senior lawyer as their �supervisor" in each seat and will usually share an office and work closely with them. You'll also work with other lawyers in each department you sit in.
How will I be assessed during my training contract?
You're entitled to regular informal reviews of your work and three formal appraisals. Most firms hold trainee appraisals at the middle and end of each seat.
What do I need to do to qualify?
To qualify you need to complete your two years of work in at least three different areas of law to a satisfactory standard. You also need to complete the Professional Skills Course, a programme of several days of study spread across the two years which your firm will arrange for you.
What happens at the end of my training contract?
Most trainees stay on at their firm as associates, joining one of the departments in which they did a seat on a permanent basis.
The qualification process resembles the seat allocation process - you state your preference, or preferences, for where you want to qualify and the firm will consider your request along with those of the other trainees in your intake.
But neither you, nor your firm, is obliged to continue your employment beyond your two years of training, so some trainees move firms on qualification.
Even if you think you want to stay at your current firm, it's a good idea to talk to a good recruitment consultant about options elsewhere around six months before you qualify. Doing so means you'll have a head start if you're forced to move, and that you'll have considered carefully whether your firm is the best place for you to continue your legal career.