Building your career in law: Trainee

In order to qualify as lawyers, graduates joining a City law firm after university and law school must complete a training contract, which usually means spending two years sampling the firm's different departments and, sometimes, spending time at one of its overseas offices or on a client secondment. On each rotation, or "seat", they'll be guided by a senior lawyer known as their supervisor. We spoke to a trainee who recently spent a seat in Mayer Brown's Construction & Engineering department to find out more about training at a City law firm, and what the department has to offer junior lawyers.

Seb Cunningham


What is a training contract all about?

After studying at university and law school, you need these two years to learn the practical aspects of being a City lawyer. Being exposed to different areas as you move through your seats makes you aware of the breadth of work your firm does and gives you the rounded understanding of the legal profession that clients expect.

What seats did you do before coming to Construction & Engineering?

My first seat was in finance. Here, I worked on a lot of securitisations, which are essentially a way of raising working capital for a client by converting some of their future incoming cashflows into debt products to be sold to investors. Securitisation deals are very document-heavy because of their complexity and one of my key tasks was document management. I also drafted some of the smaller documents, like board minutes and resolutions.

Next, I went to Hong Kong. I did a finance seat there too, sitting with the ship finance team. Living in Hong Kong was good fun, and it was interesting to compare the office out there with the London office. I worked on deals where banks were taking legal rights over a ship as security for a loan to finance the purchase of that ship, which works in an essentially similar way to a mortgage arrangement for a building. I also worked on matters where banks were financing the building of a new ship - there are always a lot of legal and commercial issues to be resolved between the builders, owners, banks, ship manager and charterers of the ship. As part of my work, I got to do some drafting and had a lot of exposure to the clients.

How was your seat in Construction & Engineering?

It was different in many ways to my year in finance, but also very interesting. I did a mixture of contentious and non-contentious work, which I liked. The main contentious matter that I dealt with, which eventually settled before trial, was a dispute between a retailer and a contractor who had built a car park for them that the surrounding properties' owners alleged had caused their properties to flood. My work on the matter involved a lot of research on a number of different issues, including the legal issues at stake in the dispute and, once we settled, on any applicable tax which might have been payable on the settlement agreements.

On the non-contentious side, I worked with Chris for an energy supplier employing a number of contractors who wanted to establish a framework agreement for their dealings with each of them. I got to go to the meetings and listen to why the parties wanted various provisions included, and worked on amending the draft framework agreement accordingly.

Have you been happy with the seats you've been given?

Before I started, I thought I'd be interested in transactional work, so was happy to be put into the finance department for my first seat - and I can't complain about going to Hong Kong for my second! I didn't know that much about construction before I started, but it ended up being a very good seat for me. That's what can happen in a training contract - you can't tell what something's going to be like until you're immersed in it. I've just started my last seat - in Corporate, which is an area of work I wanted to have a chance to explore and I am already noticing the different challenges in the work.

How does the seat allocation process work at Mayer Brown?

You usually have a discussion with HR before you start your training contract to discuss what you're interested in, and before your second, third and fourth seats, you fill in a form stating what your preferences are and why. They then allocate the seats as fairly as possible, and I think it works well overall. I think the secondments to an overseas office or a client that Mayer Brown offers all trainees are a very good thing - everybody gains a lot of out of this time.

How do you think you've developed since you started your first seat?

I'm a lot more organised - when you work on big transactions you jump up a few gears in terms of organisation as you realise just how much information you need to stay on top of. Another thing is attention to detail - I think a lot of lawyers would say this skill is key in the profession. My communication skills have also improved because as a trainee here you have to deal with a range of people - everyone from the people in the post room, to secretaries, partners, lawyers on the other side and, of course, clients.

What role have your supervisors played in your development?

My supervisors have taken a real interest in me and have helped me by highlighting areas where I could develop. Sometimes, that has meant being given constructive criticism, which isn't always easy to hear, but you don't make the same mistake again. They've also encouraged me to work with other lawyers in their departments to get exposure to different types of work. And because you get to share an office with your supervisor here, you get to see how they deal with clients on a day to day basis, which is useful.

Do you think you'll feel ready to qualify at the end of your final seat?

Yes, I think so. I feel I'm ready to work more independently with clients, which is the objective of the training contract. But I've also been reassured that there will still be support available if I need it - it's not that you qualify and are suddenly on your own as it's in everyone's interest to maintain a level of support.

What knowledge and skills would you like to develop over the coming months and years?

I think my organisational abilities will continue to improve. I find it impressive that the partners I work with, although they're working on several matters, are absolutely tuned in to everything that's going on in each one of them.

I also expect to continue to develop my legal knowledge because, whether you're a trainee, an associate or a partner, you always need to know what the latest developments in the legal market are.