Law firm spy: finance associate at a City law firm

An anonymous lawyer's insider account of what their working life is like

A finance associate at a City law firm (who asked to remain anonymous) gives a no-holds-barred account of what their working life is like.

"I've been at my firm for five years now, three as an associate in a finance department and two as a trainee.

My training contract was fairly typical for a large City firm that's strong in finance - two finance seats, a stint in corporate and six months in Singapore doing a mixture of finance and corporate work."

My training contract

"My supervisors were all good lawyers but had different working styles.

One didn't like me doing work for anyone else - it was great to get very involved on his deals, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more of what the rest of the department was doing.

Another never had any work that I could help him with which meant that I had to go and find my own, giving me a taste of life as an associate.

You have to do some tedious tasks as a trainee, like proofreading documents or reading through long memos, but doing so gives you a better understanding of the deals you're working on. And if you do these tasks well, you get more interesting ones.

I didn't find the qualification process stressful - I had a good relationship with my supervisor and the partners in the department I'm now in and knew I had a good chance of being taken on.

But starting life as a newly-qualified lawyer was hard. You don't have a supervisor to guide you with finding work. More is suddenly expected of you. It took me a while to realise that people don't expect you to know everything."

Working life

"I'm always working on two or three things at once.

If I haven't got time for anything new, I just say no and the work will go to someone else, though we have to work a certain number of hours every year and there have been occasions when the whole department is very busy and I've had to take on more than I would ideally have done.

There's usually a sense of urgency and enthusiasm around our deals - they're important to our clients, and sometimes make it into the business press.

If you're interested in the financial world, it's fascinating to talk to bankers, see how deals happen, and sense developments in the market before anyone on the outside.

I'm given a lot of responsibility now. There's always a partner, and usually a more senior associate too on my deals but their time is more expensive to the client than mine so I'll often be the one who drafts the documents and runs things on a day-to-day basis.

They'll take the lead on the calls we have with the client and check major documents before I send them out. I can ask them questions, but they're often very busy, so I have to make sure I only ask the questions I really need to. More senior people often don't just give you an answer - finding a solution usually means doing a lot of research or suggested drafting yourself, and they'll then quickly provide some guidance.

I often find my work hard, as I'm encouraged to delegate anything I find easy to someone more junior and then supervise them as they do it to help them learn.

But I find the challenges satisfying. There's a technical pleasure in making sure the clauses in your documents do exactly what you want and that they fit in with the other documents on the deal - it's a bit like doing a crossword or algebra problem.

And it's satisfying to stay on top of all the administration involved in a deal and see it close successfully because you kept everything on track.

You can't avoid being aware of how many years of experience each of your colleagues has, which determines who can delegate work to whom, and also the order in which people are copied into emails and listed on deal team contact lists - and of course, how much everyone is paid. Some firms are moving to more merit-based systems.

It's important to get on well with people. In order to progress you need to be good at your work, but also visible in the department and relatively well-liked. That means making the effort to work with a range of people, going to some departmental social events, and stopping to chat when you're not too busy."

Life outside the office?

"Blackberries are a key part of being a City lawyer. We all have them and it means that you can always be contacted - you're expected to respond promptly, within reason.

The good side of having them is that you don't have to stay at your desk in the evenings if you're waiting for an email, but can go out for dinner or to the gym and can sometimes deal with issues without going back to the office.

And I like being able to get hold of other lawyers on the team if I need to ask them a quick question out of office hours, and our clients tend to be available on them most of the time as well which is helpful.

It's very hard to generalise about the hours I work. If there's not much happening on my deals, I leave at 6pm. When things are busy, there's no limit to the hours you could do - I've had to work all through the night and then until midnight the next evening, and have had weeks on end of never leaving the office before 10pm.

As my hours are pretty unpredictable, I don't make plans for weekday evenings any more because I don't like keeping my friends waiting, or cancelling on them. I usually have my weekends free though, and if you've booked a holiday it's generally respected."

And the future...

"Some of my colleagues are very keen to become partners. But others don't think that the financial and professional rewards make up for the sacrifices required.

I haven't decided whether I want to go for partnership yet, but I'm interested in trying an in-house role at a bank by going on secondment and perhaps switching over permanently.

I'm not very tempted by moving to a similar role at another City firm - the work would be very similar and I'd lose the benefit of the relationships I've built up here.

But if one of the partners I work with moved, I might consider following them if they asked me - it's not unusual for partners to take a few associates with them when they move firms."

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