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A training contract is the two-year period of on-the-job experience that graduates must complete after law school in order to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales.

Becoming a lawyer at a large commercial firm usually means gaining a place on the firm’s training contract programme.

Here's a guide to training contracts at large commercial law firms and the best way to approach this important part of your career as a lawyer.

Structure of a training contract

Your firm must provide you with experience in at least three different areas of law, including some contentious (dispute-related) and some non-contentious (deal-related) 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 even more flexible systems are also found.

The seats you’ll 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 and dispute resolution, arbitration, employment or construction and engineering departments. However, some firms offer the option of doing a short course (usually a few weeks' long) in dispute resolution instead – great for those who know they want to focus on non-contentious work.

How seats are allocated

A few weeks before every seat rotation, you’ll be asked where you want to go next.

Especially if you want to do a popular seat, it can also be important to make your interest known in advance to partners in the department or HR.

Priority is often given to trainees in later seats, which means you may not be asked for your preferences for your first seat.

Overseas seats and client secondments

Most large commercial firms offer both seats abroad and client secondments, usually for those in the second year of their training contract.

Supervisors and training

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.

Assessment

You’re entitled to three formal appraisals and regular informal reviews of your work. Most firms hold trainee appraisals at the middle and end of each seat.

Qualification requirements

You need to get good experience of at least three areas of law and complete the Professional Skills Course, a programme of several days of study spread across the two years that your firm will arrange for you.

The qualification process

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 legal recruitment consultant about your options around six months to as much as a year before you qualify.

Doing so means you'll have a head start if you're forced to move and, even if you don't, you'll have had a valuable opportunity to think about and get independent advice on your firm and your career in law.  

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