I never saw myself as being a lawyer. Initially, I wanted to study English literature, but got rejected from my chosen university and ended up doing law. Everyone said it would be a good, transferable degree, but I realised when I graduated that I'd discounted using it as a career without giving it a chance, so I did three vacation schemes and enjoyed them a lot; one firm even offered me a training contract. The schemes prepared me well for working at a City law firm. I got to see how things worked from the inside, the kind of people I'd be working with, and the kind of work they do.
One thing they didn't prepare me for was how nervous the whole thing would make me. I'm an outgoing, sociable person, but for my first six months every day was nerve-racking. For instance, I'd do a massive piece of research and my supervising partner would turn around and say: "Well, there's £13 million resting on this and I need to call the client now... are you sure it's right?" Luckily, I've always been accurate with my research and now I'm confident enough to stand by everything I've done, without too much stressing - and confidence is a huge thing in law. You have to come across as confident, no matter how unconfident you feel. As a trainee, you're constantly being analysed and our work's always being picked apart. Even if you think it's not great or feel you could have improved on it, you need to put on some sort of show.
When you start as a trainee you do four seats, each of which is six months long. So every half year, you have to join a new team and are back at the bottom of the pecking order. Quite often, you're ready for the change and looking forward to it, but sometimes it can be intimidating. You have to make a massive effort to build rapport with people. I've seen some people struggle with the social side of things and they end up being less involved with the team.
When you join, you discuss which seats you want to do with the graduate recruitment team. You get told to make choices but, in reality, it's more like listing preferences. In my first year, I didn't get mine and was really upset, initially. I thought it was going to be a disaster and a waste of six months. I've since learnt not to be so dismissive. Even though I wasn't initially pleased with the departments I was placed in, I've had the chance to do lots of the work I'm interested in. Compared to friends at other firms, I don't do many menial tasks and I like to think that the work I'm doing is valuable to my firm.
I also think it helps that I've been working in good teams, with nice people. I've had quite a lot of responsibility and the supervisors I've had have had a genuine interest in getting me involved.
You can't just go into a department and expect interesting work to fall into your lap. You need to network unofficially among the partners and show that you're interested in that area, that you came to work hard and that you're a good person to have on board. So being able to network successfully is very important - both internally and with clients, which I didn't realise before I started. We need to present ourselves as business advisors and be able to interact with our clients on a commercial level, engaging with them on non-legal issues and on their industry and business concerns. I found that difficult at first.
The importance of communication is drilled into you at university and that was obvious to me from the outset with my firm. It's constantly fed back to you through appraisal processes - everything you draft or say needs to be communicated well. At times, though, I wonder if it's been so long since some of the senior people have qualified that they've forgotten the importance of good communication and what it's like to be a junior. There can be some really cantankerous partners, some of whose offices you're afraid to walk past in case it annoys them. It makes me think that if those partners qualified now, they might not be as successful as they have been as networking and communication have become so important. But the majority of the partners I've worked with have been lovely. At the moment, I'm working with an older partner who is really good fun. He gives me lots of support and good, clear instructions.
I'm coming to the end of my two year training contract now and I'm feeling really nervous. I've loved my time here and I feel excited about the prospect of staying on after qualification. But at the same time, I have to be practical. I'm aware that I've had a good training contract and I need to work out how I can sell this to other firms in the City with a similar place in the market to my current firm, should they decide not to take me on. I think the office will get a lot more ruthless over the next few months, with people competing for positions, but I'm wary of brown-nosing. I'm not the type of person to do it blatantly and it can be embarrassing - the schmoozing people do. It's awkward when you stumble across a partner and a trainee out for lunch together.
Overall, my job is really enjoyable, but very exhausting. I'm never out of the office before 8pm and have had to learn not to make too many midweek plans, as I only end up letting my friends down. Sometimes, I want nothing more than to go home, cook my dinner and go to bed - but I often end up eating at work in the evenings. If I do something sociable at the weekend it adds to the exhaustion throughout the week. But at the same time, I get a real buzz out of being so busy and having an exciting London life.
Craig O'Callaghan speaks to a trainee lawyer at Slaughter and May about her secondment in...