Choosing a Law Firm or Chambers
Dark wood furniture inscribes my field of vision, as I find myself at my desk mulling over some decisions I am to be making very soon: where to apply for pupillage. I found myself doing the same thing during my time at university, studying for the LLB whilst applying to law firms for vacation schemes and training contracts. In the former case, I created a spreadsheet document to be able to compare the law firms as thoroughly as I could, but I realised soon after that this wouldn't do; it's fair to say that spreadsheets don't account for collegiality, overall culture and the general feelings one has about a company, a document simply can't capture human emotional complexities like these. However, comparing empirical matter did have some uses, allowing me to apply to firms which, on paper at least, fitted my interests, who I am and what makes me feel fulfilled (I feel that perhaps why I changed route from applying to law firms to applying to chambers, wanting to be a barrister rather than a solicitor, is a story for another time, so I shall leave that complex story well alone for now). I digress. Mulling over these impending decisions made me remember the naivety with which myself and my fellow students spoke about applying to and working for law firms and chambers when we first started university. It therefore reminded me that there will be many others who haven't experienced applying for vacation schemes, mini-pupillages, training contracts, insight days or similar, and therefore could benefit from hearing what really matters from someone who has had their eyes opened and priorities changed dramatically over the course of my time at university.
Let us begin by dealing with the elephant in the room: money. Unfortunately, there are people who go into the legal profession for money, rather than for a love and passion for the law and all it enables us to do. These people, along with those who proclaim before even starting university that they're going to be the top of their field in the biggest companies in the world, tend to see themselves as characters in 'Suits', rather than facing the reality of what this means. Money is not, I shall repeat, IS NOT, the most important thing when deciding where to apply. In reality, it ought to not even be amongst your top considerations. Of course, we must all be remunerated sufficiently for our work to enable us to live, to travel to and from work, and to perform well in our jobs (there are numerous studies on human psychology regarding the correlation between pay and contentment and effort at work), but putting this above all other considerations is a grave mistake. You are more likely to end up in a company which doesn't suit you, working in a department you don't feel comfortable in, doing law you aren't interested in, and working hours much longer than you had anticipated, if this is your thought process. I have met a number of people already who seem to think of a legal career as a key to driving an exotic car and living in a mansion by their thirties. A wake-up call is in order; this is rarely, if ever, the case. Working for the 'big bucks' often entails working 12-14hr days, often six days a week, regularly missing out on celebrations and social gatherings, working when you're unwell, not taking vacation days off so you can bill more hours, and living in 'the city', close to work so you can get there and back in the few hours break you get after the days over. There are people who relish this environment, but they are in the minority. So, instead of thinking about the money and this fantasy world of riches and easy work, think of the other considerations first and the money last. As long as you're earning a good wage for the work you do, that ought to be fulfilling enough for you.
An organisations size is a very important factor indeed. Smaller chambers are often those which deal with smaller cases. As a result, you are often up on your feet, handling your own cases during your 'second-six'. Similarly, smaller firms tend to be able to spend more time with each trainee, giving them all the attention and support they could ever need. They also often operate a more family-like culture, knowing each others names and being less formal with each other. It stands to reason that the opposite is true with large firms and chambers. In the largest and most prestigious chambers, you very rarely, if ever, get to handle your own cases during your pupillage. You do, however, get to experience a vast array of work and get to help with drafting documents for some of the largest deals around the world. It's much the same at large firms, with very varied and interesting work, more lavish offices and benefits, but often less nipping and tucking of the training contract to meet your desires. Rather, you are part of a large class of trainees and are all given the same amount of time and attention. Whether one suits you more than the other is a complex question in and of itself. But do consider it in depth before applying for places. The differences between regional, national, international, silver and magic circle, and american firms, for example, are plentiful so it is vital that you are true to yourself, your real ambitions and interests, and then apply to firms and chambers accordingly.
It is often said that it is best to apply to whichever organisations can offer the widest range of work and experiences. Many students do not know exactly what they want to specialise in, even after graduating. This is not an issue, however, and students would do well to stop kicking themselves over this. It is an important and complex decision, so it would be wise to try out numerous areas of law if possible before setting your heart on one area in particular. Indeed, the SRA requires student solicitors to experience several areas of law as part of their training contract, for example mixing contentious and non-contentious work to learn how they differ day-to-day as a solicitor, and the BSB have stipulated that further courses/assessments must be completed (as well as the pupillage having to consist of two distinct six-month periods of training, referred to as practising and non-practising, although in reality there isn't quite a clear cut difference in many chambers) for a pupil to become a well-rounded barrister who can then obtain their pracitising certificate.
I have read about quite a number of lawyers who have moved city, and in some cases country, to start at a new firm to then find that they just can't get used to where they are. Sometimes overlooked too much, where the company offices are based is very important. Not only can it greatly effect your living costs and remuneration, but further can result in a change in culture which one must be able to adapt to. Even in small scale relocations, such as moving from Leeds to London, often people will realise that they miss home and the things they're used to much more than they could have imagined. Similarly, if you've never been to a city, then it may not be the best idea to put all of your money and time into moving to said place without checking it out in person first. I realise this is not always feasible, especially if moving to another country for work, but where possible it really ought to be done. It seems, for example, that a growing number of UK law graduates are completing their bar training for the NY or California Bar, with the aim being to work in the United States. However, one should always resist the urge to put all their eggs in one basket, especially if you are not accustomed to the culture. For example, from my time in NY, combined with what I have seen online and read about from NY based attorney's, when compared to being a lawyer in London, New York is a much faster-paced place with more of a burden on high billable-hour targets, fewer days off and benefits, but higher salaries as a result. The work seems to be less varied and based more around high-valued M&A, Finance and Appellate law. From my time there, I can see how the work would be fast-paced as the city literally never seems to sleep and people do seem to be in much more of a rush than in London. The reason why I've gone off on this tangent is to explain (albeit an extreme case) how much things can differ when you move somewhere new for a job, and thus why it is so important to really consider this.
Application Process and New Hires
I've grouped these two together as I feel that they link in rather well. I have been told several times now that one of the best ways to know what type of person a firm/chambers is looking for is to look at their new hires. This has turned out to be very good advice, I believe, as it can tell you rather a lot in a short space of time. For example, some chambers I have looked at have had a diverse array of people with varying degrees, representing many academic institutions around the world, and each with unusual but highly interesting hobbies. Others, however, tend to focus more on your academics with almost all of their newer tenants being Oxbridge educated. This can help you to know if you would fit in, how you may look to them when you apply (that is, how you look comparatively with others who may be applying and against their 'checklist' for applicants), and bluntly how much of a chance you stand. There is some truth in this as well, from my experience at least. The application process can paint a similar picture for you, with some firms taking either a more relaxed approach, or at least a more varied approach with a range of exercises to give everyone a fair shot. Other firms, however, may have just one or two big interviews and assessments, designed to test one or two skills which are especially important to them. Again, there seems to be some truth to this (although in this modern day-and-age, firms do tend to be moving slowly towards a more friendly and progressive approach to hiring), with firms and chambers which have historically occupied the upper echelons being more likely to screen applicants more strictly, and with more preparation required (for example, many such firms (although not exclusively firms in this domain) require you to read large passages of text before the assessment days which you will then be quizzed on or tasked with creating a skeleton argument for court for). Of course, I am not advocating at all that you choose firms based on how much hard work you have to put in when applying to them, that would be awful advice! Rather, I am saying that the application process and their new hires can be good indicators of a firms expectations, culture, whether you would fit in etc.
I hope you have found this article to be of some use, at least. There are several other factors one ought to consider, but these do not appear to be as problematic for students as the ones I have listed. If anyone feels that I have missed anything, please do comment on the article and I shall endevour to answer. This article is especially important now, as we are soon to enter the time for pupillage applications, as well as for many of the insight days and summer work schemes. So please do heed these points as they may well come to hand in the near future. If nothing else, I hope that these points at least show you whether you are on the right track with how you are going about selecting which places to apply to (a side note on this: remember quality over quantity. Any recruitment staff worth their salt will know if you've tailored your application to them or not. Any applications with a whiff of copy-and-paste will certainly be thrown away).