I'm a trainee at a City law firm

What's working at a top law firm really like? Mayer Brown trainee Hannah Cartwright tells Hannah Langworth about her career so far
Introducing commercial law

Commercial law is an exciting career option for bright graduates. But how do you know if it's right for you? Hannah Cartwright joined global law firm Mayer Brown just over a year ago. Here, she explains how she found her way into commercial law and what she enjoys about her job.

Where did you go to university and what did you study?

I studied history at Royal Holloway, University of London, which gave me lots of transferable skills that I've found helpful as a lawyer. I then went to law school - I studied for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the College of Law in Birmingham.

What made you decide to become a lawyer?

I had always considered law as a potential career, even before going to university. I wanted to have an intellectually stimulating job and to join a respected profession.

Why did you choose to work at a City law firm?

Once I started to find out about the different types of law, I found I was most interested in business-related law. I became interested in working in the City because I wanted to get exposure to high profile clients and the international aspects of their work.

How would you describe the role of a City lawyer?

We help clients in two main ways. First, existing clients will come to us for advice on the legal aspects of the day to day running of their business. For example, they might want to pass a board resolution and need us to advise on what form it should take and what they should include.

Second, when our clients are involved in a big project with a legal dimension, such as the acquisition of another company or a dispute, they need us to manage that project with them.

What kind of clients do you work for?

We work for large corporates, including some household name PLCs and a lot of smaller private companies.

We also advise investment banks and other financial services organisations. Our clients are very varied, and include everything from football clubs to chocolatiers to media companies!

What have you worked on so far?

I spent my first six months in our real estate department. I worked on property leases and other property-related documents for some clients with very large real estate portfolios - one of our clients owns most of Covent Garden! I also worked on some smaller matters, and in some cases could manage them day to day by myself.

I found that land law really came alive for me in practice, especially when the work involved a well-known chain of shops or another business that I'd heard of - what I was working on then really seemed tangible. I also found getting a high level of responsibility at such an early stage of my career very rewarding.

I then went on secondment to a large multinational corporate client. I was based in their head office and sat with their internal legal team. My work there was varied, from intellectual property (IP) and employment law to general corporate and IT contracts.

I also did some interesting work on specific projects, such as product launches and branding processes - often people in the business developing or marketing products would come to us and ask if something would work legally and we'd have to find the answer.

I'm now back at Mayer Brown and have just started working in our corporate department.

What kind of tasks do City lawyers do day to day?

As a trainee, I sit with a supervisor and work closely with him. Often, he'll get calls or emails from a client and will ask me to research particular questions and write a memo for the client, which he might then adjust before we send it back to them.

I also get to do the first drafts of lots of the documents involved in our work, which more senior lawyers will then amend, as appropriate, helping me to learn.

I do document management - for example, keeping track of documents coming in from clients and other parties in relation to a particular matter where it's necessary to collate these documents for a due diligence process or for another part of the transaction.

As you get more experienced, you focus more on drafting the most complex sections of documents. You also have more client contact and play more of a management role on deals or disputes as by then you're better able to look at the process as a whole and understand what needs to be done and when.

Depending on what the client needs, at the most senior level some partners are very hands-on in their management of deals while others take more of a top-level advisory role - but they always know exactly what everyone's doing.

What have your clients been like to work with?

Everyone I've worked with at client organisations has been really nice. There's an understanding that they need our advice and help in order to get a particular job done or to solve a difficult problem.

We regularly work on big, high-profile projects here and there's often a lot of money on the line, so there are times when some stress is involved in the process, especially when we have tight deadlines. But it always feels like we're all in it together and working for one goal as a team.

What are City lawyers like as people?

You have to be ambitious, hardworking and like challenges - it takes a lot of time and commitment just to start on this career path, and a lot will be expected of you at a City law firm.

On a more practical level, you have to be very organised and dedicated to completing things you take on. Being able to pay close attention to detail is also key.

You have to be quite assertive and prepared to take the initiative. If you're doing a piece of work and you realise that what you're working on is part of a bigger issue or that more steps need to be taken, it's important to be aware of the implications. Clients will expect you to point out things they should consider or take extra steps, if appropriate.

You have to be able to manage your own time and set your own deadlines, even as a trainee. You'll often have a number of different tasks to do for different people and need to make sure you meet the deadline for each, as well as being flexible enough to deal with other things that come up suddenly.

It also helps to be able to be positive when you're very busy, which comes because you're keen to take on a high level of responsibility and to do your work well.

I'd add that everyone's very normal here - there are no big egos, and everybody's up for having fun as well as working hard. For example, last year a group of us from the firm took part in a charity bike ride to Amsterdam.

Are there any downsides to your job?

At peak times of a transaction, the hours can be long and going home at 7.30pm counts as an early night.

Also, you don't always know what your day will hold, so sometimes you have to be prepared to drop something you were planning to do.

But people have lives outside work and there's a recognition at the firm that this balance is important.

What do you like most about your job?

The work is mentally stimulating - we sometimes get questions that we don't know the answer to so have to put a lot of thought into them before we go back to the client.

When I'm given something to work on I sometimes initially feel I'm out of my comfort zone but the other lawyers here are very supportive and later it's always very rewarding to see the results of something we've worked hard on or when some work I've done goes straight to our client.

I also enjoy the client contact and the responsibility you get as a lawyer. It's great to speak to a client, talk them through something, and know they appreciate and trust your advice.