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From trainee to partner

CMS Cameron McKenna's Emma Frost, who became a partner after just seven years, tells Hannah Langworth how you could progress at a major law firm
Law school and training contracts

I've been at CMS Cameron McKenna for nearly ten years now. I did my training contract here, doing seats in our corporate and employment departments, in our Aberdeen office working on oil and gas-related deals, and then in our pensions department. I decided to stay in the pensions department when I qualified, and was made a partner last year.

Your training contract

I think I have a good insight into the training contract process because I was a trainee supervisor for number of years, as well as obviously having been a trainee myself. During this time, you'll develop your legal knowledge and your legal awareness. But it's about a lot more than that. You're building up your commercial awareness and your ability to communicate complex advice in a way that's easy to understand and to the point. It's also about learning how to liaise with clients and building a network across your firm.

As a trainee, you need to be proactive. Once you're in each seat, you're only there for six months and you need to get as much experience as possible. This is especially relevant if you're in a department that you want to qualify into because if you join them as a newly-qualified lawyer (NQ) you'll be expected to have a good base of knowledge and to be able to take things forward. You also need to make a good impression - in some ways, each seat is a six month interview. So you should make sure you follow things up - for example, don't just do a piece of research, but encourage those who you do that research for to take you along to meetings with the client and get you involved with the progress of the matter.

Your firm should help you develop. You should be given a comprehensive induction course at the beginning of your training contract, which we offer at CMS Cameron McKenna. Here we generally also offer departmental-specific training courses at the beginning of each seat. Your supervisors should ensure you get involved with their department's work and get exposure to clients. Everyone else in the department should help make sure you get a full overview of all the department's work and that you feel part of the team.

Qualification and progression

At CMS Cameron McKenna, each practice area decides how many vacancies they have for NQs and then, during their final seat, trainees are encouraged to put their applications forward to qualify into a particular department or departments. From there, we speak to your previous supervisors and look at each of your appraisal forms from across your training contract. You may be involved in an interview process and complete a set written exercise. But whether you're able to qualify into a department is not just dependent on this assessment process - it's important to make your interest clear while you're doing your seat there.

Here at CMS Cameron McKenna we have three tiers of qualified lawyers below partner level. In order to move up to the next level, you need to meet certain criteria. These include technical competencies, but also your marketing skills, commercial awareness, team working ability, and what you're contributing to the department - and there are training sessions to help you work on these areas.

The criteria for promotion are set out clearly - people can see what their goals should be and what they need to do to achieve them. The point at which you're promoted is dependent on merit, rather than years of experience. The benefit of this system is that you don't just gradually move on automatically, but need to meet specific targets in order to progress which keeps everyone focused and driven. It also allows people to develop at a speed that's appropriate for them.

I think progression as a junior lawyer is all about developing your confidence - you shouldn't be overconfident, but it's good to appreciate you know your legal topic so you're qualified to speak to clients and have something worthwhile to say to them. Confidence is also about knowing when to have something checked by someone else and when to ask for help.

It's definitely possible to build client relationships as a junior lawyer, which can often be done through more senior lawyers. The junior associate who shares my office is closely involved with some of my clients. He's taken on the day to day liaising with them and comes and participates in all of the meetings. Through this kind of activity, you can build up a rapport with clients and get to know the ins and outs of their business so that advice can be tailored to their specific needs. To get these opportunities, however, you need to gain the confidence of more senior lawyers so they trust you to take the relationship with the client forward. But because we have thorough recruitment processes, we know that our trainees and junior lawyers are of the standard we'd expect.

Becoming a partner?

To become a partner, I think you need to be proactive and to make sure you're getting all the experience you possibly can. The most important thing, however, is to build strong relationships with clients and also with other people at your firm - you'll often need to draw on the expertise of a colleague in another team. You also need to be very organised, making sure you're hitting all your deadlines. The ability to delegate is also very important - ensuring that work is being carried out by a suitable team of people at the right levels of experience in a cost-efficient way.

Deciding whether or not you want the privileges and responsibilities of being a partner is usually a decision that comes a few years after you qualify. Some people will have known from day one at a firm that they want to be a partner, while others will decide later, or some may decide to become an in-house lawyer for a client or do something completely different. There are also other options within a law firm - at CMS Cameron McKenna we have some very experienced senior lawyers who have decided not to go down the partnership route who are known as consultants. But at the start of your time at a law firm you should make sure you get as much experience and client exposure as possible and show that you're keen to get involved and to build professional relationships inside and outside of the firm. Then you'll be in a good position when you're making decisions about your career further down the line.

My key advice for those entering the profession is to choose to qualify into the area of law that you have an interest in and enjoy. Don't pick an area just because it sounds good or you think it's a sensible decision. As a qualified lawyer a large part of your day will be spent in the office and if you really enjoy your work it will show through in the quality of what you do.