Law firm spy: the qualification process

An anonymous lawyer's insider account of how they found the qualification process
Law school and training contracts

A newly-qualified associate at a City law firm (who asked to remain anonymous) gives a no-holds-barred account of their experience of the qualification process.

"For most trainees, the qualification process begins almost a year before your first day as an newly-qualified associate (NQ).

This is because at most firms, including mine, you have to submit your qualification preferences a month or so into your fourth seat. So, if you're sensible, you start thinking about what those preferences are going to be as soon as you've found your feet in your third seat.

Unfortunately it's not just about what you want, or even how good a lawyer you are. Firm politics and profit margins are also likely to have a significant influence on the future of your career, so you need to think about these as much as your own aspirations."

Advance preparations

"I, like many other trainees, found the run-up to qualification nerve-racking. But the fact that you've been through something similar a few times already in the training contract seat allocation process helps.

On my first time round, choosing my second seat, I made the mistake of thinking that all you had to do to get the seat you wanted was to reply to HR's seat allocation email with the numbered list they requested.

In fact, getting your dream seat is a far more complicated process involving some, or preferably all, of the following: finding out from other trainees what working in other seats is really like (which might differ quite a lot from what you learnt about those areas of work at law school), getting to know the partners in any department you're interested in, and letting HR know as soon as possible what you're particularly keen to do.

I managed to get the process right - and get the seat I wanted - for my third six months at the firm. But when I turned my attention to qualification, I found I had fewer options that you'd think."

Making friends and influencing people

"It's unusual to qualify into your first seat as it's hard to impress while you're finding your feet.

It's also rare to qualify into your final seat as the timing of qualification choices means that a request to join this department as an NQ is a shot in the dark for you and the department concerned.

And I, like many City firm trainees, was going abroad for my fourth seat, and qualifying into this overseas office wasn't an option.

That leaves your second and third seats - and if one of these isn't making much money, you can knock that department out too.

In my case, thanks to my lack of understanding of the nuances of the seat allocation system, my second seat department hadn't been my first, or even second, choice.

Going into a department you think you won't like doesn't mean you won't enjoy it - some trainees end up loving an area of work they thought they'd hate, and good colleagues can go a long way towards making things more palatable than you'd expect. It just hadn't worked out that way for me.

So my third seat, fortunately one of the firm's highest-earning and fastest-growing teams at that point, was my only choice. Time to start impressing.

Star trainees can expect to be wined and dined by partners, and some even get promised cushy secondments and an office with a view (many NQs end up plonked in windowless cells).

However, not being one of these, I had to stick to working hard and, just as importantly, making sure I got noticed."

Going abroad and coming home

"After six months of long hours at my desk and spending any free time at training breakfasts, client drinks and departmental meetings, I was ready for a change of scene.

Bring on the fourth seat abroad - traditionally a respite for City firm trainees after three seats of very hard work that allows them to catch up on sleep and sunshine before being plunged into essentially more of the same as an NQ back in London.

However, all too often trainees in Dubai, Singapore or Chicago find themselves working just as frantically as they did in the City, which was certainly the case for me.

But on the plus side, because most other countries' legal systems don't have the concept of a trainee, you often find yourself being treated as a qualified lawyer, which means extra responsibility and independence.

Meanwhile, the wheels of the qualification process were grinding on. Research done, contacts cemented, I submitted my choices and sat back to wait as the partners considered my fate and that of the other trainees in my intake. I regarded most of these as allies and friends, so it was disconcerting to realise we were now in competition.

For this reason and the stress of the qualification process in general, I was glad to be out of London, though I had a feeling that the fourth-seat trainees who'd opted to stay would be squeezing in some last-minute campaigning.

At one point I was so worried I might not be kept on that I discussed what was available at my firm's competitors with a headhunter, probably a sensible move for any qualifying trainee.

But eventually, just after Christmas, the email from the partner in charge of trainees came, letting me know that he'd be calling me during one of the few weekend breaks I'd been able to take during my time abroad. This meant that I had to ensure that while sunbathing and swimming I never strayed too far out of mobile reception.

It was worth it, however, as the news was good - I'd be kept on, and in my chosen department."