Sunday, 5 August 2012

Admission to the Roll: So, Now I Can Be Sued.....

My new mug for the office
I realise I have been away from blogging for a while.  The reasons for this are numerous: lack of time, involvement at work, general brain funk from thinking too hard.  The underlying reason for all these is simple: I wanted to get a job.

I will say that my firms retention rate this year was 100% - in fact, there were more jobs than trainees qualifying, and no-one got their second choice of position.  However, if you'd have said that to me back in November, I would have laughed at you.  The simple truth is that the recession has hit law firms hard, and the last couple of years have been really difficult for qualifying trainees.  Retention rates have been very low and there has been a lack of NQ jobs in the market.  This has now picked up, but the uncertainty adds to the pressure of the NQ process.

I don't think those outside the law (or indeed, those who have been in the profession a while) appreciate how much pressure trainees are placed under during the run up to qualification and the battle to secure an NQ position. From the start of the second year, the white elephant of potential unemployment starts to grow. Bottom line: your career is in the balance.  This may sound a little dramatic, but it is entirely true.  Your workload, firm, job security, wages are all dependent on securing that NQ position.  Getting the job offer can be the difference between making the first strides on the rest of your life, or scouring the adverts for a new firm.  If you add the fact that nearly all trainees have a large amount of financial debt, built from years of student living and training on wages that don't match the expected lifestyle, the potential of being thrown into the job market at little notice isn't particularly relaxing.

If you remove the question of employment, the question of practice area still remains; what do you want to do for the foreseeable future?  This is question is as loaded as when you were asked it after your A-levels, and for some is just as unanswerable.  Trainees hope that during the course of their training contract they have a romantic epiphany; they look across the room at a lone practice areas, the seats meet, electric energy charges the room and at that moment they know career satisfaction. They have found 'the one'.  I was actually surprised at how this happened at my firm, 4 out of the 7 of us (including me) fell in love with one of our second year seats.  The rest have positions but I don't sense the same passion in them - maybe their choice was fuelled by other motivations, perhaps they are just less verbally smitten.  What I do know is that there has been a visible release of tension in all of us since we signed on the dotted line.  I don't think any of us realised the stress we were putting ourselves under.

Personally, that stress was enormous.  I have been working for 7 years to get where I am now, struggling financially for the most part, constantly striving to do better, to stand out, to get ahead (I am writing this watching the Olympics and realise I sound like one of the athletes - took me down of my dramatic high horse a little!).  The ramp up of the pressure in the second year was one I wasn't expecting.  Looking back I realise I was stretching myself very thin - never saying no to anything, willingly burning the candles at both ends and travelling round the country to stay in my boss' good books.  I'm not complaining in the slightest - I was and am willing to do what it takes.  However, I don't underestimate what it did to my social life (what social life!), my interests (what interests?) and general health (what health? there's a pattern here....).  Coupled with this was my ability and drive to blog - it was the first casualty of my stress ridden life.

Trainees-in-waiting shouldn't be put off by this post.  Anyone who has got as far as the second year of their training contract and is serious about qualification is likely to be willing to put themselves through the stress.  It takes a certain type of person to become a lawyer - one of the personality traits tends to be a drive to do well is one of them (This can be based in ambition, arrogance, neurosis... they all have the same result!).  In all honesty, you don't realise its there until you get the job offer and it disappears.  Qualification is the anti-climax on the cake after signing your contract of employment.

I am happy to say I qualified last Wednesday. Let 1 August 2012 be set in stone as the first day of the rest of my life.  I am very proud of myself and currently very happy.  As yet, I have not been set upon by the stress of targets, billing, time recording etc - the general responsibility of the qualified solicitor.  And so I return to my neglected blog - for the time being.  I am now Miss NQ - please don't sue me!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The grumpy young men; the anti-social media movement for trainees

Miss TS kinda cracked with all the hatin.......

As some of you might be aware from my (slightly frustrated) tweets, my firm has recently embraced* social media.

*read introduced in a stumbling, halting series of initatives, not unlike like bambi standing up.

The trainees have been involved from the start, not through choice but through the powers that be assuming young people have an affinity for all things technology. Born in the digital age, we use and understand technology without thinking, it is second nature to us. Or so they thought.

It turns out, I am the only trainee tweeter and, I am sad to say, the only trainee who had ever read a law blog. Shock horror! I thought perhaps this may have been due to the previously onerous social media policy, which was very heavy handed and likely to put off any newbie from going anywhere near. Or perhaps like me, the trainees secretly blog and tweet but didn't want to admit it.

In fact this was far from the case. Half the trainees are social media sceptics.

I know that most of those who slate social media have never used it; they simply don't understand the uses of twitter or linked in. A lot of sceptics convert and rave about social media once they have learnt how to use it. Personally my knowledge and understanding of the law has been widended through twitter discussions and blogging has hugely improved my writing skills (if I do say so myself, I think I write a damn good blogpost!). Even if not used to engage, twitter delivers a wealth of relevant, topical and timely information to your screen just by following the right accounts. Several snippets I picked up from client tweets gave my supervisor an edge whilst talking to the client in question, information which was not available through any other medium.

The trainees are not converts in waiting - they have actively tried social media and dismissed it. They feel it is a waste of time they could be using elsewhere and they found no value in the information disseminated. Even linked in didn't interest them as they had no client contacts to link in with.

In particular I have been stumped by the response to one idea from marketing; a trainee blog; hosted by the firm but run by trainees. The content will be written from a trainee point of view and more personalised than the client briefing style blogs the firm currently hosts. The target audience is those looking for training contracts initially but, provided it is done well, could very possibly have a wider appeal. On a more selfish note, a trainee blog would be a good personal marketing tool both internally and externally as, unlike the articles that many of the trainees write for their supervisors or sector groups, we would take the credit. It would give us something to push through social media and, of course top of the list, something to put on the CV.

Unfortunately, what I thought would be an easy win has turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Every spearhead meeting I would organise with the trainees, the sceptics would turn up and slate the idea. I actually had one trainee tell me 'there was nothing interesting about his job to write about'. Lucky for him, there was no partner in the room! Despite the proposed discussion topics for the sessions (e.g. post ideas, partner interviews and the infamous naming meeting that lasted 2 hours) they manage to turn the conversation back to their lack of belief in the idea. What iritates me most about this is that it isn't compulsory; they turn up to the meetings out of choice!

All in all I am flabbergasted (yes, it merits the use of that word) that trainees could be so narrow minded. I am not suggesting that everyone should be forced to use social media, not at all. However, actively shooting down a new iniative because you don't see the merit in it and aren't willing to try shows lack of vision. Law firms are going to have to evolve to survive; how are they going to act if they are so opposed to a little optional idea?

I hope, trainees to be, that you will be more open to innovation when you become trainees!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A bit of a rant: how not to be a good trainee

These past couple of weeks have been very busy for me in a marketing sense. There was a BIG tender push (which we won!), website design plus three client functions. This, coupled with a new, very demanding, seat has swamped me with work to the point of overload. So much so that I had to call in one of the new trainees to take some of the work off my hands.

Now, the new trainees have only been in the office for 6 weeks. so I wasn't expecting miracles. I handed over the easier bits that needed doing - a bit of client research, article ideas - the type of marketing that trainees usually get involved with. Unfortunately I didn't get the quality level I was expecting.

My instructions hadn't been followed, the research was no more than cut and paste from the client's website, the article ideas were the headlines from BBC news with no legal relevance, and, most irritating of all, there were typos (seriously, the queen does not award 'OBC's!) Normally, I wouldn't critisize a trainee, after all, I am trainee too and we are all learning. However when the work given to me is of such poor quality or of such little use that I have to do it again and in less time, I think I am vindicated to have a little moan!

I understand that marketing isn't every one's cup of tea (although this really won't wash as an excuse with me) and when you are a new first year it can be a bit difficult to  appreciate what exactly is a good idea for an article. What bugs me is the lack of effort this trainee put in. He is bright enough not to think it was of an appropriate standard and he asked for work so wasn't pushed for time. It therefore, in my mind, can only be pure laziness or sloppiness, both of which are not qualities that trainees can afford to display.

This may seem a little bit harsh but at the end of the day we are all competing against each other and the others certainly won't be making those kind of mistakes. It shouldn't matter that it was a junior that asked for the work, negative feedback will get back to those who make the big decisions. Trainees really don't want to get a reputation for not delivering or for poor results. A bad reputation is much more likely to stick than a good one and far more difficult to shift.

The other issue is that I won't be asking that trainee for help again unless there is no other option. Given that I often have sector work going spare which can become high profile (did I mention we had won THE tender?) he has really shot himself in the foot. Trainees can't afford to burn their bridges like this, two years go by in a flash and every opportunity will count come recruitment time.

The one thing that I keep in the back of my mind to keep performing is that I am lucky to have a training contract at all. For every one trainee at my firm, there were at least 10 disappointed candidates and I'm sure this figure is much bigger for larger firms. I think it is insulting to the trainees-in-waiting who were turned down to give me a chance if I don't make the most of it. There are graduates literally begging for contracts, I cannot understand why anyone would want to waste theirs.

So! Rant over! But take note trainees-in-waiting, don't make the same mistakes this trainee did.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Social Media: not so social anymore......

Those of you who follow me on twitter might know that there has been a series of social media-ry meetings at my Firm recently. One such meeting took place this week, with the result, I am pleased to announce (more for my neck-being-on-the-line than anything else) that we are now allowed to blog.

The other impact of the relaxation of the social media policy is that we are now being encouraged to tweet, if we feel so inclined. The Firm have realised that a) twitter is useful for 'spreading the word' and b) using personal accounts rather than @theFirm (although now I really want that account!) is much more productive. (yes, there is enlightenment in marketing strategy occasionally!)

However, the Firm would prefer if we use only one account to communicate with the twitterverse, both for work and personal tweets (read this in the same way as the Firm preference for none pink hair).  This has caused some concern with me: lawyers are not known for leaving their work in the office. Even as a Trainee I routinely take bits home with me to finish of an evening and I imagine this is much more prevalent the more senior you become (and jumps when you are 'trusted' with a company phone...). While I know of several twegals who do jointly tweet in a personal and official capacity very successfully (@DavidMorganLLB and @BrianInkster spring to mind) to me it raises a separate question: where do you draw the line between work and home life?

The justification for the preference is that, in reality, lawyers make money by selling themselves (not literally. OK, maybe a little). Their skills, personality and knowledge are amalgamated into a product that clients buy into. A lawyer's personal life does in some ways assist his employability and removing the personal element from a twitter account could dilute its impact in this respect. In the same way that you might take a client to the golf course, interacting about golf over twitter may help clients relate to you.

Lawyers are in a unique position in this respect as a result that we sell our personal services. A factory worker wouldn't have the same dilemma - his personal account usage, unless he was bad-mouthing his job, wouldn't reflect on his employer or on the contracts his employer wins. For a lawyer, it certainly would. Does this mean that lawyers shouldn't use twitter personally? Not at all although they should be aware that a client may still be able to track them down. A degree of care therefore might be appropriate; lawyers still go out but perhaps not to a client's local pub.

It may not be an issue for lawyers who aren't interested in using twitter in any way other than to raise their profile. However, not distinguishing between personal and work related accounts may create a problem for those who actually do (like me) use twitter personally. Miss TS does rant occasionally, she does like shoes far too much and she does watch some trashy TV when it suits. These are not things I want to draw the attention of my clients to and I am sure they wouldn't really want to know either (I question whether I want to give them the option!). Should I censor these aspects of my twitter usage so that my account is client friendly? Not if I don't want to.

That is essentially the issue. I am by no means saying that lawyers shouldn't merge their personal and professional twitter lives but it should be an individual choice.  Those who don't feel comfortable censoring themselves or would rather keep the work/home distinction in place ought to be able to make that judgement call. The Firm wouldn't be able to make their lawyers constantly wear name badges while socialising, so why are they claiming the online social lives of their employees?

Should I be allowed to use social media for my own enjoyment and not for the furtherance of the Firm? I think so.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

No fear here: finding the one (Training Contract)

Finding a training contract is difficult. Full stop. With all the difficulty it would be easy to forget that a TC is not just a means to an end but the path an NQ position and the rest of your professional life. I have been reminded of this recently as a lot of my LPC cohort are now qualifying. I am happy to say that all of my close friends have been offered jobs with the firms they trained at. You might think this is the goal for any trainee and that with the knowledge of a secure NQ position, my friends would be happy. Most of them are. One of them, unfortunately, has found himself in a bit of a career black hole.

I was fortunate enough to have obtained a TC (and funding) before I started the LPC. My friend was not so lucky but did have a back up option of training at a family member's firm. He had done all the right things, pro bono work, head of the uni law soc, good academic record and avid rugby player. He did somehow  struggle to get relevant work experience (well turning up to the networking event in a track suit and proceeding to drink his way through the complementary wine supply didn't help) and had not been offered a training contract by the time electives came round. Faced with 5 years of student debt, he went for his back up option.

It is a difficult dilemma and one that will be much more prevalent as tuition fees rise: wait for a TC that might not come or go for something now that might not be ideal. At the end of a period of study where the goal is a TC, not having one is a scary prospect. It is easy to forget it is not only the firm that chooses you, the firm you select may also have a big impact on your future. It isn't as simple as the practice areas on offer at the firm you train with; the training style, client base, reputation and even location of the firm can influence your options as an NQ.

Returning to my friend, the firm he plumped for was a small high street firm. They did have a family partner, the area he wanted (and still wants) to specialise in, but due to the size of the practice, he wasn't able to do a family seat as you would in a bigger firm. In fact he found himself doing a bit of anything on offer but nothing to a high degree. The experience he had is what springs to mind when you think of a training contract with a high street firm, not unsurprisingly (at least to everyone but him!).

Now, let me clarify, I am not criticising this mode of training in any way. It may be exactly what you are looking for, it just wasn't what my friend considered his ideal training contract. His plan was to get the training out of the way and then move on to 'bigger and better' things. It hasn't really worked out that way.  His training has moulded him into what his firm was looking for - the phrase 'Jack of all trades, master of none' springs to mind. He has not had the experience of complex cases or key clients to allow him to move immediately into a dedicated department in a larger firm. In short, he is only likely to be able to get an NQ position in a high street firm and until he develops his work portfolio or someone gives him a chance, that is it.
The upshot of all this is that he actually considering alternative careers, so unhappy is he with his current lot. What a waste.

Ashley Connick has written about making sure you categorise the firms you apply to correctly. Really you need to consider your career as well when you're filling out those applications. It is easy to fire off forms left right and centre but keep in mind the wider implications of training with those firms. Don't let 'the fear' scare you into a training contract at a firm you can't see your self working at, persevere until you get something that fits your plans. There is so much focus on securing a TC that turning one down might seem crazy. Accepting one just because it was offered to you and not because it is the career path you want could be just as foolish. Remember, a back up option is not really an option if it doesn't ultimately lead you in the direction you wish to travel.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The magic Third Seat: hopping season strike 2 and a trip to Wales

If the welsh Names are anything like this I'm done for!
While I was a lounging with a leg the size of the tree trunk, hopping season breezed through the office. Unlike my very first blog post, this season felt different, as different as the end of spring feels to the end of summer.
Let me set the scene.

The NQ process is now over, all the second years (those who are staying anyway) are preparing to become Fully Fledged Lawyers. The stress and worry for them at this stage is over, they have relative job security and are starting to look past the 2 years of donkey work they have almost completed. All this does for the first years is remind us how close we are getting to qualification. It doesn't help that every secretary that comes into contact with a first year says ' Only two seats left! OOh, not long now, and that will be you!'. Not at all comforting - indeed, the exact opposite of comforting.

That's right, we realise. Only two seats left. We should KNOW by now. You know, what we want to DO. (Most trainees are filled with this idea that our practice area should just fit, like meeting a soul mate. I am one of them but I am fully aware this is as naive as thinking Prince Charming is going to come and rescue me. Well it happened for Kate!)

Then the list is distributed. Speculation becomes reality. This time round we get supposed first pick at the seats - we are becoming Second Years after all so there is a sense of possibility, of optimism. We are sadly disappointed. There are several departments who have not had a trainee before and several that were training contract staples that have gone. Reading the list as a hermit, I had no idea what to pick. Reading it in the office with all the gossip and scheming must have been a nightmare.

There was, it seemed,a light at the end of the tunnel. An obvious choice: secondment in house with a client exposing the lucky trainee to several legal disciplines with supervision from one of the managing partners. Bingo!! Not surprisingly over half of us put this as our first choice leading HR to have 'informal chats' with us all. Unlucky for me mine was by telephone conference a day after being operated on and I was not particularly coherent. In any event, SIT (Super Important Trainee strikes again) treated the informal chat as a proper interview, prepared the heck out of it and out-manoeuvred us all! Boy, did she look smug. (Having considered this seat, I have decided (sorry In-housers) that it is a wolf wrapped up to look like a perfect seat. Any mistake you make on secondment is going to be a hell of a lot worse - it makes you look bad in the eyes of a client and possibly costs them money. And you are out of the office when you should be being observed by the recruiting departments to see where you fit within the firm. Looks like I had a lucky escape)

The rest of us filtered into the remaining seats glum, disillusioned, angry with ourselves that we had missed a trick. Unfortunately there was another snake in the grass we couldn't see - some of the supervisors had requested second years. Woe betide the second year who thought they had the opportunity to choose something they might be interested in! Not a chance, Corporate couldn't possibly have a newbie doing their photocopying. We were asked and asked to choose seats until we uttered a magic second year seat. Some were lucky and hit the target on the first go. Others, such as myself, had to keep going and ended up with fourth or even fifth choice. Not great for your third seat.

Now I know there are some law firms who don't give their trainees a choice: either they have too many trainees to organise such a process or there are some seats that no one would choose. Personally I think this is akin to playing lottery with your training budget and I am extremely grateful that my firm at least pretends to give us a choice. The problem here was the lack of transparency, the lack of coordination and the inequality of selection across the field. Half the trainees got their first choice and half who don't feel like they have been given a choice at all. Equally some of the supervisors who have been allocated new starters were unaware of their sneaky colleagues tactics and feel hard done by too, especially when a second year wanted to go to their department and was denied. But, Trainees can't possibly be seen to complain too much as seats are chosen for the business need of the firm and no trainee wants to look like we aren't pro-firm. So we are resigned to our new departments, happy or otherwise.

I am moving into the Projects department, a mysterious place with lots of files, travelling and mysterious acronyms the meanings of which are revealed as you prove yourself. No one else has any idea what Projects do except make a lot of money and stay late. It was not my first choice but it is a seat that wasn't on offer before so the prospect of something new was exciting.

I met my supervisor this week to find out a little more. I still have no idea what projects do except there are lots of people with Names. These people have Names that open doors, in the same way as Madonna or Beyonce. If you mention a particular Name you are given power to Organise and to win Deals. You must at all times be nice to the Names, be professional in front of the Names and essentially give your life to the Names. Then, they give you money. (I know, it sounds a lot like night walking for the legal profession......)

I did, however, find out what they need me for. I am covering the work of a 4 year qualified who is going away to have babies. That's right. FOUR years qualified. Why did she have to be fertilised now!? No wonder no one else wanted to do it. Its positively terrifying. On top of this, as she can't travel, I am joining the Hod (Head of Department - see the acronyms start now. SIBTLT - Soon I will Be Talking Like This) on a week long business trip for 3 days of meetings and 2 days of travelling to ... wait for it..... WALES! Yea I know, not very glamorous, in fact its probably going to be raining. I will be leaving for said trip on the first day in the seat. No adjustment time, no time to even move my stationary. (The newbie better not go NEAR my pens! Its taken me a long time to steal the good ones from the stationary cupboard.) Nope, first thing I will do is crossing the border to meet lots and lots of welsh Names.

Seriously, what have I signed up for!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Apologies for my absence; No I'm not dead, I didn't get fired and yes I am limping

It has been rather a long time since last I blogged. Unfortunately for me an old sports injury bit me on the proverbial (leg if you must know) and rendered me housebound for a month whilst various consultants prodded me, made little holes in me and instructed me to sit/lie in impossible angles. I'm happy to say I am now back in the land of the vertical and have rejoined the working masses.

Why didn't I constantly blog you ask? Well when it takes a variety of levers, sticks and the assistance of whoever happens to be around to visit the little trainee's room, blogging is not high on your priority list! In addition, the pain killers I was prescribed were delightful and kept me in a state of fuzzy brained sleepiness.

Having such a long period away from work as a trainee is not normal, however I am sure others have been in a similar situation as myself so I would like to share a few things I have learnt on my return:

1. Partners will forget you. You will be treated like a secretary or completley ignored until they remember why you are in their department. They may have also left tasks on your desk in complete ignorance of your plight. Check here first!

2. None of the matters you were working on will have progressed in your absense. Be prepared for narky clients, passed deadlines and generally a manic first few weeks. On a positive note 'I've had surgery' is remarkable for getting pestering clients off your back

3. Wearing a bandage and/or limping explains why you were off, so you don't have to. Also, mentioning gruesome injury details early on in 'so where have you been' conversations saves A LOT of time. Limping has the added benefit of making everyone seeing you struggle to the kitchen feel sorry for you, so you'll never have to make another cup of tea. Until the partner asks that is.

4. Health and Safety laws are crazy nowadays. To comply with my need to keep my leg elevated, a new risk assessment of my floor had to be taken visa vie the dangers of my footstool, coupled with a survey of my working environment from the firm's occupational health specialist to make sure my needs were being met (my needs, save for an increased tea consumption, had not changed). I also now have a 'Fire Buddy' tasked with helping me escape blazing infernos.

5. You will get withdrawal symptoms from daytime TV - it becomes addictive after watching it for a week straight. You'll crave the inane fast talking of the Gilmore girls, love the spiffy ladies on loose women and watching the same episode of friends 3 times seems like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. Your colleagues will think you are loosing it while you daydream at 15 minute intervals having developed a skill of switching off for ad breaks. Stick with it. 1 week back at work and the revulsion to Jeremy Kyle only experienced by the employed will return.

Over all nothing has really changed. The summer passed while I was on the sofa, news of the world got caught hacking phones (really, who didn't think they did that already!) and I gained ridiculous amounts of weight (not doing anything and having to eat 5 times a day because you're on pills is the fast track to a gastric band) but work is eeeexactly the same. No sweat.