Before joining TLT as a trainee, I worked in-house at one of TLT’s clients in the financial services sector. Much of my old job involved managing a panel of solicitors (including TLT) dealing with litigation matters, and this has given me a good insight of what it is commercial clients expect from their lawyers – and why TLT’s Financial Services Litigation business is so successful.
Now that I have started my training contract, I have given some thought to what my expectations as a client mean for me as a trainee, and how I can use this experience to help myself, my fellow trainees and other colleagues provide the best service possible.
Of course, I can only speak of my own demands as a client – and it should be borne in mind that preferences varied from person to person within my old company, and different clients may well have divergent expectations – but there are some underlying trends that I believe will apply in most circumstances.
TLT is a supportive environment in which to be a trainee solicitor. Your supervisors and colleagues want you to do well, and there is an understanding that the word ‘training’ in ‘training contract’ is operative. There are very few people who can go into four seats, in four areas of law, and hit the ground running in each.
But that is not your clients’ problem. They are paying you to get the job done – and to a high standard at that. In the past, I admit to seeing ‘Trainee Solicitor’ in an email signature and giving a weary sigh. You clients will undoubtedly wish you all the best in your training on a personal level; however, from a professional perspective, their expectation will be that a trainee picking up their instructions will not adversely impact what it is they are trying to get done.
This is where the best firms, TLT included, have checks and support structures in place to ensure that the right balance is struck between allowing a trainee to develop their client-facing skills and making sure there is no dip in standards.
As a first seat trainee, I know that I don’t yet know everything, but I also know that there is someone on hand who will make sure that I am able to provide an excellent service.
One of the big changes between the law as an academic pursuit and the law in practice is that the latter is a business – and this means selling law and legal services as a product.
For some trainees, this might seem daunting; after all, if you wanted a career in sales, you would have become a salesman. But, in my experience, the best trainees understand that an entrepreneurial spirit is vital not just to their firm, but also to making clients’ lives easier.
My previous job in the financial services sector was fast-paced and demanding. I had more work than time and therefore any matters that I could unload from my own desk onto a panel firm was a tremendous help. The best firms anticipate those needs before they even arise.
Of course, working in industry, I had budgets to meet and frameworks within which to operate, so it was never simply a matter of passing work to an external solicitor whenever they asked; however, I was always happy to have options put to me. This could be called selling, but it fits equally under the cliché of ‘going the extra mile’, by acting in your firm and your client’s mutual interest.
Secondments are an exciting prospect for a trainee, if perhaps a little intimidating. Working in house, I had the opportunity to work alongside lawyers of all levels – from paralegal to partner – seconded to my department firms across the country. My advice from a client’s perspective is that you will get out of a secondment whatever you put into it. If you really commit to making the best of your experience, you will come back having learned much more.
As a representative of your firm inside another business, it is of course important that present a good impression of your firm. There is no great secret on how to do this: be polite, diligent, hard working, listen and learn, and remember to be yourself. But equally, remember you are working in their business. So integrate yourself into their working culture, and try to build an understanding of the way they do things – and ultimately how you can add further value to your working relationship once your secondment is over. Does sending correspondence by post as well as email duplicate the amount of work they do? Is fax a reliable way of contacting them? Is there someone in their office who knows the answer to every minor administrative question?
It is only by working directly for an organisation that you can really garner this sort of information; and whilst it might not be groundbreaking or shake up your working relationship, it can certainly help you to make things more efficient, to take a little of the stress out of your clients’ working lives, and to entrench your businesses’ relationship.
Finally, remember that your clients, even those from sophisticated multinational organisations, are people. This means that they will probably chatter about you – amongst themselves, with your trainee supervisor, or their own superiors. This could well have an impact on your career, even at its nascent stage.
It also means that they want you to be personable. This is beneficial for two reasons: Firstly, there is little point in being a technically excellent lawyer if you cannot communicate your message effectively; and secondly, your clients, like you, spend a good chunk of their lives at work, and it helps when you spend that time dealing with affable people.
So your clients will in all likelihood not just discuss whether you are any good, but also whether you are an amicable and compelling person to deal with.
My experience of trainees from TLT has always been very positive. It is one of the things that drew me to the firm when I was making training contract applications. It now falls on my shoulders to make sure I maintain the high standards set by my predecessors – and I hope that I can put what I have learned on the other side of the client-solicitor relationship into practice.