Roxanna Sarkar-Patel and Ese Overo-Tarimo both work at Mayer Brown International LLP. Roxanna is a Newly Qualified Associate and Ese is a final-seat Trainee Solicitor. Together, they co-chair the firm's internal BAME network, Fusion, and devote much of their spare time to diversity and inclusion initiatives. In July 2020, Ese and Roxanna assisted the InterLaw Diversity Forum with the organisation of its virtual Student Lab Summer Internship and co-hosted a session called "A Day in the Life of a Trainee".
You don't need to search far to find authentic accounts of a typical day for a trainee. Various articles tell stories of rising at the crack of dawn, squeezing in half-marathons before 9am and having an hour lunch break. This may be accurate for some, but the reality is that there are also days when you sleep at the crack of dawn and your exercise consists of running to grab lunch.
In short, there is no typical trainee day, because every day is unique. In this article, we draw from our contrasting experiences to provide practical advice by considering: the type of work trainees are likely to be involved in; how willingness can make a lasting impression; and the importance of your wellbeing.
At the firm
You will usually complete two or three seats at your law firm. Working from the office makes it straightforward to directly assist your team and learn via osmosis. It also helps you to improve your organisation, communication and teamwork skills. Typical tasks for transactional trainees include assisting with due diligence, drafting core and ancillary documents and going to client meetings. A contentious seat offers the prospect of attending court hearings, conducting research or drafting documents, such as attendance notes and witness statements. When you start your seat, we recommend having a candid conversation with your supervisor and voicing your areas of interest. Trainees are encouraged to have an open mind and help with a range of tasks, but it never hurts to mention your preferences.
Completing a client secondment was a highlight of our training contracts. Working in-house is a different world to private practice. Wearing your "commercial hat" helps you to answer complex questions from the business. In-house life moves quickly and whilst the hours are steadier, your days are often more intense. Depending on the type of seat you do (we both did corporate secondments) you can expect a variety of work. We assisted with reviewing non-disclosure agreements, engagement letters, in-bound licensing agreements and participated in meetings. As a trainee, you start to appreciate the client's specific needs and how their business operates. This knowledge is invaluable when you return to private practice.
Covid-19 has revamped the way we live and work. The pandemic has forced law firms to adapt to clients' ever-changing needs, reassess how services are provided and support their employees remotely. This is overwhelming at any level, but as a trainee you are also navigating other challenges. Trainees (particularly first seaters) may feel disconnected from their firm and colleagues, qualification processes may be delayed, exposure to senior fee earners may reduce, there may be a downturn in work and therefore less opportunities. These are difficult times, which can cause unexpected consequences.
At the firm
Enthusiasm is an essential ingredient for trainees. Find an appropriate way to show your colleagues that you are interested in your department's work and that you are a dedicated team player. By doing this, you are likely to gain a more holistic understanding of ongoing matters. Putting your hand up shows that you are committed to developing and that you are confident about taking on new and unfamiliar responsibilities. Your attitude influences how you are perceived, so be ready to assist with repetitive, administrative tasks. More often than not, if you do a mundane task well, seniors will be more inclined to remember you for meatier work.
A formidable practitioner has excellent technical expertise and an impressive network. Client secondments provide a foundation to establish professional relationships, which may prove useful throughout your career. They also give you a chance to showcase your profile beyond your law firm. As a trainee, it is key to develop a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the client's business. Making a good impression can lead to positive feedback in your appraisal and it can also strengthen the relationship between your law firm and the client. An enthusiastic attitude during your secondment will attract opportunities to improve your confidence, legal knowledge and professional network.
Minimal face-to-face contact is probably the biggest change that you will feel. However, working from home offers other avenues to develop, if you explore them. Stating the obvious, we are in a pandemic, so every department has been affected in contrasting ways. For example, dispute resolution has seen an uptick in work, whilst transactional activity may have slowed down during the lockdown period. As a trainee, seek out opportunities (they won't necessarily be spoon-fed to you) by keeping a constant line of communication with colleagues and offering assistance. In other words, let people know that you have capacity to take on extra work. Remote working presents opportunities to participate and lead different initiatives. Consider how you can utilise your commuting time by engaging with departmental projects instead. These opportunities can build your profile and improve your soft skills – both are useful for your legal career.
At the firm
Wellbeing at work is a topic that receives a lot of attention, now more than ever. This is vital at every stage of your career, especially as a trainee. Every seat can feel like a never-ending juggling act – being in an unfamiliar environment, coping with inevitable pressures of the job and trying to appear calm and collected. As soon as you understand what's going on, you're moving seats! Alongside this, you are trying to catch-up with friends (without rescheduling), maintain hobbies and sleep.
In-house roles are coveted for their enviable work-life balance and a secondment is a perfect time to focus on your wellbeing. However, being away from the familiarity of the office and dealing with the dynamic pace and a plethora of legal issues may potentially affect your confidence. In addition to having a secondment supervisor and team, it is advisable to maintain internal relationships with your supervising partner and colleagues. Quick coffee catch-ups or phone calls are great ways to do this. If you can, attend events at your firm and if they are client events, invite some of your new colleagues too.
In March 2020, life as we knew it completely changed overnight and the daily rhythm of the office somewhat disappeared. This has impacted how we work, against the backdrop of dealing with other serious consequences of the pandemic and difficult worldwide events. It is essential to prioritise your mental and physical wellbeing, whilst still aiming to deliver a high standard of work. Working from home doesn't mean that you need to never log off or discard routine and the activities that make you who you are. If anything, it is a chance to reassess your efficiency.
Our additional top ten tips to make the most of your physical, client or virtual seat are:
Communicate with your supervisor – This is necessary so that they are aware of your capacity, needs and queries. In a normal world, you would share an office with your supervisor but if you are working virtually, regular phone or video calls are helpful alternatives.
Initiate contact with colleagues – Work with as many people as possible and assist with a range of matters. Being unable to knock on a door doesn't prevent you from speaking to others! Send an email, pick up the phone, organise virtual coffees and get to know your team.
Ask for feedback – This will help you to identify areas to improve but also what you should continue doing. We also recommend having a "positive feedback" email folder. It is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, but we find that these reminders help during more trying times.
Think outside the box – Assist with pro-bono tasks, business development work and brainstorm innovative initiatives for clients. It is useful to adopt this mind-set before becoming an associate.
To-do lists – Ensure that you prioritise your tasks with to-do lists. Also, know how to manage others' expectations based on your different deadlines. During your downtime, be organised and tick off things that you might not otherwise have had the time to finish (or have been avoiding!).
Self-care – Your physical health directly affects your mental health, so find a way to enjoy being active. Exercising in the morning suits us. This time is in your control and it starts your day positively. While working from home, force yourself to take regular breaks to get fresh air, eat healthily, be mindful of online content that you consume and work in a separate room (if possible) to maintain boundaries. Busy periods (and long hours) come and go, so remain resilient and try to take holidays in-between deadlines to reboot. This is crucial when working remotely.
Free time – The job is fulfilling and exhilarating but make sure that you recharge in your free time. This may take the form of having a city break, seeing loved ones, going for walks, reading a book or simply having a lie-in! Either way, set clear parameters between your work and home life. It is particularly important to maintain contact with your professional and personal networks when remote working. During a secondment, you are likely to have more spare time, so make the most of it!
Proactively enhance your knowledge – Seek out additional ways to develop your knowledge of practice areas, by attending webinars, giving presentations, reading and offering to draft articles and client alerts and arranging catch-ups with associates or professional support lawyers in your department. They will often be able to shed light on areas that you want to understand further.
Internal support – Most law firms and companies have internal affinity networks, which are great sources of information and support. We suggest joining one or two, not only to feel part of a community but to also build professional relationships. Apart from your supervisor and other seniors who you develop a rapport with, it is wise to get to know your graduate recruitment and HR teams. They are supportive contact points in a number of circumstances.
Patience – Remind yourself that you are in training. You won't know everything, and mistakes are bound to happen: identify, correct and avoid repeating them. Have faith in your ability and try to find answers first, but also know when to ask the right questions. Accept that some moments will be difficult but try to compartmentalise negative feelings.
P.S. Remember that your training contract is a rewarding two years of personal and professional growth. Work hard, stay true to yourself and enjoy the experience! Ultimately, embrace your challenging days but remind yourself why you chose to become a lawyer in the first place.