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Husnara Begum, editor & careers consultant

As an aspiring solicitor, when I was considering which law firms to apply to my decisions were based mostly on peer pressure as I had little understanding of the legal sector. A huge swathe of my fellow students applied to top City law firms. And like a lemming I decided to follow the same path without fully appreciating whether such firms would be an appropriate choice for me or not.

Money was also a significant contributory factor meaning employers offering funded places on the Legal Practice Course and the highest newly qualified solicitor salaries were instantly added to my short-list. Granted, chasing the mega bucks now comes across as shallow and materialistic. But back then I was young, naïve and a far cry from discerning. That being said, if money is your biggest motivation for pursuing a career in law, I won’t hold that against you. But be prepared to work for it.

Other more trivial reasons also came into play, including the facilities on offer in a firm’s offices. For instance, Clifford Chance made it onto my short-list simply because they have a swimming pool in their London HQ.

And the most frivolous of them all was ultimately accepting a training contract offer with the same firm a guy I had a massive crush on joined the year before me! Thankfully, all worked out well because the firm in question was Linklaters, which I later discovered was in the prestigious magic circle. But what if I had ended up somewhere that was completely wrong for me?

If you want to reduce the risk of signing your life away to a law firm that is at odds with your values, interests and strengths start by avoiding the rookie errors I made, especially peer pressure. In the context of career planning, it’s often far too simple to be swayed by how others define success. That is why it’s vitally important to forge your own paths. After all, nobody else knows you better than yourself.

Why law?

Nope that’s not a trick question. Start by having an honest conversation with yourself about what is ‘really’ motivating you to apply for training contracts / qualifying work experience? What is most important to you right now? What are your strengths and interests? What sort of environment are you most likely to flourish in? Law firms come in all shapes and sizes and focus on a plethora of practice areas.

Also, be honest with yourself. I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reaching for the stars but for some of you it might be necessary to make more than one jump and progress from a smaller firm to a larger one post qualification. The majority of lawyers in my network have progressed their careers by moving firms more than once. Take star Skadden Arps private equity partner Richard Youle. He started his legal career in the North East before moving to the City. If you’re struggling to bag a training contract with your dream law firm follow Richard’s lead and consider casting the net wider.

Finding a firm that’s right for you

Research is key to creating a robust short-list of firms that are a strong match for you. Initial considerations are high street versus commercial. Note larger high street firms do handle some commercial work. This typically involves advising local owner run businesses.

Other factors to consider include location (there are plenty of reputable commercial law firms headquartered outside London), headcount, (including size of trainee intake), size and location of overseas offices, secondment opportunities, key practice areas / sectors, trophy clients, rankings in legal directories, chargeable hours targets, green credentials and commitment to diversity and inclusion.

I’ve deliberately left off ‘culture’ from my list because all of the above are likely to influence what it’s like to work at a law firm and indeed its people. For example, firms that focus on advising sophisticated private equity clients on M&A deals will inevitably be more fast-paced environments with longer working hours than those that specialise in non-transactional areas such as pensions or tax planning.

As I’ve highlighted in this blog, the options available to aspiring solicitors are endless so it’s important to ensure any choices you make are made after careful consideration rather than on the back of a throw away remark made by a contact and as was the case for me peer pressure.

Husnara Begum, careers consultant and owner of CheekyLittleCareers