Man in suit holding question markOur guest blogger, who wanted to remain anonymous, is a newly qualified solicitor who completed her training contract in August 2020. In her post, she talks candidly about the challenges of navigating her firm’s qualification process during a global pandemic and offers tips for those of you who are due to qualify in Spring 2021.

The global COVID19 pandemic has unfortunately plunged the UK economy into a recession and, though there were signs of a bounce back, the economic implications of the second wave and a second lockdown now mean much hangs in the balance for aspiring lawyers.

The legal jobs market, especially for newly qualified solicitors (NQs), was hit hard during the first lockdown. Sadly, with so much uncertainty and the lack of a credible exit strategy from the pandemic, prospects for those qualifying in Spring 2021 look just as bleak.

Therefore, if you’re a final seat trainee, it’s vitally important to be realistic and to factor in the health of the economy when considering your post-training contract options and planning your qualification strategy (both internally and / or externally).

With that in mind, set out below are five key points I wish I’d known about before navigating my way through the Autumn 2020 NQ process.

  1. Be prepared for a changed process

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and related economic crisis, my cohort’s qualification round wasn’t typical to what most final seat trainees experience and it appears some of the changes we had to adapt to will remain in force for the time-being. For instance, processes are likely to take longer and the jobs list may chop and change with little or no prior warning whilst both internal and external interviews will continue to be conducted virtually.

Therefore, I’d recommend drawing out a timeline with key dates and also finding out how the department you’re considering applying to will conduct its selection process. Thoroughly prepare yourself for a virtual interview or virtual presentation / case study and find out how you can present yourself effectively in a remote environment.

  1. No job is guaranteed – it’s not personal, it’s just business

It is important to have open and honest chats with the department you want to qualify into. Make clear your intention and desire to join the team because nothing can be assumed or indeed should be left to chance. It can also be helpful and insightful to talk to the most recent NQ hire(s) in the team to find out if there are any advance steps you can take to make sure you’re recognised and remembered when the team discusses its hiring needs.

Many firms are reducing the number of NQ roles that are on offer, meaning you may find the team you had your eyes on has no space. It is really important to remind yourselves that this is nothing personal against you and simply a business decision. The uncertainty brought by COVID19 has adversely impacted many law firms and in some departments the volume of client work that’s being brought in. This is turn is forcing some firms to slash headcount.

If you do end up finding yourself in such a situation, try to stay positive and remain confident in your abilities. During my qualification round some firms offered fixed term contracts, secondment opportunities or extended qualification leave / deferred start dates. So, remain professional and maintain regular contact with relevant partners and your firm’s graduate development team as this will make it much easier to find out if such options are available to you.

  1. The power of your connections and importance of keeping proactive

Whilst you have your internal processes rolling, it is important to tap back into your network and let people know you are about to qualify to ensure all your doors are left open. Perhaps this is an old supervisor from your secondment, a partner you paralegal-ed for at another firm or even former law school friends at other firms. Keep proactive and prepare for all situations. And even if you are confident about securing your ideal role, it doesn’t hurt to keep your network updated – the power of keeping connected is invaluable.

  1. Ask yourself – do I have the right support and guidance?

Usually, your first port of call for qualification advice is a partner you developed a relationship with, or a junior associate you worked closely with. But be aware and proceed with caution. Granted, they are experts in the law but unlikely to be experts in the legal jobs market and sometimes paint an inaccurate or overly optimistic picture of your future prospects, saying stuff like: “it’ll all blow over”; “hang in there, something will come up”; “you’ll land on your feet, they always do”. Unfortunately, this may have been the case in previous years, but we’re living in unprecedented times so ins’t necessarily the case today.

My firm recognised this and provided trainees with external outplacement support, which proved even more important during these difficult times. Personally, I found it massively helpful to have an external adviser / mentor to help with reality checking so I didn’t waste my time chasing unicorns. External advisers can also provide useful advice on:

  • tips and tricks for your CV and interview technique;
  • information on what to do if there are no roles available to you and walk you through alternative options such as moving in-house; and
  • how to interact with recruiters to make sure you’re the top candidate your recruiter thinks of when a role arises.
  1. Protect your mental health

The NQ process is extremely stressful. On top of this, you have the added pressures and worries brought by COVID19 in terms of working from home and getting the most out of your training contract with limited face time with teams and supervisors.

It is important to realise that some aspects of your working life are not in your control. But, what you can do is to prepare, keep well-informed and reach out for help when needed. Remind your firm that this is not a normal NQ process and have open, collaborative discussions about how these challenges can collectively be overcome.

The author of this blog trained and qualified as a solicitor with a top international firm

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