Updated: Nov 25, 2020
If you were looking for an honest insight into the path to becoming a commercial lawyer, last week’s Law for All Society event would have been made for you. Fortunately, in case you missed it, we were there to cover it and provide you with an overview of what we learned.
The panel included trainees from different law firms: India-Rose May and Emily Beighton told us about their experience at Baker McKenzie, emphasising the cross-border nature of the work and daily access to an international network of clients via the firm’s multiple foreign offices. Jo Lee, a second year trainee at Ashurst, highlighted the benefits of a smaller trainee intake, as she was given quite a bit of responsibility and independence quickly. As a first year trainee, she even dealt with matters where the other side was being represented by a junior associate. Last but not least, Ducan McGregor introduced us to DLA Piper and talked about his work on an ongoing arbitration case and pro bono work with a global statelessness database.
Being a non-law student
The first discussion on how being a non-law student can actually be an advantage on commercial law firm applications was very reassuring. It helped me feel more comfortable when applying to schemes where, previously, I’d felt a little bit like an imposter. Emily mentioned how her Chemistry degree was very helpful during her seat in Antitrust and Competition as she was able to process the economic analysis from the business teams much faster than other trainees. The former humanities students highlighted transferable skills- such as excellent writing capabilities and the ability to structure an argument as extremely desirable in commercial law applicants.
Why commercial law?
When asked about their decision to work as a commercial lawyer, trainees gave us both honest and useful answers. A common factor was the substantial salaries offered by the sector, as well as the security provided by the trainee route. Additionally, these corporations are also major players on the international scene, which means that by working as a commercial lawyer, you will be at the heart of global current events. Lastly, as Jo pointed out, transitioning from commercial law to another industry is much easier than the other way around. Training contracts with city law firms can even be used as a stepping stone into another sector within the legal industry, or another industry altogether
Pro bono and CSR
Pro bono work and community involvement was also discussed. According to India-Rose, who is involved in BakerWomen and BakerEthnicity, these groups allow you to network within your firm and pro bono work helps develop skills that complement your formal training. Duncan told us that there is even a coveted pro bono seat at DLA Piper! In terms of getting involved, the general view was that trainees are encouraged to sign up to everything and are even sometimes bombarded with a choice of pro bono opportunities. It is all about knowing your limits and how much you want to take on.
Work-life balance and support at Baker McKenzie
This leads us to a very important topic which I discussed with India-Rose during our networking session. In her experience, work-life balance at Baker McKenzie is quite good, with only the occasional bit of work on weekends. Transactional seats appear much more unpredictable, with extremely busy and calmer periods, than advisory seats. However, she emphasised that at Baker McKenzie, people are truly nice and grateful for when you have worked hard and late in a certain week. Usually, when working late, you also see associates staying in the office even later which makes the experience really feel like a team effort. India-Rose moreover mentioned that trainees are really well supported at Baker McKenzie. Staff quickly received home office equipment at the start of lockdown and partners and associates took the time to catch-up with trainees. Apparently, this has led to Baker McKenzie gaining a reputation amongst other firms for placing too much importance on trainee well-being. I personally would not mind at all!
Lastly, trainees openly shared their application strategy and struggles. Emily told us she applied to around fifteen firms for a training contract, Duncan and Emily to many more. They both described the application process as a learning experience which somehow helped them understand themselves and their interests better. I really think that the training contract application process teaches you resilience and humility. Jo told us about her different strategy which involved researching and getting to know firms for about a year before applying to only three firms. Different application strategies should definitely be considered.
Overall, this event was a great opportunity to have an open and friendly discussion about a career in commercial law and the application process. I personally came out of it feeling reassured, learning that my fears and doubts are actually very common and part of the process. I also really appreciated the insight I gained into the culture of the three firms represented at the event. If this sounds like the kind of event you would be interested in, don’t forget to join us next Friday, 13th November at 1pm GMT for a lunchtime Q&A panel with Herbert Smith Freehills!