The training contract, which includes the Professional Skills Course (PSC), is the final stage on the path to qualifying as a solicitor. It is the stage at which you put into practice all the knowledge and skills you have learnt so far, and develop these still further within a working environment. The training contract is a two-year period spent working at a law firm. It is normal, especially in the larger firms, for you to spend four blocks of six months each in different departments (these are usually called seats). In smaller firms the training will not be so structured, although the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) does require that you cover at least three areas of work. You should always be under the supervision of a qualified solicitor (although usually not the same one for the whole time), who will manage your workload, monitor your progress and help to train you.
Worth noting is that the SRA has completed a two-year pilot focusing on changes to the traditional training contract that embrace the idea of 'work-based learning' (see "SRA publishes report on WBL pilot" and "Working it out with WBL"). The two-year contract, with exposure to at least three areas of law, would remain, but the new model would aim to increase access to the profession; for example, paralegals would be able to qualify as solicitors while working in their current jobs. The pilot was declared a success by the SRA and the findings have been fed into the ongoing Legal Education Review (LETR), which is due to release its recommendations in December 2012. Keep a close eye on these changes as they could be implemented by the time you come to join a firm.
What you learn
Think of the training contract as an apprenticeship. These two years provide an opportunity for a law firm to build on what the trainee has already learnt through practical work experience and training. It also gives the firm the chance to assess the trainee's prospects for a job as a solicitor after the training period is over. What you learn during your training contract will depend on the type of firm in which you train and the solicitors who supervise you. If you join a large commercial firm, you are likely to spend seats in a range of different departments, giving you all-round commercial experience. However, at a niche practice that mainly concentrates on one or two areas of work, your experience will obviously be less broad. Further, at a small high-street firm you can expect a varied (but perhaps less structured) workload.
The PSC was introduced in the summer of 1994 as part of the new training scheme - you cannot qualify as a solicitor without passing the PSC. This is a modular course which aims to ensure that you have reached the appropriate level of skills and knowledge during the LPC and the training contract. Firms must pay for their trainees to attend the PSC.
The three core modules are:
- financial and business skills;
- advocacy and communication skills; and
- client care and professional standards.
There is a written exam for the financial and business skills module, but no formal assessment of the others. You'll also need to complete 24 hours' worth of elective modules. If it is taken full time, the PSC will last up to 12 days. However, each module can be taken individually. Many of the larger firms run the PSC in-house as part of their ongoing training programmes.
Choosing the right firm
Your starting point for shortlisting which law firms to apply to should be the type of practice you want to work in, the sort of work you want to do and where you want to do it. While it is often difficult to decide this more than two years in advance of beginning your practical training and before you have even completed the LPC, you should try to make as informed a choice as possible. Use the experience you have gained during your studies and any work experience, especially work placement schemes, to help you decide. You will also benefit from further research, so try to read as much as you can about different areas of work and various types of firm. Go to law fairs and, of course, do not forget to consult your careers advisers - they will have a wealth of knowledge and experience to help you in your search for a training contract.
You should apply to a number of firms that fit the bill - and don't be too disappointed if you do not get offers from your first choices. You must remember that you are a valuable commodity to the firms and that they are competing hard to attract you.
It is widely acknowledged that many students find it difficult to distinguish between law firms. Many are unsure about which firms to apply to for a training contract, let alone which offers to accept. Obviously, it is hard to generalise about types of firm and what sort of working life is on offer. Nevertheless, we have outlined the broad categories of firm to provide an insight into the range of practices in the market.
Handle all aspects of multi-jurisdictional business and financial law, with multiple offices throughout the world's major financial centres. Good opportunities to travel. You will work for multinational clients in a number of different legal and industrial sectors, with commercial, legal and linguistic skills being paramount.
Such firms offer a wide range of top-quality commercial work for heavyweight PLCs. These firms tend to have excellent support facilities, large staffing quotas and high levels of remuneration. Although UK-based, many will have an international workload and strong associations with other firms around the world.
Broad caseloads with some major PLCs and some larger regional companies. You can expect solid support services and facilities here.
Offer broad-based legal services throughout the country from a number of different regional commercial centres. They are often the result of mergers between several strong regional practices. Clients are mostly UK public and private companies, and local and public authorities. Work is often done on a national basis using expertise across the country whenever appropriate.
There are many full-service commercial practices operating from either a single office or several offices in a particular geographic region. Their clients are mostly public and private companies in the region, and they often offer private client services. The smaller regional firms tend to concentrate more on private client work.
Small firms that tend to offer high-quality work in a limited field. Often they are innovative and provide a high level of personal service. Some niche practices are so specialised they are unable to gain authorisation from the SRA to offer training contracts, as they can't offer a sufficiently broad training experience. Opportunities for career development are limited to the specialised practice area.
High street/legal aid
These firms usually act in private client matters and sometimes for small private companies. Hours (and salaries) will be lower than at other firms, but lawyers here often claim to enjoy a more personally rewarding working environment.
Work placement schemes
Even after you have decided what category of firm you are interested in, there is still the issue of which specific firms to apply to and/or accept offers from. In recent years, many firms have made considerable improvements in providing prospective trainees with a means of gaining a better understanding of their nature and character. Single interviews have been replaced by open days, video guides and - perhaps the most useful of all - work placement schemes.
Work placement schemes are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Firms are investing more time and money in schemes and, in an effort to maximise the return on them, being more selective as to who attends. Programmes are designed both to give students an insight into the firm and to allow the firm to assess the abilities and temperament of prospective applicants. It's an ideal opportunity to shine. Typically, a student will be at a firm for two to three weeks and work in a number of departments, assisting partners and qualified lawyers on cases. Firms will also run assessments and teamwork exercises, as well as organising various social events. Ideally, by the end of the programme both parties will be keen to continue the relationship and a training contract offer may be just around the corner.
Work placement schemes may also be available between the end of the first year and the start of the second year of a law degree. In most cases these will be more ad hoc and often at smaller practices.
Firms usually accept work placement scheme applications until late January/early February. But beware: many fill the places before the deadline so it is best to apply as early as possible. For a list of deadlines, click here.
When considering whether to make an application or accept a training contract, students should consider at least the following: the nature of the training programme, the overall friendliness of the firm, the quality of individuals in the firm, the firm's main areas of expertise, the firm's overall reputation in the legal world, the financial help offered by the firm for the GDL/LPC, the trainee retention rate, client base, the size of the firm, the facilities at the firm, trainee salaries, assistants' salaries, partnership opportunities and partner remuneration, and other factors such as foreign travel and language grants. It's a good sign if you feel comfortable with the people you meet and you should never feel tempted to present them with a character that is not wholly your own.
When to apply
Many law firms look to fill their training contract places two years in advance. For law undergraduates this means applying in June/July of the summer vacation between your second and third year (and before you start the GDL if you are a non-law graduate), though some firms set different deadlines. Some smaller firms accept applications only a year in advance, when they will have a better idea of their personnel requirements. You can consult our searchable list of law firms that recruit trainees to get more information on when to apply. Check out our application deadline page.
How to apply
Applications should be made direct to the contact responsible for trainee recruitment at the law firm. You can get this contact name (along with the address details and application procedure) from our searchable list of law firms. Competition for training contracts is often fierce, with many firms getting hundreds of applications for a single place. You will therefore need to ensure that each application is tailored specifically to each individual firm if you want to give yourself a chance of success.
In July 2011 the SRA minimum salaries for trainee solicitors was £18,590 (recommended £19,040) in central London and £16,650 (recommended £16,940) elsewhere. The SRA has controversially decided to abolish the minimum salary for trainees from 1 August 2014, meaning that the minimum payable to trainees from that date will be the National Minimum Wage. In practice, the larger commercial firms in London and the other major legal centres such as Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol will pay considerably more than this; at a major London firm you could expect to start on a salary of between approximately £25,000 and £40,000.