Best Training Principal - Jonathan Thornton
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In a sense, Jonathan Thornton's victory in this category is retrospective, as since the voting took place he has stepped down as training partner at Russell-Cooke. After the best part of 20 years in the job, it is fair to say that he has almost certainly earned not only the accolade, but also a well-deserved rest. Whether he will get this, however, is doubtful, because he has now become the firm's managing partner.
When Jonathan took over responsibility for the firm's trainees, he admits that Russell-Cooke's approach to recruitment still bore the hallmarks of a small high-street practice. There was no formal process in place, so he had to develop the whole thing from scratch, learning as he went along, to arrive at something that was more in keeping with the firm's ambitions.
One of the early challenges he encountered speaks volumes about the ethos of the firm at the time - and, speaking to current trainees, it seems that ethos still lives on. "We have always tried to avoid turning it into too much of a production number," explains Jonathan. "Everybody at the firm loves trainees, everybody wants to get involved, everybody finds it interesting and wants to help out. There's never a shortage of people. So you could potentially use up a lot of management time and resources on trainee recruitment. Part of my role in the early days was to try to keep that enthusiasm within sensible boundaries."
This desire to help among all at the firm is still very much apparent, although it is now within the bounds of a training contract system that sees trainees handling real work alongside their colleagues. "Most of the departments I sat with during my training contract had an NQ, which was great because it meant you had someone that you could speak to around your level," says Bethany Silkin, now a newly qualified solicitor herself. "So there are people whom you can ask the questions you're too embarrassed to ask the partners. Having said that, most of the partners here are more than happy to help you with any sort of question - it's such a friendly place."
Indeed, ‘friendly' is a word that is often used in reference both to Russell-Cooke as a firm and to Jonathan as an individual. But while this may play a part in attracting top-quality young lawyers, so too does the firm's reputation for giving them a solid grounding in a wide range of areas from the very start of their professional lives.
"The first thing I was looking for in a training contract was a good breadth of experience," recalls Andrew Morgan, a first-year trainee with the firm. "When you apply, you are still very early in your legal career and don't really know what you commercial work and I wanted to do a bit of both. Russell-Cooke offered that. The second thing I wanted was a good level of involvement in good-quality work; and that is certainly the case here."
In order to win the opportunity to get stuck into that high-quality work, would-be trainees must first complete one of the 400 or so application forms that the firm receives each year. New training principal Alison Regan and a handful of partners from different departments then sift through the applications to narrow the field to around 70 candidates, who will be invited for a first interview.
"Although we are looking for excellent academics and our stated requirements are two As and a B at A level and a 2.1 degree, these are not set in stone and we do also consider mitigating circumstances which may have had an impact on results," reveals Alison. "We also look at work experience and to see whether they've done anything particularly interesting outside the legal field. There are five of us who shortlist the CVs down for the first interviews and we're all in different departments. That way, we get a spread of what each person is looking for, so we don't just end up with one type."
At the first interview, candidates will have a one-on-one chat, again with a partner, which gives both parties the chance to discover if there is a good fit in terms of personality. The numbers are then narrowed down to between 20 and 25 to pass on to the next stage. Although this is referred to as a ‘second interview', it is similar in form to an assessment day. In the morning, candidates complete a letter-writing exercise and a group exercise before they go out to lunch with the current trainees. They then return in the afternoon for a short interview with two partners, including the training partner, and a member of human resources.
You get thrown in at the deep end because you take on your own matters early on.
Once again, the focus is on keeping the trainees calm and the atmosphere friendly. "The first interview with one of the partners was quite an informal chat," recalls Francine Blanc, a second-year trainee. "Then, when I came back for the second interview, the process was much more relaxed than at other firms I had applied to. The break for lunch in the middle where we met the trainees was particularly nice, as it broke up the day and helped me feel a little bit more at ease for the interview in the afternoon."
Between five and eight candidates usually make it onto the training contract each year. Those lucky few will find themselves invited to a number of social events before they start at the firm, usually organised by current trainees. They will also be in contact with the training partner regarding seat choices for when they start.
The training contract itself involves four six-month seats. The firm allocates the first seat and from then on the trainees will meet with Alison halfway through and towards the end of each seat to discuss how things have been going, where they would like to go next and where they are thinking of qualifying. She will then try to accommodate those requests.
And once settled in their seats, trainees function as fully fledged members of the team from the get-go. "You are definitely working hard," says Bethany. "That's the best thing about the training contract here. You get thrown in at the deep end because you take on your own matters early on. You get a lot of client contact, you do a lot of drafting and you're very involved in the work of the firm. It is obviously bit harder at first, but it means that you gain confidence much more quickly."
Jonathan realises that the firm asks a lot of its trainees, but also thinks this provides them with invaluable experience for their future careers. "We expect an awful lot of people," he confesses. "Our clients demand a wide range of service and come from all walks of life. I think that although the hours aren't as long as at many of the biggest firms, the range of things we require of our trainees and the extent to which we require them are much more challenging. Indeed, our development and training directors, who we've invariably recruited from City firms, have all said the same thing. The range of skills that trainees have to acquire and apply almost from day one absolutely puts the big City training contracts in the shade. We recruit 5YQs out of the City who have never had to think about fees. Our trainees are opening their own files, giving fee quotes and managing billing and collection from a very early stage. That gives them real-life skills as lawyers and sets a tone of responsibility which is very important to the firm."
Jonathan goes on to consider what may have led to him receiving the award, expressing both humility and a degree of bemusement: "I was a bit surprised to be honest. When someone phoned me up I thought they were taking the mick." When pushed, he suggests that he has always tried to talk to his trainees honestly, give them time and treat them like grown-ups.
It also seems likely that the work Jonathan has done over the last 20 years has helped to reinforce those characteristics in the scores of trainees who have become Russell-Cooke lawyers under his watch. Certainly, the current cohort now has a group of people at the firm who can inspire them to succeed.
"I think there are a lot of partners here, and Jonathan is chief in this, who are people you can really look up to and respect," reports Megan Read, a first-year trainee. "They've had great careers, they've achieved an awful lot and they are people you can learn a lot from professionally and personally. They are people you'd like to have a drink with, a chat with. I think that is one of the things that really attracted me to the firm. They are fantastic professionals, but they are really good people too. Jonathan, in particular, puts you at ease and you get the sense that he genuinely cares. He listens to where you'd like your career to go and he cares about trying to help you get there."