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LCN Says

Five tips for choosing your training contract seats

updated on 16 April 2024

So, you’ve been lucky enough to secure a training contract (well done!). But what’s next? And what are ‘seats’?

A ‘seat’ is essentially just the phraseology for each six-month stint of your training contract. You’ll rotate around different departments in hopes of gaining broad experience of the type of work your firm undertakes while also ascertaining what type of work you’d like to do in the long term. Most firms will ask you to submit several preferences at each seat rotation and will try their best to accommodate one of these each time. So how do you know which seats you should be listing? Here are my five top tips.

1. Keep an open mind

The best piece of advice I can give any prospective trainee is to keep an open mind about what practices you see yourself sat in. Not least because some areas of law are wildly different in practice compared to in theory! But also because it’s common to have preconceived notions about a practice area, which can be easily shattered. Some firms require trainees to undertake a seat in a particular department. So you might be allocated a department and be dreading it but then love it in the end. Or, alternatively, you might have your heart set on a certain department before you start training but it doesn’t quite live up to expectations when you get there. It’s important to be self-aware and have a general idea of what sort of work you like but try to remain flexible throughout the process.

2. Do your research

Given most training contracts are structured into four seats (six at most, in some firms), that means you get only four opportunities to find out what sort of department is for you in the long term. This might sound like a lot but there may also be heaps of departments you want to try!

From the outside, it can be quite hard to get a proper sense of what work is undertaken in each department and you may also have your own preferences based on your experience prior to your training contract. Your firm may (ordinarily) host ‘seat change fairs’ where you get a chance to chat with each department or it may have flyers and pre-recorded videos from key members of each department. Take full advantage of whatever resources are available to you right from the get-go, so you can ensure you’re as informed as possible when putting forward preferences.

3. Network, network, network

To help you make decisions about your seats, arranging (virtual or in-person) catch-ups with trainees who've sat in the departments that you’re interested in can be invaluable. They'll be able to give you the inside track on what a seat in that team is like and what work they’ve been involved in.

If you like a department that’s typically super competitive to secure, it’s also well worth asking one or two of the partners in the team whether they have time for a quick catch-up to chat about their practice. This gives you a picture of what the team is like beyond a six-month snippet from the trainees and also allows you to be on the partners’ radar come seat change time. Win, win! (If you’re not sure which partners to approach, try asking graduate recruitment.)

4. Consider cultural fit and lifestyle choices

While your choice of firm will invariably affect this, each department will have a certain feel and the work will most likely dictate a particular lifestyle. For example, transactional departments such as corporate and banking are traditionally very busy during a ‘deal’ but then really quiet down after completion. Whereas, more advisory departments such as real estate are likely to have a steadier constant flow of work. However, the size of the relevant team, the urgency and the nature of the client – among other factors – can also influence this, so don’t necessarily be put off either way. Your firm might also offer client or international secondments, each of which come with their own typical pace and characteristics.

The team culture is also important because whether you can see yourself in the relevant practice area in the long term will be an important factor when you qualify. Which brings me on to…

5. Bear in mind qualification

It’s well worth bearing qualification prospects in mind when picking your seats to maximise the opportunities given to you. There’s arguably little point in picking a department for a seat if you know that it’s incompatible with your lifestyle choices, for example. Likewise, some small or niche teams may be very competitive to qualify into, or infrequently take on newly qualified solicitors. This is where building a strong relationship with your graduate recruitment team and having regular catch-ups where you have open, honest conversations about your goals so that that they can advise and place you appropriately, will be key.

Also, as your training contract progresses and you identify a certain area you think you might want to qualify into, you may also want to consider a complementary seat. For example, if you want to qualify into real estate, departments such as construction, planning, real estate disputes and tax will all be useful.

Sophie Shaw is an associate at Herbert Smith Freehills LLP.