Making the cut – one City associate offers tips to the uninitiated

With law firms reining in their trainee hiring, senior associate Gagandeep Aujla offers tips to those taking their first career steps. He recommends in-house placements, networking and doing boring work with gusto

Starting a training contract can be a daunting experience, especially for those for whom it is a first job. My experience as a trainee may offer some useful pointers for those in the process of becoming a trainee or looking to put themselves in the best possible position for securing a newly qualified job.

Secondments

I was fortunate enough to go on secondment to UBS Investment Bank for 12 months as part of my training contract. I spent six months with the UBS finance team and six months with the UBS litigation team. Doing a back-to-back secondment as a trainee is rare but I was grateful that Mayer Brown showed flexibility in accommodating my wish to stay at UBS for longer. Both the teams I worked with at the bank were brilliant and took a real interest in helping me to develop as a lawyer. I still keep in touch with many of the people I worked with there.

My time at UBS coincided with a difficult economic climate and witnessing the bank’s response to this first hand was fascinating. Watching Sergio Ermotti, the CEO of UBS, address the trading floor in the midst of the banking sector’s nadir was insightful and helped me to better understand the commercial implications of recent legislation affecting the industry. Experiences such as these put into context the major challenges, both legal and in respect of public perception, facing the banking sector at that time.

Going on a client secondment is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the internal operation and structure of a client’s business, to better understand a client’s expectations of its legal counsel and make great contacts on both a personal and professional level. As a client secondee you invariably get a high level of responsibility and the chance to be involved in some really interesting work.

For example, independently liaising with business people at UBS on a daily basis to discuss the mechanics of particular contracts was a steep learning curve that helped develop my client communication skills significantly. Also, being involved in meetings with the risk team at the bank to discuss the provisions of certain agreements made me appreciate the importance of reviewing such contracts from a commercial as well as a legal perspective. Developing skills such as these while on secondment will result in you returning to your law firm as a better lawyer than when you left.

Any suggestion that going on a client secondment limits your chances of qualification because it is one less group into which you can qualify is unfounded.

The experiences that you have while on secondment, and ultimately learn from, should increase the confidence in your own abilities as a lawyer and, together with the client relationships that you develop and maintain along the way, make you a more attractive prospect to your firm come qualification.

Proving yourself

Regrettably, as a trainee you are generally at the lower end of the food chain. Although each team, each group and each firm will utilise and treat its trainees differently, I was fortunate that the less hierarchical structure at Mayer Brown allowed me to get more involved in and feel more a part of the deals I was working on.

That said, inevitably as a trainee there were times when I was given less interesting tasks such as conformance and proof reading. When given relatively simple tasks like these it is important that you take your time to do them properly. Tasks that require relatively less thought generally produce the greatest number of trainee errors through complacency. However, doing these tasks well and with enthusiasm makes you invaluable to more senior lawyers. Adopting a positive attitude will in this way develop a trust with those more senior than you and ultimately reward you with greater responsibility and more interesting work. Although it is an over-used axiom – the more you put in, the more you get out.

When starting a new seat it is helpful to observe the style and approach of your supervisor and adopt this as far as possible. Being aware of apparently insignificant details such as how a person likes to have their documents printed and stapled goes a long way.

Diversify

When sat with a particular group, it is helpful (for qualification purposes at least) to work with as many different people as possible. This gives you the opportunity to get involved in a range of matters and puts you in a better position when deciding which group to qualify into. Having more people within a particular group to give you positive feedback should also strengthen your chances of qualifying into that group.

During my seat with the banking and finance group, I worked on several different matters including a cross-border securitisation transaction, the administration of a major high street retailer and a project finance transaction involving the financing of a mine in Kenya. This variety of work exposed me to different lawyers within the group and helped me to consider what types of finance work I found the most interesting.

Networking

As a trainee it is often difficult to meet clients and build relationships. I was grateful that as a trainee, even away from my secondment, I attended various business development events with different clients, which provided a good opportunity to network with clients of the firm and prospective clients. It is not so much how successful the efforts of your networking are that will help you to get a job come qualification, but putting in the effort in the first place.

For example, having been invited to attend a cricket match with senior counsel of one of the firm’s banking clients, I ended up spending most of my time babysitting the client’s children rather than speaking to the client or watching the match. Despite this, the client expressed their appreciation at the end of the match and suggested that we meet up again on a separate occasion for coffee (this time without their children!).

Furthermore, networking is not a client-only enterprise. As a trainee, networking within your firm, either cross-departmentally or intra-group will also help to raise your profile. The more people at the firm who know who you are and speak highly of you, the better the chance you have of being kept on come qualification.

Knowing where to qualify

The fortunate few will know immediately the group into which they wish to qualify. For the majority, however, making this decision is a tough choice. There are a couple of key considerations that you need to take into account when making this decision: (1) do you enjoy the work of the group you intend to qualify into; and (2) do you get along with the people in that particular group?

As discussed above, the work of a trainee can at times be quite basic and arriving at an answer to question (1) therefore requires a consideration of the types of work done by associates and partners in the relevant group. Although question (2) is an important consideration as you need to get along with those you work with (especially on late nights), question (1) in my opinion ranks higher. People can always leave a group but the type of work within that group remains consistent.

Taking into account the above factors, I chose to qualify into the banking and finance group. My primary motivation for applying to this group was the quality of work available, especially for junior associates. I was attracted by the opportunity to get involved in complex cross-border transactions without being far removed from the client. The legally technical and commercial aspects involved in working on these types of transactions were also important motivating factors.

As yet, I have not been disappointed.

Gagandeep Aujla is now a senior associate at Clifford Chance after qualifying into the banking and finance team in Mayer Brown’s London office.