So, today alone you have been made to race to the printer for the 28th time and run your 16th redline. You have a 225-page document (for a deal you still do not fully understand) that needs to be proof read glaring at you on your desk. As you sit on the edge of your seat in your freezing cold office (because your supervisor likes it that way) you think to yourself, “Maybe the life of a [insert seemingly less stressful job role here] doesn’t seem so bad after all…”
If you find yourself with a smile on your face because that all sounds familiar, just know that you are most definitely not alone.
As a trainee you will have your share of mundane tasks to complete. The most important thing however, is to remember that your primary goal is to learn.
Here are some key things to do during your two years to ensure that you do not end up counting down the time but really get the most out of it.
1. Ask questions
Even when your task appears so far removed from the transaction as a whole be interested in what other people are doing. Monitor email chains even if you are the 15th person Cc’d and ask why certain points are being heavily negotiated over others or if something appears unusual.
2. Find a mentor
Some firms have formal mentoring programs, which can be great but the best type of mentor is an “unofficial” mentor – someone who cares about you as a human being, someone you can rely on to give you the hard truths, whose opinion you value. There are several people I consider mentors who have no clue I see them that way, but it is such a great and natural relationship. “Unofficial” mentoring works better if your mentor is not in the team you are sitting in and you don’t need to get their permission in advance!
3. Put your hand up
When working on large deals, you will find that hundreds of emails build up in your inbox. They pile on by the minute.
You aren’t the only person overwhelmed by this. If you see a task in there that you could help out with, put your hand up and let your supervisor know that you are willing to prepare first drafts, or that you will follow up with the person or send out the particular document requested.
Whatever it is, put your hand up and take the initiative, especially if it is something you can easily do to make someone else’s life easier. If they say they don’t need your help, then at least you get points for enthusiasm and pointing out something that could have easily fallen through.
4. Talk to other trainees
It is easy to think that you aren’t getting enough quality work or that you are being overworked, but you are not alone in having these thoughts. If you think that other trainees are having a better training experience than you are, ask them what they are doing differently. They may be doing some of the things highlighted in this article…
If you feel that the trainee dynamic at your firm is dog-eat-dog, then ask trainees from other law firms. Of course there will be trainees who will exaggerate just how much they are doing and those who will simply say “I’m getting a lot of responsibility” without really going into much detail. Try and find trainees who’ll be frank and honest, which is why talking to those outside your firm can be helpful. They won’t see you as their competition when putting down seat choices or getting NQ roles.
5. Get involved
There is a corny quote that pops into my head from time to time: ‘People may forget what you did for them, but they will always remember how you made them feel’. Show off your personality! Whether it is through playing on a sports team, putting together a team social, late night karaoke or even walking a few steps to your drinks trolley. Engage with people on things that are beyond the scope of your work.
6. Don’t take negative feedback personally
We will all come across difficult colleagues, clients and supervisors. It is important to be able to distinguish between when your work is being criticised for the purpose of teaching you/improving the final draft or when that person is simply having a bad day or just being their usual difficult self.
Don’t let your colleagues’ comments affect your next piece of work in a bad way. Take their feedback on board (if it is feedback) and if it’s them being rude, then brush it off.
If you are constantly getting negative feedback as to the quality of your work, then ask for suggestions on how to improve. It is always a good thing when a trainee improves, so look at your negative feedback as a way of having developmental goals to smash.
7. Learn to delegate
There is a fine line between delegating and trying to push your work on to someone else. There are some tasks that your supervisor will ask you to do when you are in the middle of doing something else: ask yourself if any of it can be delegated?
The chances are, the answer is yes. You should never delegate things you don’t know how to do yourself, because how will you check that it has been done correctly?
For example, if you are about to conduct a signing and still have some board minutes to draft, prepare an email to your secretary asking them to help print out execution versions of the other transaction documents. Your supervisor may have asked YOU to do it, but the likelihood is they just want it done.
Printing off large documents, booking meeting rooms and sending things off in the post are examples of things you should consider delegating to your secretary to free up your time. Indeed, the secretary will probably do it a lot quicker than you anyway.
8. Get involved with pro bono and community engagement
Of all the benefits of pro bono, networking and developing legal skills are the top two. When working on pro bono matters, you will find yourself working with other fee earners from other practice areas that you may not have sat in. Simply put, it is a great way to build your internal profile at your firm.
Also, depending on the client, you won’t have unrealistic deadlines and will get the time to really develop your research, drafting, advisory and/or presentation skills in what can be a less pressurised environment.
This is the same with community engagement. You will also get a sense of fulfilment because you can see directly the impact of your contribution. If your firm isn’t big on pro bono or community engagement, then why not consider setting up a project yourself or getting in touch with other law firms who you could partner with?
9. Keep a record (outside your formal trainee log)
At the beginning of every seat you should have a document that you can access easily that won’t be reviewed by graduate recruitment or your supervisor. Write down every single task you do (even the ones you feel like you really didn’t do much).
This is a great way for you to note down what documents you have seen/dealt with and if you occasionally actually read clauses when proof reading, then you will be familiar with certain documents which will make life easier when you actually have to review and mark them up. Keeping a log is also very useful when updating CVs or writing your review (I know how hard it can be to update your official learning log). For some reason it is a lot easier to update a personal record than to make formal entries on electronic or hand written learning logs.
10. Be positive
Do things with a smile, even proof reading, bundling and verification.
Every time you want to complain, just remember that there are thousands of law students out there applying to be in your position and you are essentially being paid to learn.
If you find yourself getting in a rut, take the Friday/Monday off and have a long weekend that doesn’t involve office talk. If you are still in a rut and hating life, then just remember that you will only be in that seat for a few more months, after which you can move on to hopefully a more enjoyable seat.
Mayowa Olusola is a trainee solicitor at a large international firm.