Gaining the experience that you need to qualify as a human rights lawyer is a challenging yet rewarding process. This article gives tips on how to succeed on your journey to qualification.
In England and Wales there are two types of lawyer, barrister and solicitor. A barrister is a specialist on the law. Their role is to provide nuanced legal advice, to draft complex legal documents and to provide oral advocacy for clients in court. A solicitor usually works from an office. Solicitors are usually the first port of call for a client, and they are responsible for taking detailed information from the client, and obtaining the evidence required to support their case. This article focusses on the path to becoming a human rights solicitor in England and Wales, though much of the contents will still be useful if you are training elsewhere.
Becoming a human rights solicitor
To become a human rights solicitor in England/Wales you first need to study and gain practical experience. You will begin by either completing an undergraduate degree in law (LLB), or if you have gained a degree in another subject, you can instead take the one year Graduate Diploma in Law. Next, you need to study the Legal Practice Course. Once you have completed your academic qualifications, you need to obtain a training contract to gain experience of the day to day work of a law firm.
Most training contract applications open between six months and two years in advance of the start date. You apply directly to the firm, and if they are interested in your application, you will usually be invited for an assessment day or an interview. Training contracts at law firms that focus on human rights are highly competitive. Therefore, most trainees have some prior practical experience, whether this is volunteering at a human rights organisation, or working as a paralegal at a law firm.
What is a training contract?
A training contract is a two-year programme at a law firm or other legal organisation. Once you have successfully completed it, you can apply to be admitted to the roll of solicitors, which means that you can practice as a solicitor in England and Wales.
As a trainee, you can expect to rotate through at least three different ‘seats’ within the firm, and sometimes as many as six different positions. The idea is to gain experience of a variety of areas of law, to help you gain a broad base of experience and figure out which area you would like to specialise in later on. Alongside this practical experience, you are required to complete the Professional Skills Course. This is an academic course which provides training on areas such as client care, ethics, and solicitors accounts. More details regarding the requirements for a training contract can be found here.
Working at human rights firm as trainee
Life as a human rights trainee is demanding, yet stimulating. Initially, it may seem daunting. On top of familiarizing yourself with the application of the law, you will learn the firm’s internal systems and processes. You will undoubtedly experience a steep learning curve, in which you become more capable as time goes on. You will probably also find that over the course of the two years, you are given progressively more interesting work to do.
#1 Do: Take notes: Lawyers are notorious for talking quickly, and conveying a great deal of information in a short space of time. When you meet with your supervisor, have a pen and paper ready. That way, you can write as they talk. This makes you look attentive and professional. It will also make it easier to clarify any questions that you have at a later stage. Always keep a notepad on your desk, so that if you receive a phone call from a colleague, you can jot down what they say.
#2 Don’t: Bombard your supervisor with questions: Particularly at the beginning, you may find that almost every task that you are given leads to a series of questions that you feel that you need answers to before you can get on with the work. Don’t worry, this is normal! However, you need to find the right time to ask your colleagues for help. Sometimes, you may be able to get the answer from your fellow trainees. If not, keep a list of questions and schedule a time each day to check in with your supervisor to ask them. If the questions relate to written work, perhaps you can complete the task but flag your questions as comments on the document.
#3 Do: Perfect your client care skills: The best compliment that you can receive as a trainee solicitor is from a client. A positive testimonial will be a huge step to proving your worth to the firm. As a junior staff member, you will have a different relationship with clients to your senior colleagues. Use this to your advantage! Human rights clients are often vulnerable, and may find the legal process stressful and intimidating. Take time to build trust and show them that you are there to listen. Perhaps this will lead to a client opening up to you when taking vital details for a witness statement. If a client calls asking for a piece of information, however small, take pride in getting back to them on the same day. If something takes a little longer than expected, call the client and apologise for the delay, and update them on the timeline.
#4 Don’t: Take your work home with you: As a human rights trainee, you may find yourself with a heavy workload. It can be tempting to resort to working on evenings and weekends to get on top of your to-do list. Avoid this wherever possible. Try to set good habits to take with you into your future career. Write a list prioritizing the most urgent tasks, and stick to it. Make sure that you still have time in your week to follow your hobbies and passions. Remember that you will work the best if you are living a balanced and healthy life.
#5 Do: Perfect the art of the public funding application: Legal Aid is a government scheme in England and Wales that pays for clients to receive legal advice in certain types of cases. At a human rights firm, it is likely that many clients’ cases will be funded through Legal Aid. This means that, as a trainee, it will probably fall down to you to complete funding forms, and follow up on funding applications. Whilst this work can be tedious, it is a great opportunity to learn how to prepare a succinct and accurate summary of the case. You can develop your persuasive writing skills, when you make the argument for why it deserves funding. If you do this well, you are laying the ground work for the future success of the case.
#6 Don’t: Drink too much at the work Christmas party: This may sound obvious but many trainees fall down this trap! Of course, it is important to bond with your colleagues, and drinking alcohol together can be a fun way to relax after a stressful week. But remember, your whole training contract is a job interview for that newly qualified solicitor position! A good approach is to avoid saying anything at the pub that you would not be comfortable saying in the office.
#7 Do: Keep a suit at work, just in case: Different firms have different dress codes, and you may find that you do not need to look especially smart every day. However, as a trainee, you never know when you may be sent to court to file a document, or issue a claim form. Sometimes, you may even find yourself in front of a judge. If this happens, you will want to look professional. Leaving a suit at work means that you will be prepared for the unexpected.
#8 Don’t: Let one mistake destroy you: As a trainee, learning how to check your own work and spot errors is part of your learning process. For example, if you are drafting an important document, tired eyes will miss typographical errors. It can help to come back to it later or the next day with a fresh outlook. However, mistakes are inevitable. If you realise you have got something wrong, come clean and tell your supervisor straight away. It is their job to help you sort it out.
#9 Do: Understand how the firm makes money: If you are an aspiring human rights lawyer, the chances are that you are not in the law game to get rich. Nonetheless, money makes the world go round. Understanding how your firm makes profit is an important part of your role and will help get you noticed for your future potential as a solicitor. For example, law firms usually bill according to how long each fee-earner spends working on a case. Recording your time effectively on your firm’s client management system is essential to ensuring that the firm can get paid for your efforts. Make sure you understand your firm’s policy on time recording, and follow it.
#10 Don’t: Forget why you are doing it: You will not always be able to choose which areas of law you train in. You may find yourself in a seat which does not inspire you, or with a supervisor who you do not gel with. Look forward to the future, and remind yourself of your motivation. Where do you hope to get to? Every area of law will teach you something useful which will contribute towards your goals. Keep a mental note of your successes. Take time to recognise and celebrate when you have achieved something for a client.