Asking the right questions

As it is September, the beginning of a new training contract year and the start of a new academic year for some, I thought I would start this trainee blog by wishing the new trainees at Woodfines luck and congratulating them on achieving a training contract at a great firm. In line with this thought, I have decided to focus this post on advice regarding the importance and appropriate use of questions as a trainee and understanding the firm’s culture.

Whether you are a trainee straight from university or have spent some time working in between the start of your contract and academic career, it is important to remember that when you join a law firm, unlike university, it is only a new start for you.  Everyone else knows their role and what they are doing, they have their own KPI’s (key performance indicators) and work patterns. Watch carefully. The partners, fee earners and staff will have established patterns of work which suit both them and the firm. Use these as your guide.

It is important to remember that you are joining an existing structure and culture, which has been created over a long period of time. When you start your training, take time to understand the culture and ethos of the firm and its individual departments. Hopefully you will already have a general idea of the firm’s culture from the research you did before applying!

Understanding the firm’s culture is only a part of starting your training contract well. The second important part is how the firm perceives you as a trainee. As a trainee solicitor you are a source of income (for now and hopefully for the future!); but you also need to be aware that as a new person in the group you are also a potential risk. It is important, therefore, to present yourself as someone who is unlikely to make to mistakes and this is where the art of asking the right questions, at the right time, comes up.

Whilst it is inevitable that you will make some mistakes, you need to demonstrate that you can identify the small mistakes that are part of your learning curve as well as the bigger ones. When you find a situation where there is the potential of making a big mistake you need to ask questions. This not only avoids that potential, but gives out the signals that you are not someone who is a risk to the firm’s success.

At Woodfines, asking questions is encouraged and seen as a valuable part of your development as a trainee.

Good things to remember are:

  1. When you are given instructions, make sure you understand exactly what is required of you.
  2. Set out any areas where you have any problems or specific points that might need to be checked.
  3. Ask clarifying questions that demonstrate you have done the research yourself but that you wish to confirm before you act.
  4. Avoid pestering fee earners; time is a scarce (and chargeable!) commodity in any legal practice, and you posing repeated queries could just get annoying, however nice and supportive the fee earner may be.
  5. Do the research first, don’t ask questions when the answers are already in front of you. This means use the resources, the Companies Act or the White Book, for example.
  6. Make sure you note the answers. It’s best not to ask the same questions over and over.
  7. Never let the fee earner or your supervisor, or perhaps most importantly a client or judge, discover your mistakes the hard way!

Knowing when and how to ask questions is a valuable skill when undertaking a training contract and one of the most important ways you will learn and develop. Never be scared to ask questions, just make sure they are the right ones.

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