Final Seat Trainee Solicitors in the pandemic era - where to go from here?
Almost on a weekly basis since the start of the pandemic I have received numerous enquiries from highly concerned trainees in Hong Kong and the UK that the future at their firm beyond the training contract is likely to cease.
During this crisis I have heard several instances of Hong Kong domestic law firms not retaining any of their trainees (numbering between 1-6, depending on the size of the firm). International law firms in Hong Kong, with deeper pockets, have fared slightly better and have taken a more proactive approach in retaining as many trainees on qualification as they can, although quite often at the expense of limiting the options that trainees have when it comes to the practice areas available upon qualification.
To be told you have an offer to qualify into capital markets when you wanted corporate M&A or arbitration is a bitter pill to swallow, after all these years of studying and training. I can only imagine the feeling of it being like finishing a marathon only to be told I’ve joined the wrong race. And that is tough, I empathise if you are in that situation.
I have spoken at length with senior level lawyers at both international law firms and in-house lawyers, people who have experienced several crises in their careers, including the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, SARs in 2003 and the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s. In each of these periods, the lawyers have encountered monumental challenges. But what they learned was that a crisis will come and go, and the key is having the mindset to ride out the storm and continue to work towards your career goals. There are many stories of NQs and junior lawyers from international law firms during each of these crisis events joining local law firms and pivoting into entirely different practice areas, from say, structured finance to personal injury and divorce law.
"what [senior lawyers] learned was that a crisis will come and go, and the key is having the mindset to ride out the storm and continue to work towards your career goals."
But when the crisis subsided and the economy picked up, the demand for good quality lawyers among top domestic commercial law firms and international law firms remained. In good times and bad, there is always a demand in Hong Kong for high quality, multi-lingual lawyers who have trained with highly reputable law firms. Many of those lawyers who transitioned into domestic law firms and into different practice areas were still able to return to international law firms a year or two later, as there was a dearth of good quality lawyers to fill out those practice areas when the good times came rolling back. International law firms looked at these favourably as the lawyers were trained with an international law firm and continued to maintain and sharpen their legal practice skills, and added new ones (technical and soft skills).
So qualifying or transitioning into a different practice area doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your original career aspiration. As a lawyer, you must strive to be the best in the field or practice area you’re in. Moving to another practice area and a law firm with a different profile altogether does not alter that. You may even learn to love the practice area that you swing into, and partnership prospects will still be available in abundance if you make it that way. As I posted recently on LinkedIn (Sāi Wēng lost his horse), a seemingly unplanned event may create an unlucky outcome but on the other hand, could give rise to something fortuitous, we just don’t know. If we apply the same approach as Sāi Wēng, remaining calm and stoic with a steely determination to never leaving sight of your career goals will help you ride through the worst of times.
What holds for trainee solicitors in 2021
The outlook in 2021 is a far cry from the previous year when countries the world over were struggling to counter the effects of the coronavirus. Admittedly, the picture for final seat trainees qualifying in March or September of 2020 was bleak. Very bleak. Unless you're in a Magic Circle or other top tier law firm, and even then, some firms haven't escaped the challenges that their smaller competitors have faced.
In both periods, we had been in the thick of the pandemic with no vaccine, workforces were being furloughed or were working on reduced hours, and with no end (to the pandemic) in sight. With school closures, lockdown, restrictions on where to go and where to eat, things went from bad to worse.
2020 has certainly been a seminal year affecting business practices (working from home, increased use of the gig economy, and increased use of and greater reliance on technology) as well as the way in which people ‘do business’ (a virtual halt to business flights, virtual business meetings in the home, re-prioritising business needs, for listed companies, seeking dual-listings elsewhere, increased investments in technology and tech development).
"Admittedly, the picture for final seat trainees qualifying in March or September of 2020 was bleak. Very bleak."
Now, however, with the developments of the vaccine at the end of 2020 and subsequent roll out around the world, 2021 feels there will be a more positive sentiment in the economy. Already, we are feeling it in the legal industry. Most notably since the start of January, we have experienced a significant rise in the number of vacancies within law firms, professionals firms and with in-house legal teams. Businesses are trying to make up for lost ground, having written 2020 off entirely.
This current crisis is the same as previous ones in some respects, but clearly different in others.
So as a trainee lawyer with the qualification line in sight, where do you go from here?
What’s been written in a previous article, What Final Year Trainee Solicitors Need To Know (written pre-pandemic) still applies. No matter what economic climate we are encountering, the businesses and revenues of practice groups across law firms will be cyclical and is highly dependent on overall market forces. In this case, the market forces will be heavily influenced by the effects of the coronavirus and each territory's ability to counter the effects of it or simply manage it in such a way as to enable life to resume as normally as possible. Yet these market forces can be short or long term. As I wrote before, law firms cannot see 3 months ahead of them and it applies equally now as it did pre-pandemic. So it’s nigh on impossible to predict in February how law firms will fare in their business come September.
Just as importantly, the financial success of law firms is also dependent on how well financially the firm is managed too – those with prudent financial management systems (less debt, fewer aged creditors, more flexible partner compensation arrangements) will have developed deeper pockets and healthier cash reserves over time and can plan far more ahead than those law firms who haven’t. No two firms will be in the same situation.
For trainees, the key is having the right mindset and either sticking faithfully to your goals, or re-aligning them. "Be water, my friend," as Bruce Lee famously said. Your academic and professional experiences have got you to where you are now and will help you in whatever direction you go.
Giving up is not an option.