5 top tips for surviving the GDL

Helpful tips

The Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) is a year-long conversion course for non-law graduates which results in obtaining a qualifying law degree. Whilst many students are intimidated by the prospect of studying the GDL, this blog post aims to make your experience as straightforward as possible. I recently completed the GDL, having previously worked as a paralegal at the firm and have been offered a training contract to commence in 2016, and will begin studying the LPC in September this year.

1. Be organised

The study method on the GDL consists of lectures and workshops. Whilst lectures are similar to those at university, GDL workshops involve reviewing ‘homework’ activities and completing activities in groups, such as problem questions. Given the high volume of group work involved, it is important to plan ahead to ensure that all workshop preparation is completed, and to avoid being underprepared in class. Keeping a diary of any important dates and deadlines is another useful way to manage the large workload.

2. Practice makes perfect!

Throughout the GDL your work will commonly be assessed by problem questions. Typically you are given a fictional client scenario and you must use your knowledge to advise the client. At university I was used to writing essays, and therefore initially found it difficult to adapt to problem questions. However, weekly participation in workshops provides the opportunity to tackle problem questions in a group before reviewing them with a tutor. There are also plenty of past-exam papers and sample answers available on the intranet, which are particularly helpful for revision.

3. Make the most of the resources on offer

Students can make the most of any of the resources offered by the careers centre. Students can also attend any workshops and skill-sessions which focus on relevant topics to assist with obtaining a training contract and improving your skill set.

4. Get stuck in!

Outside of the classroom, mooting (or mock trial) competitions provide the opportunity to prepare and present a fictional case in front of a ‘judge’. Other popular extra-curricular activities include pro-bono work, which involves working with members of the community to raise awareness of and provide advice on a range of legal issues. All of these activities help to give an edge to vacation scheme and training contract applications, and improve important legal skills.

5. Start revision early

Ultimately, keeping on top of workshop preparation and coursework throughout the year will ensure that you have a good set of notes to use for revision, and enable you to begin your revision as soon as possible. Regular mock examinations may also seem demanding, however they provide the opportunity to get to grips with exam-style questions and prepare you well for coping with the main examinations in the summer.

This post was edited by Emily Driver. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.

Final seat, two teams!

Two business people assembling blank white jigsaw puzzles with doodles

For my final seat I have been split between the Employment department and the Private Client team. There is not a specific split, for example the beginning of the week in Employment and the second half of the week in Private Client. The department I work with on a day to day basis is dictated purely by workloads. I could be moving between tasks for the two different departments throughout the day, or alternatively I might spend the whole day working on matters specific to one department.

My role as trainee solicitor in the Employment team also involves cross office working with the wider Midlands team. When I am working with fees earners in the Birmingham or Nottingham offices allocation and supervision of work is often carried out over the phone or via email. However, one day per week I travel to the Nottingham office to sit and work with the team there. Face to face interaction is invaluable whilst training, and indeed as a qualified solicitor. For this reason, on occasion, I have also travelled to the Birmingham office .

You’re probably wondering if working between different offices and different teams is difficult to manage… whilst it is a challenge, as a final seat trainee I have built up the requisite skill set, throughout my training contract, to effectively prioritise my workload and enjoy the variety of work and experience . After all, doing a split seat means I build up experience in five different departments, rather than the four departments as is the norm for trainees at the firm. This fulfils one of my main aims as a trainee, which is to get the widest experience possible in order to prepare me for my career as a solicitor.

So, what skills are necessary to manage a cross office and cross department seat?

1. Excellent organisation and time management skills

This is necessary in order to keep on top of the matters I am working on and ensure that the requisite deadlines are met. I keep a task list of the work I have been asked to complete which is ordered in terms of priority. I update my task list daily. When work is allocated it is important to ask for the deadline for completing a task to ensure I can properly prioritise my workload. I keep my diary up to date to show when I am working in another office or attending a meeting. In addition, I find adding key dates to my calendar provides a reminder of when I need to complete or carry out a certain task.

2. Be vocal and pro-active

Workloads vary depending on how busy the two departments are. If I am not busy in one department then I let the other department know that I have capacity. On the other hand, if I am feeling overwhelmed I also need to speak up. This is where having a task list is invaluable because it provides a quick reference point for my supervisor to see what I am working on. Working between departments means that there is not the awareness, as I have found between fee earners working within a single department, of what work I am being asked to do and what deadlines I am working towards, so it is my responsibility to manage this.

In addition to the two skills mentioned above, the normal skills required of a trainee solicitor apply such as attention to detail, being a team player, adopting a commercial approach and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrating a positive and enthusiastic ‘can do’ attitude.

This post was edited by Fiona Grocock. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.

What is the professional skills course?

Office table with flower, blank notepad and coffee cup

Many people leave the LPC with the impression that they have completed all of their studying and all that remains between them and qualification is their training contract. This is not true; the professional skills course (or PSC as it is more commonly referred to) is a compulsory SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) requirement pre-qualification. The SRA will not admit an individual unless they have successfully completed the PSC.

The PSC is designed to further develop the professional skills learnt on the LPC once trainees have had some experience of using them in practice. It is therefore broken into a range of different subject areas and should be spread out throughout your training contract. For example, my PSC was spread out throughout the first year of my training contract. It is more practice focused than the LPC, and encourages you to consider how the skills being taught can be applied to everyday working life, where the work can at times be high pressured.

The PSC is broken down into a number of compulsory and elective modules, which cover different areas of law. The three compulsory modules are:

  • Advocacy and Communication Skills – which involves conducting a factual analysis of a case, practising presenting opening and closing speeches and the examination of witnesses
  • Client Care and Professional Standards – which involves identifying and dealing with matters of ethics, professional conduct and client care, as well as practical matters which were not dealt with in much detail on the LPC such as fees, undertakings, time management and developing ways of working with others
  • Financial and Business Skills – which looks at what financial advice can and should be given by lawyers, and the possible criminal sanctions of not complying with these requirements, as well as providing an overview of the financial services industry and the characteristics of different types of investments.

Each of these modules take place over a number of days. For those of you who danced out of your last LPC exam celebrating that you would never have to do an exam again, unfortunately there is actually a written exam to assess financial and business skills. It is fairly straightforward though, so provided you do some preparation you should be fine.

Gateley choose your elective modules, and this year we were required to take:

  • Acquisitions and disposals of shares
  • Commercial Property- Sales and Purchase Transactions
  • ADR and Mediation
  • The Skilled Negotiator.

As discussed in a previous blog post, the firm’s policy is that trainees should complete a Corporate, a Real Estate and a Contentious seat (as well as a preference) during their training contract, and these electives correlate to the required seats. Therefore they offer a useful reminder for those who have already had experience in the relevant seat, and provide a good background to those who have yet to complete it.

Trainees take the PSC course together on the same day, so it is a good opportunity to catch up with the trainees in the other offices. It is easy to delve into the daily workings of your training contract and forget that you need to take as many training opportunities as you can. The PSC gets you into the habit of continuing your legal education and skills development, which is crucial to your career development.

This post was edited by Catherine Donnelly. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.

Two years on: My top tips for trainees of tomorrow

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Prepare early

It is useful throughout your university education to keep thinking about what areas of law you have an interest in, and whether or not you would like practical experience in these areas in the future. However, some areas that you enjoy academically may be starkly different in practice and therefore an active use of your university careers service mixed with research into appropriate firms that practice in the areas you are interested in, as well as undertaking vacation schemes or relevant legal work experience will all help to give you direction to enable you to decide what type of firm and training contract is for you.

Be open minded

You may have a set view of the seats you would like to experience when undertaking your training contract, but this may not always go according to plan. If you get allocated a seat that you do not necessarily want, embrace it, give it a go and you never know you might end up loving it. I was in a similar position when I was allocated Corporate Recovery as my third seat, it turned out to be the best thing for me and I am due to qualify into Insolvency Litigation in the coming weeks.

Understand commerciality and be commercially aware

Commercial awareness is not just reading the newspaper, it is trying to understand what clients want to achieve, how their businesses work on a day to day basis, and what we can do to help them. What may be the best legal option for a business may not always be the best commercial decision in reality. For example, when negotiating a commercial contract, it may be appropriate to give certain indemnities that from a strictly legal sense may open the company up to extra liabilities down the line. However, commercially, the acceptance of the indemnities may be worth the risk to the company if it will enable the deal to be done. You need to be able to explain the legal position and advise accordingly from a commercial point of view whilst also balancing the commercial needs of the company from your understanding of what they want to achieve. Think about potential issues a company may face in terms of the market, their brand and relevant governmental/legislative changes that may affect things. All these factors may affect the commerciality of a legal decision.

Get involved, grasp every opportunity

Remember it is not all about work. Be open to any opportunities that present themselves throughout your training contract and attend as many events as you can from social events and young professional networking events, to work and client specific opportunities. Building a social relationship with your colleagues and professional peers is important and a part of you fitting into the culture of any firm and building contacts for the future.

Take everything in your stride, criticism is good

Your training contract is an opportunity to learn and you need to remember that you are not expected to be perfect, far from it, but you are expected to try as hard as you can at each task that is given to you. Constructive criticism will help you be a better lawyer so take it in and learn from it. Do not be afraid to ask for clarification if you are unsure of what to do, it is always better to speak up with plenty of time than to complete a task incorrectly and have to rush to rectify it close to a deadline.

This post was edited by Jenna King. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.

Interoffice socials

Grilling at summer weekend

Life as a trainee is all about learning. It goes without saying that the focus is very much on the law and developing the commercial insight to thrive as a practicing solicitor. However, a key step in this process is learning to cultivate a working relationship with your colleagues, whether they are in different departments or different offices.

The best way to do this? Socials.

Midlands Rounders Tournament

The Gateley Midlands Rounders Tournament is a yearly social held between the firm’s Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham offices and is a great chance to meet people in other offices, share some food and drink and play a game of competitive rounders.

Harborne Cricket Club has always been the venue of choice, being the stage for a sporting event like none you’ve ever seen… since primary school… with a bar and BBQ, the settings are perfect for a catch up and it provides you with an opportunity to meet colleagues who you’ve worked with on a particular deal but might have only ever spoken to via e-mail or telephone.

This year, I was responsible for organising the Midlands Rounders Tournament. It was an excellent opportunity to work with a variety of people from our Birmingham and Leicester offices, and with the help of other trainees, partners, secretaries and our Accounts team, we were able to ensure the day was a success (although not enough for Nottingham to win the tournament). By working with colleagues from such varied backgrounds, I was able to get a glimpse of personal working styles and was given a chance to project manage in a more relaxed setting.

East Midlands Summer BBQ

The Nottingham and Leicester offices share a close working relationship, their location and coverage of the East Midlands market providing great opportunities for different departments to work closely together. To celebrate both this and a shared love of all things barbecued, the East Midlands Summer BBQ was created.

This year, it was held in the beautiful village of Wymeswold, starting at the Nottingham office’s senior partner’s house. After a few drinks and a warm welcome from Andy’s border terrier Ruby, colleagues headed to the Windmill Inn for the highly anticipated food. A quick quiz meant that we raised some money for the office’s nominated charity, the Alzheimer’s Society, with everyone then enjoying the beer garden and the summer sun. The informal nature of the social was a great chance to get to know my colleagues better, and it is at events like these that you feel part of the firm in the widest sense.

Interoffice socials have allowed me to build up greater rapport with a variety of people, given me an insight into life at the other offices, and have meant that I feel welcome wherever I go within the firm. It’s amazing what a few BBQs and drinks can do, isn’t it?

This post was edited by Matt Flint. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.

Why I chose Gateley

Picking different apple

Before an interview:

I first heard about Gateley at a university careers fair. After doing my initial research it became clear that the firm is widely recognised and has maintained a strong commercial reputation from day one. When I was applying for training contracts the recession was finally coming towards an end, it was still a tough environment for any business to flourish and yet Gateley was continuing to grow, with new offices opening. The training contract being offered by the firm seemed to be well-structured, diverse and stable with lots of opportunity to learn and grow as a junior lawyer.

Vacation scheme:

After applying online in my third year of university, I was offered a place on the vacation scheme in the Leicester office for 2 weeks in the real estate and employment departments. I was warmly welcomed by the friendly Leicester team from the first day and was offered a great deal of support throughout the 2 weeks. It didn’t take me long to realise that the staff are diverse, charismatic and hardworking, and I wanted to be a part of it. The work that I was delegated was interesting and challenging and gave me not only a good insight into daily life as a lawyer, but also gave me the opportunity to work hard and show the best of me.

Assessment day:

After the vacation scheme, I was invited to the assessment day where we took part in group tasks and an interview. The day was professional, enjoyable and well-structured and the atmosphere was a lot less tense and intimidating than I had experienced at other firms’ assessments days. Fellow interviewees were more approachable and friendly and it was evident that the firm were looking for ‘all rounders’ which appealed greatly to me. The questions asked and the topics explored during the day were relevant and challenging, giving us all a good opportunity to reveal our strengths and shine.

For a 2015 applicant:

This is an exciting time for the firm. We are growing and as detailed in our post last week, have just floated on AIM. For a junior lawyer, there is a lot of opportunity to progress.

As a trainee, we are given interesting, large scale work to do and are provided with the best platform to grow intellectually and socially. There is the opportunity to work on matters with colleagues from the different regional offices, and within the local office. I’m enjoying my training contract and would recommend the firm to those looking for a dynamic, challenging and well recognised training contract.

This post was edited by Gemma Kotak. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.

Contentious vs. non-contentious

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I am a first year trainee half way through my second seat, Commercial Dispute Resolution (CDR) – a wholly contentious seat. What do I mean when I say contentious? Well contentious work relates to disputes between parties, often involving court proceedings. This is in contrast to non-contentious or ‘transactional work’ in which parties, while having perhaps separate agendas, are often aiming to achieve the same goal. For example the sale/purchase of a company or property, or entering into a commercial contract.

It is no longer the case that the SRA requires trainees to undertake both contentious and non-contentious work during their two year training contract but Gateley (quite rightly in my opinion), believes it is valuable for their trainees to experience both types of work. This is to allow us a wide breadth of experience making us more effective future solicitors, and helps us to decide what kind of department we want to eventually qualify into. Even for non-contentious lawyers it is helpful to know the contentious/court procedure and how your work could potentially be scrutinised if there is a dispute further down the line.

My first seat was in the Banking & Finance department, a transactional seat, so moving to CDR was a bit of a culture shock at first as there are some key differences between the two styles of work.

Timescale and deadlines

In a transactional department most of the deadlines for pieces of work are dictated by your client or the other party to the transaction. This can mean you have a long period of time  working on an issue which is not time sensitive to the parties but, conversely, there can be very short periods of time for important issues to be agreed. In contrast the pace of dispute work is largely determined by the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) which sets out strict time periods for each aspect of the court process and even provides guidance on the time scales for pre action steps and correspondence. As a result in contentious departments you have a more rigid and predictable timetable of work.

Communication with ‘the other side’

Having come from a transactional seat where communication with the other side’s solicitors is professional but friendly and relatively open, it was unusual adapting to the contentious style of correspondence. For example, dispute correspondence is rarely personal and is addressed to and from the firms of solicitors rather than individuals. Wording has to be carefully chosen as the other side will be looking for any weaknesses, inconsistencies or errors in your arguments and concepts like ‘without prejudice correspondence’ and legal privilege come into play.

The work

Transactional seats can be very diverse in their range of clients and the specific facts, motivations and objectives of the transaction, but most deals tend to follow a similar structure. There is a separate department for each type of work (for example Real Estate, Corporate, Pensions, Banking & Finance) which provides the most effective service and expertise for clients. CDR, in contrast, covers a wide range of disputes including Commercial, Corporate, Finance, Employment, Real Estate, Construction, Contentious Probate and Sport.

The majority of the work done in contentious departments can consist of:

  1. Research and fact gathering.
  2. Advising clients on the merits of their case.
  3. Corresponding with the other side to reach a resolution and corresponding with the court if we can’t.
  4. Drafting, filing and serving statements of case (particulars of claim, defence, reply etc).
  5. Preparing witness statements and expert reports.
  6. Instructing and briefing counsel.
  7. Attending hearings.
  8. Attending mediations in an attempt to reach an amicable settlement.
  9. Ultimately enforcing any judgement post trial.

I have already been involved in all the work described above and there are also tasks such as disclosure and preparing cost budgets that are regularly undertaken by trainees.

This post was edited by Lewis Peck. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.