With so much competition in the legal graduate market, it can be difficult for strong candidates to stand out and secure themselves a training contract. Are applicants, however, missing a trick by not applying to the regional offices at Pinsent Masons? Declan McAuley, a trainee solicitor in the Belfast office makes his case for why graduates should look to Northern Ireland for legal training and answers some of the most frequently asked questions.
WHY SHOULD YOU LOOK AT BELFAST?
It is easy to think all roads lead to London when applying to practise law – I’m the first to admit that I was certainly in this boat at university. After all, English common law is employed regularly across many jurisdictions and with London situated in a time-zone aptly placed for clients in both Asia and America, the calibre of business heavyweights that land there makes it a great prospect for budding trainee solicitors to kick-start their career. But what happens when these London-based international law firms establish offices more widely across the UK? Well then the benefits stated above no longer apply to just London but rather the UK as a whole. Particularly at Pinsent Masons where each office is given equal status. When we consider this alongside: (1) society’s transition into a digital-age; (2) the industry’s move towards agile working; and (3) the ever-increasing government attention towards ‘levelling up’ UK cities, then there quickly becomes a shrewd case for training regionally with Pinsent Masons.
For almost all graduates, the first priority is quality of training and as a Belfast trainee, I can confirm this matches the high standards you read and hear about at Pinsent Masons. The firm takes a ‘One Pinsent Masons’ approach so that solicitors across the firm, no matter their office location, can aptly assist clients. As such, you can apply regionally to Pinsent Masons and be assured that your development and exposure as a junior lawyer will be first-rate. The first fortnight of a training contract usually sees trainees from all over the UK meet together in London and then at an off site trainee conference to carry out inductions and social activities which fashions an authentic sense of camaraderie. Once you are in your first seat, you are also exposed to a wide range of clients and multi-jurisdictional issues. The work assigned to me in my Projects seat, for example, has seen me correspond with clients domestically in Northern Ireland but also in Cork, Dublin, Manchester, Cardiff, London, Australia and South Africa whilst also keeping in regular contact with colleagues across the UK and Dublin.
In a legal sense, your time in Belfast will also introduce you to aspects of Irish law. One personal experience includes adapting a UK standard form construction contract to be used in the Republic of Ireland. This exposure to both English and Irish law makes for a well-rounded lawyer. As was the case in university, a broad understanding of the law across jurisdictions allows for a greater diversity of thought and can be drawn upon when later informing clients. You will find that assisting on these matters makes you adaptable to different issues which benefits both your personal development and your value to Pinsent Masons as a whole.
With a small intake in Belfast, there is also a greater focus and responsibility placed on you. This makes for an engaging learning experience and is by no means daunting owing to the constant support you receive from supervisors and colleagues along the way. It allows you to build a strong relationship with your team which in turn offers you a greater understanding of the sector you are in. With eight trainees carrying out their training contract at any one time in Belfast, there is also an excellent social aspect to the office.
I think it is also important to consider the application process for a training contract in a wider context. When you look at the statistics provided by the SRA, it states that only 2,035 training contracts were available across the 70 major UK based corporate firms in 2019 and in that same year, 24,575 students were admitted to study Law at university. Put simply, there are roughly 8 law students for every available commercial law training contract. However, don’t let this discourage you just yet because it must be considered how some people will either (a) pursue the Bar; or (b) not want to practise law at all. Consider this with the fact that most law firms will ask for a 2:1 classification and that figure is made smaller yet again. But we should consider how many of these potential trainees will be subscribed to the school of thought that they must find work in London. Indeed, many of these training contracts are available in London and when you throw graduates from international universities into the mix, the competitiveness for a London training contract swiftly increases. Of course, we cannot draw an exact figure from this but my underlying point is this: if Pinsent Masons offers an identical level of respected training across all its offices and London is by its very nature oversubscribed, it is not unfounded to suggest that a training contract at a regional office is an astute move. Easier? Definitely not – having a ‘One Pinsent Masons’ approach necessitates an equal standard of trainee competency across all of the UK but nonetheless it may provide food for thought when it comes to showcasing your talents.
What is more, there is a very collegiate feel to the Belfast office and we do a mix of local, national and international work getting involved in some of the biggest deals and transactions in NI annually which you wouldn’t usually get experience of locally. Many of the lawyers in the Belfast office, are leaders in their field and so great people to learn from. The office is also well recognised for its work on diversity and inclusion across many areas and is very proud to have been No.1 on the Stonewall index in NI for the last two years. Trainees from day 1 are very much encouraged to get involved in the life of the office and our responsible business programme which focuses on inspiring young lives and giving something back to our local community.
Considering this with life in Belfast more widely and a training contract here becomes an alluring prospect. The lower cost of living and the city experience are two tangible and positive benefits to working here. I take great pleasure in reminding my school friends how I am still paying less rent each month in a graduate apartment than they paid for university housing in England. What is more, the social scene with lively bars, restaurants, rich history, friendly people and stunning scenery make for a brilliant place to live. It’s always nice to note that Belfast came top in Lonely Planet’s Best Place to Visit in 2018…
As you can see, there is plenty to attract individuals to the Pinsent Masons Belfast office from around the UK and I hope it encourages graduates to consider applying here in the future. When I was studying at university, I initially had very little understanding of what qualifying in Northern Ireland entailed so I made a Q&A below that I would have found useful back then – I hope it helps.
DO I NEED TO STUDY AN UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE FROM NORTHERN IRELAND?
No – so long as you have a law degree that is recognised by the Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPLS) as a qualifying law degree for NI, this will suffice. It recognises degrees from both the UK and Republic of Ireland. These are listed in the information booklet found on the IPLS admissions page but as a general rule, LLB qualifications are recognised alongside some other BA qualifications. There is one caveat however – a module in the Law of Evidence is necessary. This can be taken as a separate exam where required.
WHAT IS THE IPLS?
The Institute of Professional Legal Studies, is run at Queen’s University, Belfast and oversees professional training for both solicitors and barristers. It can be seen as the equivalent to the Legal Practical Course in England and Wales or the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice in Scotland. Put simply, to become a solicitor in Northern Ireland, you need to have completed: a law degree (or law conversion course); a vocational legal solicitor course; and a two year apprenticeship.
DOES MY VOCATIONAL COURSE NEED TO BE COMPLETED AT THE IPLS?
No – Pinsent Masons in Belfast also recognises the LPC as a vocational qualification, and is only one of handful of firms to do so and as such, if you have completed this in England, you can still apply and carry out your training contract here. If, however, you have not completed a vocational course before applying, you will enrol with the IPLS as opposed to the LPC.
HOW DOES THE IPLS DIFFER TO OTHER VOCATIONAL COURSES?
In England and Scotland, you will spend a year completing your vocational course before embarking upon two years of in-office training. In Northern Ireland, your two years are split up between the IPLS and being in the office. As such, you will qualify a year quicker than you would in England or Scotland without sacrificing any quality of training. If you have completed the LPC before applying for a training contract you will not attend the IPLS and instead spend the full two years in the office.
IS THERE AN ENTRANCE EXAM FOR THE IPLS?
Yes – if you are offered a training contract this will be subject to you obtaining a 2:1 in your degree and a place at the IPLS and you will be expected to take the IPLS entrance exam in Belfast for the appropriate academic year, usually in the final year of your degree. It is usually held every December although this year due to COVID-19, this has been pushed back to after 17 March 2021. It is by no means an easy exam but an adequate amount of preparation and effort towards exam technique will make the experience significantly less daunting.
HOW MANY SEATS DO I TAKE?
You might firstly be asking what a ‘seat’ is. A seat can loosely be translated as your time in one department at a law firm. It is common in commercial law firms to take four seats over your two years in the office. This is no different in Belfast except that during each seat, you will split your time between the IPLS and the office apart from your last seat when you will be in the office full time. This creates a good blend of academic and practical work which acts as a smooth transition into the working world.
WHAT SEATS CAN I TAKE?
In the Belfast office you can spend 6 months at a time in either Corporate, Banking & Finance, Projects – Construction, Infrastructure and Energy, Commercial Property, Litigation & Regulatory or Employment & Reward.
IF I QUALIFY IN NORTHERN IRELAND CAN I STILL PRACTISE IN ENGLAND AND WALES?
Yes – at Pinsent Masons it is possible to qualify into a Scottish or English office after completing your training contract and applying to the Roll in your new jurisdiction. Many of our lawyers are dual qualified, enabling them to work with colleagues across the firm.
HOW MUCH DOES THE IPLS COST?
As of 2021/2022, the UK fees are £10,100 – Pinsent Masons covers this for its trainees providing you remain a trainee with the firm. This is a great benefit. It is worth pointing out that it’s not unusual for trainees in Northern Ireland to have to fund this themselves with scholarships and postgraduate loans available.
HOW MANY TRAINEES A YEAR?
The Belfast Office takes on four trainees a year so there are eight trainees at the firm at any one time.
WILL I STAY IN THE BELFAST OFFICE WHEN I QUALIFY?
It is all dependent on where there are positions available to qualify into. All Newly Qualified solicitor roles across the UK are advertised to our trainees. The positive news is that Pinsent Masons is keen to retain its trainees upon qualification. The Belfast office is no different but if a certain job is oversubscribed there may be spaces available in another office in the department you like. The retention rate in Belfast is between 75-100%.
ARE THERE OPPORTUNITIES FOR SECONDMENTS TO OTHER OFFICES/CLIENTS AS A TRAINEE OR ON QUALIFICATION IN BELFAST?
Due to the way the course at the IPLS runs it is not possible to have a secondment during your training contract however these are very much encouraged upon qualification and we have STRIDE our international secondment programme which gives our lawyers a chance to gain a unique experience in another office for up to 6 months. You not only develop new skills and knowledge, but you also gain a valuable global network
Do keep an eye on this website, follow us on social media and/or try to join one of our events (currently virtual) to find out more about us.
Best of luck with your applications!