What is life like as a legal trainee within the Government Legal Department?

With the strong focus on training contracts at private sector firms, the opportunities available within government can sometimes be forgotten – but it offers a unique and alternative route into law. We spoke to Pinky Tanna, a trainee currently working in the Government Legal Department (GLD), to see what it’s like to be a trainee solicitor within government.

  • Last updated Mar 8, 2018 11:42:46 AM
  • Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw
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First of all, why did you choose to do your training contract within government?
For the work. You get the opportunity to work on cutting-edge law and high-profile cases, whilst also providing a public service. Government lawyers are involved in a range of areas of law and there is no requirement to specialise in one particular area once you qualify. So you can try different areas of law not only during your training contract but also throughout your career.

You also get the opportunity to develop and write legislation - something that is not available in the private sector.

What was the first day of your training contract like?
It was initially daunting, like any first day! But also exciting - as I couldn’t wait to start. The first day was an induction day, where we had various talks and training from lawyers and former trainees. It was a good way to start as all the trainees in my intake spent the day together, so we were able to break the ice and get to know each other. It was a good way to ease us into the training contract before we joined our respective teams.

Which seat are you currently doing and what do you enjoy the most about it?
I’m currently completing an advisory seat (non-contentious) within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. What I enjoy most about my current seat is the variety of the work. I’m based in the air quality and water team, but I get to work across the teams. So far I have been involved in advising on Brexit matters, devolution matters, agricultural law and environmental law.

This is also the first seat where I’ve had the opportunity to draft secondary legislation. I recently had a short piece of secondary legislation published, so it’s quite exciting to be able to say that I actually wrote a small piece of law!

What seat are you doing next? And how are seats allocated?
It will be another advisory seat, this time with the Ministry of Justice. Allocation varies depending on which department your training contract is with. With the Government Legal Department (GLD), the training contract is split into four six-month seats. The first year seats are in litigation, and the second year seats are in GLD advisory teams based in central government departments. For the first year seats, the Legal Trainee Scheme Steering Group decide where you go, with the aim of making sure that at least one seat is in public law litigation as that’s such a key area of work. For the second year seats, trainees submit their preferences and trainees will usually get at least one of their options.

What kind of work do you do on a day-to-day basis as a trainee?
It’s so varied here - it completely depends on which team you’re in. But trainees here are given real responsibility from day one.

If you’re in a litigation seat, you could be expected to assess the merits of a new claim, draft summary grounds of defence, instruct counsel, draft witness statements and prepare for a hearing. You also get to attend hearings in various courts, including hearings in the court of appeal and the Supreme Court.

In advisory, the type of work I’m doing at the moment involves advising clients on operational matters, providing advice to ministers, carrying out legal research and drafting secondary legislation. There are also opportunities in advisory seats to get involved in a Bill and attend Parliament to see the passage of the Bill.

How many other trainees were there in your intake? How did this make a difference to your training experience?
In my intake, there were about 20 trainees in the Government Legal Department (HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the National Crime Agency (NCA) have a number of trainees too). Despite the size of the intake, we all get on really well and we have become a good support network.

Plus, as we’re all are based in different legal teams, it’s great to speak to the trainees and find out about the work of other teams. There’s such a vast range of legal work going on that you wouldn’t get to experience it all in your training contract, so the other trainees provide an invaluable insight into this.

What do you do if you’ve got a problem or are stuck on a project?
The support system is great and the legal environment in government is very collegiate. If you have an issue in your work or you’re stuck on something, your first port of call would be your supervisor. If they are busy or not around, the rest of the team are always willing to help.

Another aspect of the support system is the sponsors. Each trainee is given a sponsor (who is a member of the Legal Trainee Scheme Steering Group) from the moment they accept their training contract offer. Sponsors guide you and give you advice on any issues you may have prior to starting and during your training contract. They also oversee the training you receive over the two years and remain as a mentor post qualification.

Sounds like a good balance between getting quite a lot of responsibility but also having the support to take on that responsibility! What are some of the things you now know about training contracts that you wish you had known before applying?
Don’t be set on only working within one area of law. Training contracts give you the opportunity to work within a range of different areas, and you can never predict which you will enjoy the most. It could be that you really enjoy a seat in an area you would have never considered before.

Also, as you’ll be spending two years working with a firm, it’s important that you research the firm and make sure that it’s somewhere you will enjoy working!

What is the work-life balance like?
The work-life balance is very good and a healthy balance is strongly encouraged. Trainees typically work from 9am to 5.30pm. The teams are really conscious not to have trainees staying late in the office, and they make sure we’ve got an appropriate workload. Obviously, if there is an urgent deadline, you may find that you have to stay late, but it’s not often.

What advice would you give to people applying for training contracts this year?
My advice would be to practise and prepare for the application process. You initially have to pass a series of online tests before you get to the assessment centre stage. The deadlines are quite short for the online tests, so it’s good to practise the tests beforehand to give yourself the best chance.

Also, ensure that you have examples ready to demonstrate how you have the competencies that the organisation is looking for - it will put you in good stead for the interview. Read the newspapers! It helps to demonstrate that you’re aware of the role lawyers play in any current government affairs.

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