Interview with Alexandra Sault - Trainee Solicitor at Latham & Watkins

Alexandra Sault is a trainee solicitor at international firm Latham & Watkins, currently undertaking a seat with the firms banking team. She details the first day of her training contract, the support systems available at Latham & Watkins and her recommendations for what you should be doing in order to increase your legal experience and chances of securing a training contract…

  • Last updated Feb 11, 2018 9:23:22 AM
  • By Billy Sexton, Editor, AllAboutLaw.co.uk
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Why did you choose to do your training contract at an international law firm?

My parents moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I wanted to go to a firm which was truly international. I was fascinated by the complexity of cross-border transactions, and thought that they would provide intellectual stimulating work, in a fast-paced environment. Latham has a ‘one firm’ culture, which means that there is no head office. As such, the London office is not merely a satellite office, serving the needs of the American offices, but rather leads deals in its own right, whilst also benefitting from the 24-hour global resources that international firms offer. As a trainee here, you have a central role on market-leading deals.

What was the first day of your training contract like?

I was extremely nervous on my first day, but I needn’t have been. Everyone was extremely friendly, and happy to answer any questions. The first day involved numerous welcome sessions, including an ice-breaker game involving recreating famous buildings out of newspaper which proved hilarious. There followed three weeks of training, so by the time we started in our seats we already had a good base level of knowledge. The training sessions have proved invaluable, and I use the information packs handed out every day.

The first day in my seat was spent mainly trying to put my technology training into action. I was on first name terms with technology support by the end of the day! In terms of work, I was eased in gradually, giving me plenty of time to get to grips with the administrative side of things before work started in earnest.

Which seat are you currently doing? What do you enjoy most about it?

I’m currently sitting with the Banking team in Finance.

From the off, I was given a huge amount of responsibility and felt like an integral part of the team. Whilst on a deal, I am responsible for liaising with other lawyers across jurisdictions, keeping on top of checklists, reviewing and drafting documents, and researching key points of law. By the end of the deal, you have a firm grasp of all the documents and their status, so you play a truly vital role in the team.

The associates are also willing to let you have a first attempt at many tasks that are not typically trainee tasks. There is no rigid sense of hierarchy here – no sense that a trainee must only do ‘trainee tasks’ – if you show promise and willing, then you will be given opportunities to develop.

What seat are you doing next?

I hope to go into Mergers & Acquisitions or Tax next. I have always been really interested in Tax law, and I did some really interesting work in this department on the vacation scheme. M&A is such a core part of what Latham & Watkins do, and it will be really interesting to see how it dovetails with the work in Finance.

How are seats chosen at Latham & Watkins?

About two or three months before we started our training contracts, coordinators got in touch to ask us about seat preferences, including any interest we might have in overseas seats. Our first seats were allocated to us based on these preferences.

There are then meetings before each seat rotation to discuss how these preferences might have changed. Latham try to accommodate not only seat preferences, but also the order in which one would like to sit in them. There are mandatory seats in Finance and Corporate, and one of your seats should be contentious.

Are you going on an international secondment? If so, where are you going and how was this decided?

I am planning on going on an international secondment. At Latham & Watkins, every trainee is given the option of going abroad to one of Latham & Watkins’ other offices. At seat selection time, we will be asked if we wish to apply for one of these. At the moment, I am most interested in going to Dubai, or one of the American offices. There are also opportunities to go on client secondments.

In your experience, is it important to be fluent in another language when working at an international law firm?

Not at all. I certainly have only GCSE/A-level language skills, and have not needed to use these during my time here. All the people that I liaise with in other jurisdictions – clients and local counsel – speak fluent English. That said, I am sure that those with other languages would be valuable resources in certain departments. We frequently receive firm-wide emails asking for people to jump in to translate certain documents.

What is the support system like at Latham & Watkins? What do you do when you’ve got a problem or are stuck on a project?

At Latham & Watkins, trainees share an office with their supervisor. This supervisor is one of your main sources of work. As such, most of my questions in the first instance are directed to my supervisor. He is happy to answer my questions even when I am doing work for other people. And because he is in the same room as me, there is no need for me to sit there puzzled for hours – I can just turn around and ask a question whenever I am stuck.

I also do quite a bit of work for two or three other associates. In respect of this work, they are also a port of call. Everyone is very approachable and happy to answer questions. Even when associates are busy with their own work, they are always very willing to sit down and talk you through something.

Even the partners here are extremely approachable, and operate an ‘open door’ policy.

I also frequently ask other trainees for advice – both those in the year above me (they have been through everything before!) and those in my own intake. The great thing about being in an intake of 20 is that you get to know everyone really well. This is especially so given that we started with three and a half weeks of training – we are first and foremost friends, and willing to go out of our way to help each other. Everyone has done different tasks, and so becomes and expert at different things. It is great to be able to share this knowledge around. Emails frequently fly around between the trainees with hints and tips for various tasks! Also, if someone is swamped with work, other trainees who are not as busy always volunteer to help out where possible.

There is also of course an array of departments to help you out with your work. The library is on hand to help with research queries. We have document support services, technology support, and secretarial support, so there is always someone to answer your questions.

For more general queries about our training, or HR, we can always talk to the training coordinators. You get to know them very well, as they communicate with you frequently prior to you joining the firm – with regular email updates, and bi-annual drinks receptions for future joiners.

Latham also has an amazing array of mentoring schemes. Before you arrive, you are allocated a current trainee as a mentor so that you can meet up, and go for dinner or drinks. I was able to ask lots of questions – even really mundane things that I felt didn’t warrant an email to the training coordinators – so this is a truly brilliant scheme.

When you arrive, you are given a current associate as a mentor. We regularly meet for lunch and he is a great source of advice, as he went through the training contract himself recently.

What are some of the things you know now about training contracts that you wish you’d known before applying?

As with all things, it is very hard to find out what something involves until you have actually done it. You can read all the information available, but there is little substitute for actually experiencing life at a law firm. For this reason, I would thoroughly recommend doing as many vacation schemes as you can, to find out if law is the right career for you, and if so, in which type of firm you would most like to work. Also, try talking to people who are currently working at law firms about what is involved.

Opt for the LPC electives that are most relevant to the work that your firm does – these give you such a solid base of knowledge, and mean that you are thrown into shallower waters by the time you start your training contract.

No amount of preparation can prepare you fully for your first months. It is a steep learning curve, and putting everything you have learnt into practice is both daunting and exhilarating. It is important to back yourself, to know when to ask for help, and to know that nobody expects you to be perfect in the beginning. Everyone has been through the training contract, and understands what it is like to be a trainee.

How do you handle the life-work balance when working at an international law firm?

Those applying for training contracts at an international law firms should be under no illusion: there are times when you will be really busy. However, it is really not that bad. I haven’t had to cancel any plans. I have some late nights and I have occasionally had some work to do at the weekends, but I am able to work from home using my laptop. I have actually found the busy times to be the most satisfying. When you start your training contract, you are itching to get stuck into some work, and it is really exciting to be on a busy deal.

Moreover, everyone at Latham is genuinely lovely, and I have many firm friends here. When you look forward to coming into work, to see your friends, it doesn’t feel like you are sacrificing ‘life’ at all.

What advice would you give to people currently applying for training contracts at international law firms?

Start early – the more experience you can get at an early stage, the better your chances of securing a training contract in good time. Many vacation schemes are aimed at second year undergraduates, but do not let this stop you from getting exposure to the legal sector earlier on.

I know it has been said a thousand times before, but take time over your applications. Attention to detail is key, as is researching the specific law firm to which your application is addressed, and understanding why you want to work there, and what sets it apart from other firms.

The best way to show that you want a training contract is to demonstrate that you really understand what a training contract involves. Get as much legal experience as you can. This may be easier said than done, and I of course know the difficulty of getting onto vacation schemes, however think outside of the box – volunteer to do some pro bono work at university, talk to friends who are in the profession, attend court, go to as many careers events as you can, attend presentations and lectures, submit entries to various legal essay competitions. In your applications form, write in details about all of your legal experiences to date.

My last piece of advice would be to be yourself – I am increasingly convinced that the law firm chooses you, and not the other way around. My interviews at Latham felt much more like a chat, and I got the impression that the interviewers really wanted to get to know me, and my personality.

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