Applying for NQ positions - before you apply
Lots of NQ lawyers opt to stay on at the firm in which they qualified, but for various reasons, this isn’t always the case. Maybe you’ve set your sights on working for a different type of firm, or in a different area of law. Maybe your firm doesn’t retain its entire trainee intake, or perhaps you’ve decided against staying there in the long-term. Whatever your reasons for doing so, it could be that you find yourself applying for NQ positions. Before you start sending off applications to every firm under the sun, you should take some time to consider your approach.
Thinking it through
The two years of training, while exciting, can also be stressful, so it’s understandable if you hit a point where you want to move to a new firm, or even a new city. Don’t be impulsive, however: the wisest way to proceed is by identifying what you enjoy about your current firm, current city, and the seats you have completed as part of training. Equally, weigh up what’s making you unhappy, or what (if anything) needs to change. This process will help you to decide which NQ positions to apply to.
Even if you are happy at your current firm and would like to stay on, it’s worth considering alternative routes, just in case. NQ position availability varies from firm to firm, and it’s not always a given that trainees can all progress to training level within their desired area. It’s wise to consider your options, so if it doesn’t work out as you’d hoped, you have plenty of time.
Should I stay or should I go?
This, of course, depends entirely on you, the individual. There are pros to staying at your current firm - while no NQ position is a given, having worked at a firm for two years, you’ve had a chance to make an impression and get to know partners, associates from a wide range of departments. There are some recruiters who advise against moving around too much early on in your career, as it can raise questions about your CV, but in reality, there’s little point accepting a permanent position at a firm if you’re desperately unhappy. If you have a specific interest in a position at a different firm which would bolster your CV and bring you closer to the area you want to specialise in, it may be worth considering leaving. You should have a think about which external options to consider, and which to rule out.
Applying for NQ positions - location
It’s easier to switch location than it is to switch practice area, and it might be that you find the perfect opportunity elsewhere in the UK. With many City firms having large training contract intakes, it’s easy to get swept up in a “London or nothing” mentality. This is far from the truth, however: national and international firms now have offices in a number of dedicated legal hubs up and down the country, in cities such as Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol and Edinburgh. There are also regional firms operating across a concentrated area of the country, serving everyone from big business clients to individual cases. If you’ve not enjoyed life in London on your training contract, or want to move closer to home, you could perhaps think about sending applications to firms outside of London.
Area of law
Switching between practice areas can be difficult post qualification, and if your current firm doesn’t offer you the chance to qualify into your desired practice area, you may want to consider looking elsewhere. This is also true if you want to qualify in a very niche area, offered at a different law firm. Having said this, positions are competitive - now is not the time to get picky. Investigate what options are available within your firm, looking in particular at areas that tie in closely with your chosen practice area.
Type of law firm
This is also a good time in your career to figure out what type of law firm you want to work in. Perhaps you’ve trained at a smaller or medium-sized firm, and would like to progress to a larger, national firm now that you’ve qualified. If this is the case, be aware that qualified positions at larger firms are competitive, with places often being allocated internally to the trainees at the firm. It would be advisable to figure out if your current firm could take you on, as a contingency plan, in case external applications are unsuccessful.
The opposite might be true - you might have trained as a small fish in a big pond, and now have turned your attention to a smaller firm, with a more relaxed culture. Again, see what is available internally, just in case - the firm you’re at knows you, and hopefully at this point you have mentors and colleagues who can provide advice - but if you really want to make the jump to a smaller firm, now is a good time to see what NQ positions are available.
Beyond law firms
Perhaps after two years involved in a full-service law firm, you’ve decided that, while you love working in law, this type of practice isn’t for you. If working at a law firm isn’t for you, now might be a good time to consider in-house opportunities. Many corporations large and small require in-house legal consultation, and in-house departments can range from just one or two lawyers to a larger department. This offers the chance to work within a specific sector, such as retail, finance or medicine, handling all of the legal needs of your company.
If you’ve decided that private practice isn’t for you, you can also investigate the Government Legal Service - it requires a dedicated team of lawyers to work on all aspects of legislation in relation to the government.
Private practice law firms do offer the majority of NQ positions, with public roles and in-house roles making up a smaller portion, so if you want to go down either route, you should start your research even earlier and identify some specific targets.
Whether you’ve set your sights on an internal position or are considering making a big jump, you should consider your long-term goals. Don’t make any impulse decisions - perhaps a huge firm has a rare opening for external applications in its M&A department, but if you’ve always wanted to go into family law, it might not be for you. Make the decision whether to apply for an NQ position or not based on the experience you will need in the long run: how well does it fit in?