Husnara Begum, editor, Lawyer 2B and Corinne McPartland, reporter
Focus: Shoosmiths deferrals, Mud sticks
18 May 2009
When Shoosmiths decided not to pay compensation to trainees for deferring their start dates, it could hardly have imagined the collateral damage
it would cause
Old fashioned manners, telling it straight and absolutely no stuffiness.” This is the strapline Shoosmiths carefully selected to describe its approach to doing business.
You might, therefore, be wondering what the majority of Shoosmiths’ future trainees, who have had their training contracts deferred or withdrawn with no offer of compensation (TheLawyer.com, 30 March), have to say about the firm’s humble description of itself? After all, Shoosmiths is the only major law firm not to offer cash to trainees whose start dates have been pushed back by up to two years.
Indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking that the debt-laden students, enraged by partners’ apparent desire to protect their profits, are busy hacking into the Shoosmiths’ website to replace the firm’s slogan with more appropriate language, perhaps: “Stupidity, short-sightedness, and unbelievable disrespect and disregard for its employees.”
That, at least, is what one online reader of The Lawyer’s sister website Lawyer2B.com suggested.
Sticking to its guns
Despite the internal backlash (some of the students launched a petition against the firm), negative press coverage and insufficient trainees volunteering to defer, Shoosmiths has refused to back down.
Meanwhile, in a bizarre twist, two of Shoosmiths’ future joiners, Tom Goff and George Roberts, contacted The Lawyer’s sister magazine Lawyer2B to publicly defend the firm’s actions. In an open letter published on its website (Lawyer2B.com, 30 April), the duo claimed that, in the absence of any financial help, trainees would be “supporting each other in more practical ways”.
They added: “In spite of the bad news, we are committed to our firm, and we are resolved to rise to the challenge of succeeding in these tough times, together.”
Initially the unusual move had the desired effect. Within minutes of the letter being published a number of Goff and Roberts’ fellow trainees posted supportive comments. But unfortunately matters soon took a dramatic turn for the worse, with scores of outraged posters both from within and outside Shoosmiths sticking the boot in and dubbing Goff and Robert’s actions a blatant attempt to “gain favour” with partners.
One poster wrote: “Talking about kippers; very fishy indeed - the first postings, all five of them, in fact, from named trainees - on being so ‘proud’ to be going to work for such a great firm. As a contentious litigation lawyer, not averse to spin, I must say that I have never read such piffle in my life. Either Shoosmiths has engineered this, or these people really live in cloud cuckoo land.”
In fact, within a matter of hours Goff and Roberts, and indeed Shoosmiths, turned into a laughing stock in what many viewed as a PR stunt gone horrendously wrong. What is more, despite internal messages supporting the pair for “sticking their heads above the parapet”, Shoosmiths chief executive Paul Stothard stopped short of supporting them in public. Shoosmiths management, in fact, has been conspicuous by its absence during this high-profile farce.
As the comments continued to flood in, and with Shoosmiths’ reputation in tatters, The Lawyer decided that enough was enough. We contacted the firm to request an interview with Stothard as a matter of priority. After initially being fobbed off with the “he’s in an all-day meeting” and a bland pre-prepared statement, Stothard eventually agreed to talk to us.
During the interview, which, incidentally, took place more than a week after the saga kicked off, Stothard denies that Goff and Roberts’ response was a PR exercise.
“PR had nothing to do with it,” claims Stothard. “I mean, it’s a free world and here we treat everyone without fear nor favour, so just because a couple of trainees defend the firm we’re not about to take out their legs as they’re more than entitled to their views.”
Stothard also claims he has no regrets over his firm’s decision not to offer compensation to deferring trainees, even though most larger firms are paying £5,000 upwards.
“I don’t regret not offering any compensation to our trainees because we spent lots of time making the decision,” Stothard says bullishly. “The only way I would have regretted it was if we had been careless in our decision-making.”
Stothard claims his firm cannot make business decisions based on how they will be received by the media. Nevertheless, the story has already become infamous and is likely to take up its place in the hall of fame of UK legal market own goals.
Stothard, however, dismisses the potentially negative impact on his firm, claiming there has been “a mixed response” from its trainees.
Even if Shoosmiths has managed to cling on to its reputation within its own trainee ranks there is no denying that the firm’s decision not to intervene sooner has seriously damaged its brand externally.
Some posters, for example, have compared the Shoosmiths’ deferral debacle to when The Lawyer revealed in June 2003 that Martineau Johnson (as it was then known) told trainees who were due to qualify with the firm in the autumn that there were no jobs for them. By email.
The tactless move, claim a number of graduate recruitment managers, put Martineau out of favour with newly qualified lawyers for a number of years.
And although the Shoosmiths saga is not in the same league as that other infamous email from a former Norton Rose lawyer about his then girlfriend, or Baker & McKenzie’s Ketchup-gate, it is another example of the importance of speedy intervention when a firm’s reputation is being damaged, even if it is through no fault of its own.
Mud sticks. But, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of slogans and catchphrases, which sooner or later blur into the millions of other catchphrases that are dreamt up by PR people, especially when, in Shoosmiths’ case, they are blatantly ignored. Indeed, what happened to “old fashioned manners and telling it straight” when Goff and Roberts where being berated by even Shoosmiths’ own employees?
Like it or lump it
Roberts, who has borne the brunt of the backlash sparked by the now notorious letter, insists that Shoosmiths’ PR machine had nothing to do with the letter. He says he only wrote it to protest about the current “compensation culture” being adopted by many trainees.
“At the end of the day this is all market-led and during the boom time trainees were actually asking to be deferred so that they could take a year out after studying,” he argues. “But now the market has changed they’re all complaining about deferrals.”
The Nottingham Law School student concedes that he had not always been so positive about the prospect of being deferred without any offer of compensation.
He says his initial reaction was to look at his options, but seeing as the Solicitors Regulation Authority had washed its hands of the situation (TheLawyer.com, 8 April), and his only other choice was to sue the firm, he says he had to accept it.
“All the correspondence we had from the firm looked like they really had thought things through and nothing we were going to say was about to change their minds,” claims Roberts.
But one thing Roberts never counted on was the vicious reaction his letter of support created.
“I only wrote the piece because I wanted to turn things around. I think people have read the article and forgotten that I’m a person. I had built up a sense of loyalty to the firm through the assessment days, interviews and meeting the partners. The piece was in no way a PR stunt,” says Roberts.
Despite the story remaining a hot topic for debate, one future Shoosmiths trainee, who was due to start in September 2009, says: “I knew it wouldn’t go down well, but I have been shocked by the scale of abuse. I felt resentful towards both the authors and the sheep. However, I think enough really is enough now. If they don’t realise how much of an error they made now, they never will.”
But there is one person who is not prepared to back down and admit the whole situation was a big PR disaster for the firm - Stothard.
Even though he admits the initial decision may well have had a negative impact on recruitment, and the firm’s reputation as a whole, he remains unwavering about Shoosmiths’ stance on deferrals.
“You’re dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t, because I think our reputation would’ve been damaged if we couldn’t provide trainees with the right training,” Stothard argues. “You don’t want to get somebody in and have them do photocopying throughout their time,” he says.
Maybe so. But a lot of Shoosmiths’ future trainees think that is a load of cobblers.