Trainees who bluffed their way in, want out

Chris Fogarty analyses the results of a survey of trainees which unearths bitterness, disillusionment and despair.

The future of the legal profession is feeling trapped, undervalued and frustrated.

Of the 200 members of the Trainee Solicitor Group from throughout England and Wales surveyed by The Lawyer, 39 per cent said they wanted to get out of the profession.

Asked whether they would embark on their new careers again if they were given the opportunity – 28 per cent said they would not.

A further 11 per cent said they were not a lawyer for life, nor was it their ideal job.

The level of disillusionment goes beyond a simple moan. Many trainees were bitter and angry about their career choice or workplace.

“Considering the number of hours I work and the stress and responsibility I have for a considerably low wage (£17,500), I would probably go into something totally different and which I enjoy – eg interior design,” wrote one trainee.

Other trainees wanted to run their own businesses, become academics, teachers, vets, tennis players, florists, journalists, grow olives in Australia or write novels – anything, it seems, other than being a lawyer.

Yet just months ago many of these same trainees convinced firms that they were committed to a legal career. As one trainee explained – “they lied”.

There are three times as many students as there are training contracts available.

The puzzle is why a third of the lucky ones, the students who actually managed to win a contract, did not really want to be lawyers anyway?

The Lawyer spoke in depth to one trainee at a big London City firm. He said that many of his colleagues had become trapped in a career which they felt they could not escape from.

He pointed out that many had embarked on their legal careers seven years ago and after studying for so long “you would be mad not to qualify”.

Some trainees in our survey remained keen until they actually began work and realised how much work they faced, or how often they would have to “dot the i's and cross the t's”.

A few trainees also indicated that they saw the law not so much as a labour of love, but as a safe career path.

“I am unfortunately a lawyer for life,” wrote one, “as I have not the courage to invest this money and turn my back.”

Wrote another: “I would not like to consider myself as a lawyer for life, but most firms are astute enough to realise that by increasing your salary by just enough each year, it will guarantee that it will become harder and harder to leave the profession as time goes on.”

If there was a common concern among trainees it was money. The trainees' salaries in our survey varied massively – from a paltry £5,000 to just under £20,000. The average was around £11,000.

“I was earning more money per hour washing dishes in a hospital kitchen in Melbourne than I do as a trainee solicitor,” said one trainee on £10,850.

A third, on £12,000, des-cribed it as: “Totally too low! Not nearly enough to live on and an insult when compared with the average graduate salary.”

However, one Guildford solicitor working 50 hours a week was earning £6,000, while one North Yorkshire trainee in a small firm earned just £5,200 gross for 45 hours a week.

These salaries fall well beneath the Law Society's minimum of £10,850 (£12,500 in London) although the Law Society can give firms waivers.

On a more positive note the anecdotal trainee complaint of long hours was not necessarily borne out by our survey. Of the 200 we surveyed the average working week was 41.8 hours.

Perhaps, surprisingly, office hours outside of London appeared to be even more strenuous. At a five-partner firm in Surrey, one trainee was working 65 hours a week, while 60 hour weeks were also common in Sheffield and Worcester.

Others were more lucky, especially in the local government sector where trainees were working 37.5-hour weeks.

But however many hours the trainees in our survey were working, far too many believed the law, which is supposedly dotted with fat cats, is just not worth it.

See editorial, page 18