New twist on age-old issue

As if law firms didn’t have enough to contend with on diversity, next month the age discrimination law comes into force. And according to HR professionals, recruiters and employment lawyers, there are some very tricky issues about to surface.

One of the issues, believe it or not, is the acronym PQE (post-qualification experience). Universally used in recruitment advertising, it is an instantly recognisable shorthand in both in-house legal jobs and private practice. However, legal advice some recruiters have obtained casts doubt on whether they can use it at all after October.

Yes, it sounds extraordinary. Most of us assume that PQE is solely related to on-the-job experience, rather than a covert indication of age. However, as one senior HR professional puts it: “People are running scared on this.”

This hasn’t been helped by alarmist rumours that Clifford Chance was about to stop using PQE in its recruitment advertising. In fact, it will still use minimum PQE in its job ads, but will not have an upper limit. Instead it will focus its requirements on specific knowledge and skills.

Firms searching for a two to four year-PQE lawyer simply want someone with enough experience to step into a piece of work and get on with it under supervision. Except that, in certain larger firms, or indeed some overseas firms, length of service does not always equate to valuable experience.

At smaller practices more junior associates will be exposed to more responsibility early on in their careers. “It’s the nature and quality of the experience rather than how long it’s lasted,” says a leading employment lawyer. This is why Clifford Chance and other employers are thinking carefully about the skills they require, rather than dates on a CV.

Where the age discrimination law will make an immediate difference is in trainee recruitment. Firms reliant on the traditional university milkround will have to think again, because under the new legislation they will have to justify their reasons for where they are sourcing their applications. The two biggest institutions for older candidates contemplating a career change are the Open University and Birkbeck College in London – neither of which figures strongly on many firms’ trainee hunts.

The best way to comply with age discrimination legislation is not to obsess about an acronym; it’s making sure older candidates apply in the first place.