Last week The Lawyer revealed that South East firm Thomas Eggar Church Adams was considering axing its training scheme. The firm had been investing thousands of pounds in training its future lawyers only to have them lured away by the bright lights and the big pay packets of the City.
Training is an expensive business. Brighton firm Donne Mileham & Haddock estimates costs of around £80,000 per trainee per year and it does not even offer law school funding as many firms, even in the regions, do.
Retention of newly qualified lawyers is, therefore, essential. However, a source at Thomas Eggar says that although the more senior lawyers are happy to stay in the provinces because they are settled and have families, newly qualified solicitors without commitments are more mobile and see their future elsewhere.
The attractions are obvious. Pay differentials can be as much as 100 per cent and regional firms simply cannot compete with that.
Thomas Eggar is not the only firm to have considered dropping its training scheme. Shakespeares managing partner Andrew Argyle says his firm has undertaken several reviews of its training system.
“Lawyers are increasingly expensive to train,” he says, adding that newly qualified lawyers have sometimes left the firm for the City. He stresses, however, that Shakespeares will not be dropping its training programme.
This year the firm is taking on three out of four of its trainees. According to Argyle, there is a growing number of partners who trained with the firm and he says it is important to remember a practice's overall responsibility to the profession.
However, some of the regional practices contacted by The Lawyer stress that they are not suffering in the same way as Thomas Eggar.
If anything, they say, the flow is the other way.
“We rely on ex-City people quite substantially for more senior positions,” says Cambridge-based firm Hewitson Becke & Shaw's managing partner Alan Brett. And Bristol firm Burges Salmon last year recruited three newly qualified lawyers from leading City firms.
All the firms contacted are at great pains to stress that they invest heavily in producing high-quality training to make sure they retain their trainees on qualification and that it is probably Thomas Eggar which is at fault for the losses it has suffered.
“It may well be that they [Thomas Eggar] haven't expanded their operation as much as the newly qualifieds would like,” says Paul Rippon, training principal and partner at Morgan Cole.
Other regional training principals offer more damning explanations for the firm's plight.
“They're probably not paying them enough,” says one, while another goes as far as to say: “They should take a good look at themselves and the training they are offering.”
City firms have also responded with surprise at Thomas Eggar's predicament.
One asserts that a lawyer who trains in the regions is unlikely to be good enough to find employment in a top 10 firm.
Fiona Bennett, a recruitment consultant in private practice at ZMB, says those who fail to secure a training contract at a top City firm on the strength of their academic record are unlikely to be more successful second time around.
Director of recruitment consultants QD legal Adrian Fox says Thomas Eggar is not the only firm losing trainees to the City, claiming it is a widespread phenomenon.
At that very moment he was signing off an application from a newly qualified solicitor from the regions, to a medium-sized and respected City firm.
Fox is adamant that regional training does not preclude a newly qualified lawyer moving to a top 10 firm.
“It is definitely not a bar at all, provided they have good, relevant experience,” he says. “At this moment in time it is a reasonably healthy market for newly-qualifieds.”
Trainees must ensure they gain the necessary transferable skills during their training. If they have the academic ability and the right character there is nothing to prevent a move to a leading City firm.
Nigel Savage, the College of Law's chief executive, says: “Maybe there is something wrong with their selection. Firms like that [Thomas Eggar] must look at the recruitment stage. Go back to basics. Find a good A-level student in the local comprehensive and fund them through law school. Recruit out of the community.”
This is exactly what Shakespeares has sought to do, recruiting from the Birmingham universities, resulting in a high proportion of the firm's staff, including its senior partner, being locals.
Some people specifically choose to go to the regions because of the type of training on offer. “The bigger firms tend to have better formal training programmes but trainees and newly qualifieds don't get the same kind of hands-on experience opportunities as you do at a medium-sized firm,” says Richard Moorehead, chair of the Young Solicitors Group.
Firms such as Linklaters also tend to offer an increasingly specialist training programme. Trainees can find themselves experts in euro bonds on qualification, a situation which makes them more profitable for the firm at a much earlier stage but ties them to that firm, or at least to that area of practice.
There is also the wider issue of whether this type of training makes the best kind of lawyer or if broader-based training is more suitable. Lovell White Durrant is one City firm that has retained broader-based training more in keeping with regional and medium-sized practices.
Many claim that the problem could be caused by newly qualified lawyers now being in an increasingly powerful position. “There are simply not enough lawyers to go around,” says Savage.
This has not been the perception for a number of years.
“It doesn't help that some at the Law Society are saying there are too many lawyers,” adds Savage.
One of the reasons for the dearth of young lawyers is that the relative boom in the economy has presented more attractive opportunities in fields other than the law.
The principal problem, though, is the drop-out rate from law school.
“Law faculties are full of law students but only 30 or 40 per cent go into practice, which means we are losing 60 per cent. Where are they going?” asks Savage.
Regionally trained lawyers wishing to move to the City have an especially good chance if they have expertise in certain areas of practice.
“The City firms currently have problems recruiting in construction, tax, pensions and property, forcing firms to think more laterally,” says Bennett.
But the City will always be irresistible to the majority of prospective trainees.
“Most people go to the biggest and the best because of the implication for their cv, the kudos, and there is an element of 'I did what my mates did',” says Bennett.
Regional practices wanting to retain their newly qualified solicitors must look closely at their potential recruits and consider not simply whether the candidates have the quality to be future partners but whether they are likely to want to become partners in the firm.
Not only are regional firms raising their profile and the quality of their work and clients, the training packages on offer are also improving.
However, regional firms do not need to panic, after all there is no shortage of two-to-four-year qualifieds moving away from the City, deciding the quality of life on offer in the provinces is extremely attractive.