Tough questions to face on trainees

Cat

With all the chat about LPOs, process engineering and paralegals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that trainees’ days are numbered. Certainly, most firms are decreasing their intakes in the face of limited revenue growth. Retention rates are also slipping, but this isn’t because firms are applying sophisticated algorithms to future workflows. Most are simply unable to predict demand except in the broadest terms, so retention ends up being an emotional, back-of-the-fag-packet decision.

Most partners will admit that the ideal structure – as seen in boutiques from Wiggin to Wachtell – is lean and vertical. We all know the issues with the traditional pyramid; it carries enormous costs and can foster billing behaviours whereby mouths to feed rather than value of work determines what is charged. As long as this attrition is built into the organisational model, law firms will spend thousands guessing whether their recruits are in it for the long term.

Our research on law firms’ trainee retention raises wider questions about the experience of the training contract, the rise of paralegals and whether firms are doing any radical rethinking on junior staffing. Addleshaws has done imaginative work on disaggregation and Clarke Willmott is now recruiting entirely from paralegals who have already finished the LPC. The fact that A&O’s retention rate appears to have dropped in a period where the firm has invested strongly in back-office functions in Belfast is part of a wider recalibration of how firms process, shape and value legal information.

While there is still a clear distinction between trainees and paralegals, issues are developing around trainee skills if they are not to be pure document monkeys. Now so much is flicked back and forth by email, gone are the set-pieces such as multi-party meetings and negotiating in person where trainees could learn on the job. Some slack has been taken up by client secondments, but firms are now less willing to offer up a procession of trainees as a free service. So with training increasingly having to be done in classroom situations, junior lawyers will find it harder to acquire commercial instincts. Process is king now, but developing judgement isn’t something you can put on a spreadsheet.