Trainees: the new must-have

If an increasing number of US firms are resorting to hiring trainees, then there really must be a recruitment crisis. With the dollar fading in value and UK firms catching up on pay, there really is nothing else for it. The Americans have to recruit at trainee level.

While second-tier US firms can pick off senior associates who don’t make partner at the leading UK firms, the likes of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Shearman & Sterling don’t have that luxury.

These firms are pitching themselves against the magic circle; and while you may have been able to bag a load of Freshfields partners this year – and Shearman has – many rainmakers, and indeed the best associates, are staying put.

If they know they can make partner at their current firm and the money’s good, why move? Especially to US firms, which have poor track records for promoting associates to partner in London.

As Shearman’s London boss Ken MacRitchie admits: “The biggest challenge facing firms is getting quality lawyers.”

And so you turn to trainees. But that’s not just a massive risk, its also a huge investment. It costs around £200,000 to take a trainee to qualification – take on 10 of them and that’s £2m, and you should be able to get a decent magic circle partner for that. And quite a few second or third-year associates.

But MacRitchie contends: “Plundering the magic circle’s training programmes isn’t sustainable.”

As the recent exodus from Shearman’s counsel ranks attests, the firm can’t promise partnership; but MacRitchie reckons the simple fact of being American gives them a differentiating factor in the trainee recruitment market.

Frankly, that’s codswallop. Ask most students to name a law firm and they’ll struggle to name the whole of the magic circle. And luckily they don’t care about partnership 10 years down the track. All your average student wants to know is how much they’ll be paid. The £80,000-£100,000 on offer from most US firms upon qualification will do the trick.

So you’ve got them in the door, but will they stay? Shearman took on five trainees when it launched its trainee scheme in 2004; none are left at the firm. Three out of five are left from 2005 and only five out of 10 from 2006.

It’s tough, Ken, but perhaps it’s your only option.

To read our article and reader comments on this topic, click here.