Help at hand for trainee troubles

Nick Armstrong warns that the bottom line for trainees having problems with their placement is to find another firm

The Trainee Solicitors Helpline takes calls on anything from problems finding a training contract to bullying and harassment at work.

It is organised by the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG), for its 25,000 LPC, CPE and trainee solicitor members nationwide.

A recent review of the helpline found that while most trainees have a successful and enjoyable training contract, there are a small number who experience serious difficulties. If anything, the descriptions provided (see below) mask the harrowing nature of some of the calls.

More details cannot be provided for fear of the callers being identified. Some still work at the same places.

For these callers, the helpline may be the only source of assistance. We cannot provide legal help or support, but we can listen, and we can set out the options and offer advice. Most of this advice derives directly from the Law Society's own rules and regulations.

It may come as a surprise to many trainees to learn that there is such a thing as the Training Regulations 1990, and that there also exists an extensive set of notes for guidance accompanying those regulations. Together, these govern the relationship between training establishments and trainee solicitors.

The regulations are loosely drafted, the result being that it is not always clear where they are binding and where they are not. However, the Law Society and the TSG are working towards a more consistent approach to the grey areas.

Enforceability of the regulations was put beyond doubt in one area last year, when a court ruled that a trainee could enforce against their firm the obligation to pay fees for the Professional Skills Course (PSC).

This case was quite unusual. Trainees do not generally seek to enforce the regulations against their firm directly. The more usual course is for a complaint to be made to the Law Society and action then to be taken by it.

Some of the problems are specific, such as the one already mentioned: firms are obliged to pay PSC fees. Another recent helpline call related to the application of the regulations. It is now clear that once a training contract has been signed, a trainee is entitled to the protection of the Law Society and the regulations.

Another specific query related to cancellation of a training contract. The regulations provide that the contract can be terminated by mutual consent at any time, or by the Law Society, if there are exceptional circumstances. A unilateral cancellation is a breach of contract (by either party) and a breach of the regulations.

A point of note is that failure of the PSC is not a ground for cancellation, unless it is accompanied by general poor performance, or there is a specific clause in the contract reserving the power to do so.

Most calls to the helpline, however, are not so specific. The most common complaint is inadequate training, such as keeping a trainee in one area of work for the whole of the training contract, or sheer overwork and failure to provide support. Both can amount to breaches of the Training Regulations 1990, and breaches of the training contract. They are particularly important to a trainee, because inadequate training is a ground for non-admission as a solicitor.

If a trainee is experiencing inadequate training, the first person to speak to is the training principal. Only if that produces nothing should the Law Society be contacted.

Once the Law Society is involved, it will first attempt a conciliation. This involves writing to the firm and then arranging a meeting.

If no solution is forthcoming, matters will eventually proceed to an adjudication. An adjudication may lead to the application of sanctions, as set out above.

This complaints procedure – from training principal up to adjudication – is the route for nearly all problems arising during the course of a training contract. It is deliberately conciliatory in nature, in order to acknowledge the vulnerability of the trainee's position.

During that adjudication, issues such as the termination of the contract (without either party being subject to action for breach) will be dealt with, together with the transfer of the contract or signing off the time served. It is almost always in the trainee's interests to go down this route.

Preserving the relationship with the existing firm may ensure a decent reference. The firm may also be persuaded to assist in finding the trainee another job.

Ultimately, finding a new placement is often the only solution to problems arising during a training contract. Time after time the best advice those staffing the TSG helpline can give is: find another job.

Trainees can take steps against the firm. They can cause trouble, and they can prevent the firm from causing the same problem for anyone else.

However, the unfortunate truth is that if you are working for a firm which is treating you badly, whether that be through bullying and harassment or inadequate training, then you need to find a new firm.

Typical calls to the helpline

The conversations below, which have been slightly paraphrased, are taken from calls received over the past six months by the Trainee Solicitors' Group Helpline:

“Hello, is that the TSG? I arrived at work this morning to find a notice terminating my employment with effect from Monday. Can you give me some advice?”

“I first knew there was a problem when my salary was stopped.”

“Ever since my principal lost his driving licence I spend a lot of my time picking him up from pubs and restaurants. Then he complains about how little chargeable time I record.”

“I was asked to take an unethical short cut at work. When I refused, I was subjected to such a malicious campaign that, eventually, I had to leave.”