SJ Berwin admits fault for student all-nighter

he Lawyer’s exclusive story last week about the SJ Berwin summer student who was ’asked’ to work until the early hours of the morning has divided ­opinion across all levels of the legal sector.

Aspiring trainee and ­former president of the ­University of Manchester student law society Kyle Soo said: “One crucial aspect of a vacation placement is to give a flavour of the work. Inevit-ably, in a corporate environment, there’ll be late nights. That shouldn’t be concealed or sugarcoated because to see first-hand experience of this may be eye-opening and even exciting.”

As The Lawyer reported, a female student on SJ Berwin’s two-week-long vacation scheme worked until 5am after being asked to help another female ­colleague on a document for an international arbitration.

SJ Berwin graduate recruitment partner Nicola Bridge admitted that the firm got it wrong on this occasion, saying in a statement: “Last week a student worked through the night on a document for a big international arbitration. She willingly stayed and worked with a female colleague and did a great job, but she was ­actually asked to do so and that shouldn’t have ­happened. In future we’ll stick to our policy so this doesn’t happen again.”

Soo said SJ Berwin was right to admit that this ­situation should never have arisen and that the student should have been given the option of saying no.
“The obvious issue, though, is the fact that people on such schemes want a job, and in this climate many will go above and beyond to show their willingness, or feel that to say no may reflect badly on them. Some may therefore feel compelled to exceed themselves to impress,” explained Soo.

Meanwhile, Royal Holloway University of London student Sophia Maxwell-Yates, who recently completed a vacation scheme at US firm Latham & Watkins, said students on her programme were encouraged to go home and not stay late at the office.

“Being forced to do an all-nighter on a vacation scheme would probably frighten some people off,” she reflected, “with some feeling pressurised into staying in the office, even if it were only an invitation.”

Vacation schemes are an integral part of the trainee- solicitor recruitment process, with many firms cherry-picking the best students. However, Berwin Leighton Paisner graduate recruitment and trainee manager Claire England said that, like most, her firm also offers training contracts outside the summer programmes.

“I think students are ­putting more pressure on themselves, which isn’t ­necessary, because the ­number of training contracts on offer hasn’t dropped ­dramatically as a result of the recession,” she said.

It still remains unclear whether the student in question, who could not be contacted for comment, managed to secure a training contract with SJ Berwin. That said, under Solicitors Regulation Authority rules, a firm is not permitted to make training contract offers to penultimate-year students until 1 September.

Meanwhile, a graduate recruiter at another firm said: “The SJ Berwin story is clearly an extreme example and I’d hope that this would never happen at my firm.

“Saying that, as recruiters it’s really hard to get it right because on the one hand students complain about not getting a chance to do real work, while on the other some become cocky and start making inappropriate remarks about the social side of a vacation scheme, such as the amount of alcohol on offer.”