Time for a radical rethink on trainees

Alan Burnhams on the mismatch between need and delivery in training. Alan Burnhams is HR director at Clarke Willmott & Clarke.

Times have changed for the law business in the UK – and it is a business.

But very little has changed in the long-standing traditions and procedures for training solicitors. However, the conventions that were fine in the past are now far from fine – either for the trainees or for their sponsoring firms.

Put bluntly, those conventions have not kept pace with huge changes in the UK educational process, nor the equally huge changes in the legal marketplace.

In truth, I only became fully aware of the mismatch between need and delivery when our firm called for a root and branch review of every aspect of its business, including the annual trainee intake programme. The result of that review quickly led us to a radical change in direction of the firm’s policy.

No longer will we have the annual ritual of trawling through mountains of applications to select a dozen trainees for the two-year training contract. For most firms, that formula no longer fulfils its original purpose. It worked when education was cheaper (or free), and when the legal profession’s culture was to grow from trainee to a partner in “your firm”.

Today’s trainee begins their contract with a big debt burden and the prospect of two years on a relatively low salary. Even before they qualify, trainees are being urged by recruitment agencies to “manage their own careers”, which translates into “to be ambitious, you’ve got to move around (and help us earn fees)”.

So sponsoring firms invest heavy sums in trainees, a growing number of whom are unlikely to stay long after qualification and who cannot generate a significant fee income, since the rules mean that they are unable to spend long enough in one specialism to become fully productive.

I believe there are better solutions for both trainee and sponsoring firm. For example, law graduates can often do better for themselves by opting for a work placement as a paralegal. This enables them to reduce the subsequent training contract period, gain good practical experience, and learn essential fee-earning skills.

It has the added benefit of the employing firm getting a much better knowledge of the individual’s abilities in a relevant specialism, making it easier to spot those that it wants to back with a training contract. And because the length of the training contract is shortened, the cost is also reduced.

For many law graduates who emerge from their LPC training with debts of £15,000 and the prospect of the next two years on fairly modest earnings, a better option may be to do the LPC over two years on a part-time basis, while working as a paralegal.

There is also the option of doing the training contract on a part-time basis. This is an under-used facility, but with some improvements the legal profession could offer more people the opportunity to qualify with better vocational experience and without the same burden of debt.

These are some of the routes Clarke Willmott & Clarke will now be exploring and developing, in place of the traditional trainee intake programme. It certainly does not mean that we will no longer be taking and sponsoring trainees, it merely means that we shall be doing so in a far more considered and flexible way.

By focusing our investment on recruits who will be better able to develop and demonstrate their abilities, more capable of contributing to fee-earning, and more likely to build a long-term future with us, our business must benefit.

For all the reasons that brought us to this change, there will be many other major law firms looking to tread the same, or similar, path. And it is not solely about commercial realities. Trainees of today and tomorrow also deserve a similar rethink – not least because there are ways that help to lessen the growing debt burden and improve the practical skills of aspiring solicitors.

The debt burden is one, but only one, factor behind the increasing trend for newly-qualified lawyers to grab their certificate and turn to the siren voices of the recruitment agencies. Legal practice is changing – the ever accelerating shift to specialisation must be cause to question the old rules attached to the training contract.

Demanding that trainees keep moving from one specialism to another means that they cannot build the same depth of skill and productivity as their paralegal counterpart.

As things stand, it seems equally perverse that after six or seven years of intense study, most qualifying trainees are still only called assistant solicitors. So we at Clarke Willmott & Clarke decided to change that too. Either they are solicitors, or they are not.