Improved retention rates give law graduates a fillip

Law students are cautiously optimistic about landing a job upon ­qualification, despite the graduate recruitment ­market remaining fragile.

Victoria Wisson
Victoria Wisson

More than 50 university law society presidents and committee members who attended The Lawyer’s sister magazine Lawyer 2B’s ­summer party earlier this month said they felt the future was still looking bright – for the right ­candidates.

“I think students are still worried about the prospect of actually securing a job in the legal profession and it’s a huge amount of money to part with,” admitted Cardiff Law Society president ­Marcus Coates-Walker. “But I think for the right candidates there are jobs out there and things seem to be picking up. It’s also been a help that law firms didn’t react to the recession like other industries did and dramatically cut their graduate recruitment programmes.”

The party, now in its ­second year, was held at Kaplan Law School in London on 24 June. Students took a tour of the institution then joined Lawyer 2B and various law firms, including Addleshaw ­Goddard and Linklaters, on a riverboat cruise along the Thames. The boat party, which was sponsored by Kaplan, was also attended by other firms, including Ashurst, CMS Cameron McKenna, Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge and Field Fisher Waterhouse.

Bird & Bird graduate recruitment and trainee assistant Serena Symons said she was impressed by the positive attitude shown by students and claimed that she has seen a marked increase in candidates being more proactive with regards to networking.

“Students seemed optimistic about their future careers and, despite the ­economic climate, seemed to remain positive about securing a training contract,” she insisted. “It’s great to see first-year students already playing active roles in university law societies. This shows real commitment and drive. I’ve already received some emails from students who I’d spoken to on the boat and I think this demonstrates that students are already keen to develop their ­networking skills and build up their industry ­contacts.”

Linklaters graduate recruitment marketing adviser Victoria Wisson said that, while she believed ­competition for training contracts would continue to be stiff, those who are ­”dedicated and ambitious” will continue to do well.

“With law firms gearing up to compete more aggressively on campus this year, this places the students in an ideal situation to connect with even more firms and make better-informed ­decisions on who they’d like to work for,” she added.

And perhaps would-be lawyers have the right to be upbeat about their futures as retention rates for August 2010 point to the fact that the market for newly qualified (NQ) lawyers is finally beginning to improve.

White & Case recently posted a 94 per cent retention rate. This exceeds the 89 per cent it achieved in February 2010 and 87 per cent in August 2009.

Other firms that have achieved retention rates in excess of 90 per cent include Baker & McKenzie (95 per cent), Slaughter and May (93 per cent) and Shearman & Sterling (92 per cent).

The magic circle has ­performed less well, with Allen & Overy and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer posting retention rates of 80 and 89 per cent respectively – although both figures are an improvement on 2009’s. ­Clifford Chance and Linklaters are yet to announce their retention rates.

Meanwhile, trainee solicitors have emerged as the top earners in the Association of Graduate Recruiters’ (AGR) annual survey, which found that salary levels for most university leavers have remained stagnant for two consecutive years.

According to the survey, published on 6 July, law firms offer the highest ­median starting salary at £36,500, up from the £35,000 reported in 2009, whereas investment banks and fund managers have slipped to second place with a median salary of £35,000, down from £38,250 last year.

Law firms are also ­expected to buck the trend by increasing their starting salaries by 4.3 per cent. In contrast, investment banks and fund managers are ­predicting a drop in salaries of 8.5 per cent.

That said, the survey also claims that the number of graduate vacancies has dropped by 6.9 per cent. The employers that responded to the AGR survey said that on average they had received almost 70 applications per vacancy advertised in 2010 – the largest number in the history of the survey.

This figure represents a jump of 20 applications per vacancy since 2009 and more than double the corresponding figure in 2008.

News that Beachcroft is deferring trainee start dates, though, has cast a shadow over the ’recovery’ of the graduate recruitment ­market. The firm decided to slash the number of trainee places for both September 2010 and 2011 and as a result 10 of the 29 trainees who were due to join in ­September 2010 have agreed to push back their start dates by 12 months.

One magic circle partner said: “Although things are starting to look a little healthier, students shouldn’t become too complacent, because whichever way you look at it, the market’s still shaky and you never know what’s around the corner.”