Leader

It costs at least £150,000 to create a single lawyer. And a whole lotta love, of course. In one fell swoop, then, when Denton Wilde Sapte took the decision to retain just 20 of its 48 trainees, the firm was throwing away about £4m worth of investment

Investigations by The Lawyer have revealed that Dentons is not alone in taking such a short-term and incredibly expensive view of economic prudence. Dechert, too, looks set to retain just 50 per cent of its intake, while early indications are that a whole host of predominantly second-tier firms will not be getting remotely close to last year’s average retention levels at upwards of 80 per cent.

How quickly the mistakes made in the last recession have been forgotten. The knee-jerk slashing of training budgets and the institution of redundancy programmes for juniors ultimately led to the salary wars and a massive hike in graduate recruitment budgets when the good times returned.

At least the magic circle, together with a number of leading firms – Camerons, Lovells and Wragges among them – have held true to those promises, made as recently as last summer, not to make the same mistakes again. Lovells, for example, actually has more places for newly-qualifieds than trainees, while the others have planned well enough to have as many places as they have trainees.

But surely such sensible headcount and growth planning should be the norm? After all, you can only expect your graduate investment to become profitable after it hits two years pqe.

But so many firms seem to have become obsessed with shoring up profitability in the short term, without properly considering the longer-term risks. Clifford Chance might be predicting the lowest profits for plateau partners in the magic circle, but it does at least have jobs for all of its trainees.

Part of the problem, of course, is the recruitment process itself, which requires both firms and individuals to make such a heavy commitment so early. Surely delaying it to later in a student’s university career would be more sensible, and less risky, for both parties: it would allow individuals more time to hone their career choices, and firms to better assess their needs and who they believe will make the best lawyers.

Another more radical alternative would be to abolish the training contract altogether, with individuals qualifying as solicitors immediately on completion of the LPC.

Of course, this wouldn’t be necessary if all firms paid as much heed to their long-term futures as they did to next month’s pay packet.