Empty nests

The number of trainees choosing not to stay on at the firm they qualified with has hit unprecedented levels.

Firms which are investing time and money in seeing students through to qualification are watching them walk out the door after two years, and the question for any firm must be "what has gone wrong, and how can we right it?"

The only answer is for a firm to go out of its way to keep trainees happy so that they will stay and the firm will reap the benefits of its investment.

A source at one medium-sized City firm, which last year saw five of its six newly-qualified solicitors leave, says trainees are deciding too early that they want to specialise. And when firms cannot offer them a job in their chosen area, they decide move on.

He says: "A year or so ago we had a fairly horrendous mismatch where the trainees did not want to do what we wanted them to do.

"They decide on an area they want to do but if in the meantime you do not have a vacancy or there is not a job for them in that area they leave and go elsewhere. We are increasingly seeing that lawyers are choosing their area of specialisation and then building their career around that."

It is a problem which is dealing a heavy blow to the middle-tier firms as they struggle against a flood of departures.

Medwyn Jones, the partner who handles graduate recruitment at niche media firm Harbottle & Lewis, says: "We take on a relatively small amount of trainees but even then we sometimes have maybe two or three who all want to go and work in one particular area."

He says that another problem is that a lot of newly-qualified lawyers are heading in-house. "The other reason that some do not stay on is that if they have worked very closely with one particular industry they may want to go and work in-house in that industry. Our biggest leakage of lawyers is people going in-house to companies."

Jones says that people going in-house is a particular problem for niche law firms.

"If you lose people to in-house it is because they have managed to work with that particular client and they think they would enjoy it – they would rather be inside the industry.

"It is something that niche firms have to accept. Trainees come to us because they are attracted to the area they are operating in so it is not surprising," says Jones.

But even the big firms lose some of their newly-qualified solicitors to in-house positions. This year Freshfields saw two of its successful trainees head straight into industry, with one of them going to a financial services client.

Robert Craig, recruitment partner at Finers Stephens Innocent, says the problem is a sign of the times.

"It used to be regarded as a good thing to stay with the firm you qualified in for a few years to show that it wanted to keep you, and so that you were handling responsibility and interacting in a different way with colleagues," he says.

"But trainees say now: 'Isn't it better to keep moving around in the beginning of your career?' Some people will feel the right thing is to move around, but it is new and I think it is odd."

Alison Beardsley, graduate recruitment partner at Allen & Overy, echoes the view that it is better to get a broad range of experience before deciding where you want to settle.

She says: "We encourage people to get a couple of years of pretty broad experience before they begin to make a more narrow plan.

"Being too specialist too early can mean that you do not have sufficient breadth of experience to handle new situations."

Simon Davis, the partner responsible for graduate recruitment at Clifford Chance, says that new lawyers should not make decisions about their future career paths until they have got a little experience under their belts.

He says: "People need to think 'where am I going in my life?' after they have got some kind of track record. They should get the training contract and then get a couple of years experience – that is when people should quite naturally start to think about where they are going."

The graduate recruitment partners are not the only ones who see the mobility of newly-qualifieds as a trend which should not necessarily be followed.

Gavin Sharpe, senior consultant at legal recruiters QD Legal, says: "There tends to be more newly-qualified solicitors on the market than there are jobs.

"My advice is that if you are being kept on, and if you can get yourself six months plus post-qualification experience, you can get yourself a much better position. Once you hit the six-month threshold people start to look at you differently."

But even though the advice on qualification might be to not get too focused on one area and move on too early, it does not change the fact that firms are currently struggling to keep trainees.

This has resulted in improvements to training contracts, with firms eager to keep their trainees on side so that they do not leave when they qualify.

Davis says: "Your starting point for any kind of training is to make sure your lawyers, when they qualify, are going to be well-trained and are going to stay with you.

"That means stimulating them and training them as our future. We only take on the number of trainees we really need so you can make sure they are stretched and they are busy. That is why we err on the side of too few rather than too many."

Jane Drew, graduate recruitment manager at Nabarro Nathanson, says: "We try to ensure that trainees get the best possible training and that they are happy as far as possible and get the training seats they want.

"We have a partner mentoring scheme so that there is a kind of sounding board and they can get a lot of support. All we can do is try to ensure trainees are happy and are going to want to stay."

Beardsley says: "We work quite hard to manage people's expectations so that they know what their strengths are and whether we can offer them what they want.

"We make it very clear that most of the jobs are going to come out of corporate, banking and capital markets so that they know the key practices are the ones they should be expecting to join on qualification."

Jane Horton, recruitment partner at national firm Irwin Mitchell, says: "As the two years of the training contract evolve we find out what it is that trainees hope to achieve and where they want to end up. We try to ensure that the business needs and the trainee's wishes marry up.

"We are constantly striving to be as open as we can in terms of the process and to make decisions as early as we can. The second-year trainees are told as soon as we can what opportunities exist to keep them settled and focused."

Other firms work hard to give trainees as much client contact as possible so that they feel more involved with the firm and more inclined to stay on after qualification.

At City corporate firm Warner Cranston trainees can travel abroad with partners for client conferences and thereby become a point of contact for clients, building up a strong relationship which it is thought difficult for newly-qualifieds to turn their backs on.

A market where newly-qualified solicitors are so keen to move on results in a great situation for trainees, with firms falling over themselves to keep them happy.

It means that if you take the time to choose a firm where you feel you could settle in any of the key practice areas, and try not to get too involved with one specialism too early, your training contract could lead to a long career with that firm.

Davis says: "When they start as a trainee it is the first step along a very clear career path.

"If a firm is successful and working hard to make sure its people are enjoying themselves then by and large most should stay on."

Marc Arundale