Talent competition

With attrition rates among assistant solictors on the rise, can City firms learn anything from the bar? By Joanne Harris

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

has launched a mentoring scheme for female associates. Herbert Smith has been combating the loss of assistants from its celebrated litigation department. Allen & Overy has completely revamped its training programme and reformed career progression in an attempt to stem the tide of attrition.

City law firms have never had it so bad. Bright young solicitors, tempted from university by large salaries, are swiftly becoming disillusioned with long hours and murky career plans and are leaving in droves.

While more than 85 per cent of trainee solicitors are kept on by firms at the end of their training contracts, on average law firms are losing 14 per cent of their assistants each year. The attrition rate is prompting ever-more desperate efforts to keep young lawyers motivated and employed.

But perhaps solicitors need to take a leaf out of the bar’s book. The nature of litigation may have changed, with fewer cases reaching court and alternative dispute resolution increasingly popular, but the junior commercial bar is as busy as ever. Crucially, once a barrister has gained tenancy at a chambers, they are far more likely to stay there. Far from losing young lawyers, commercial sets are picking up new juniors all the time, often from solicitors’ firms.

This does not mean, though, that the bar has avoided the challenges that face law firms in recruiting, training and employing the next generation of legal stars. Pupillage committees across the Inns of Court are grappling with the same issues as graduate recruitment departments: how can diversity be assured while ensuring that the best candidates are the ones getting the jobs, and how should a young lawyer be supported through the early years of a long, hard career?
Associates have been increasingly vocal about their careers, but the more contented junior bar has not had a chance to speak out. So The Lawyer interviewed a group of young tenants from a selection of commercial sets to get the inside track as to why the bar is so appealing.

The four were all educated, at some point, in the bar’s traditional feeding ground of Oxford or Cambridge. Brick Court Chambers’ David Scannell arrived via Trinity College Dublin and a Cambridge doctorate, with lots of legal work experience; Anna Bicarregui, now a tenant at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, read history and French at Oxford; Alastair Tomson joined 4 Stone Buildings after six years in business; and Victoria Windle was given tenancy at Blackstone Chambers after a Cambridge degree.

All stress the hard work they have put in to win their coveted tenancies and say they feel that for applicants there is, these days, a fairly level playing fields, with chambers working to promote equal opportunities.

“Coming into the bar now as a woman, I didn’t feel that there was any discrimination,” says Bicarregui. “It’s easier at the bar than in the big City law firms.”

Both professions are becoming increasingly oversubscribed in the early stages. Competition for places at bar school or on an LPC course is fierce, with nearly two applicants for every Bar Vocational Course (BVC) place and 1.4 applicants for each LPC spot. After that hurdle is overcome, young barristers and solicitors then have to find the all-important pupillage place or training contract. Here, barristers have by far the hardest job. Although more than 1,500 students land BVC places each year, in 2004 (the last year for which figures are available) pupillage places plummeted to 572.

The pressure on students to win the coveted spaces, and on chambers to find the best pupils, is therefore huge. That pressure continues throughout the pupillage year. As a new barrister, no one can get a tenancy without a pupillage; but a pupillage does not guarantee tenancy in the same set. Only 600 of 2003’s 711 pupils won tenancies in 2004. The process is essentially a year-long interview by the rest of your chambers. Nowadays it often begins even earlier with the week-long ‘mini-pupillages’ many sets now require.

“It’s a formative week and it can be a very challenging week – you’re kept busy,” says Scannell. “It would be wrong to imagine that mini-pupillages are like summer vacation placements in solicitors’ firms.”

The mini-pupillage gives sets their first sight of potential new tenants and helps weed out those candidates unsure of whether the bar is for them.

The knock-on effect of the intensive recruitment process is twofold. The quality of the successful candidates goes up while the range of universities from which they hail goes down. The overwhelming majority of the new tenants taken on by the bar’s biggest commercial sets in the past few years are Oxbridge-educated, a fact accepted by those in charge of recruitment. But chambers also claim that this is not their fault.

“I’m crying out for people from non-Oxbridge universities,” says Charles Hollander QC, in charge of pupillage at Brick Court. “We’re looking at the top people in their years. We’ve no bias in favour of Oxbridge, but most people of that quality come from Oxbridge.”

Landmark Chambers chief executive Joel Hagan agrees. “The demands of a career at the bar are such that I need people with a very high intellectual acumen,” he stresses.

The bar is, however, attempting to address these problems and increase its diversity. In the profession overall the picture is less bleak than in the top commercial sets in London, with 77 per cent of new pupils hailing from non-Oxbridge universities. However, the number of pupils from ethnic minorities has dropped recently, from 18 per cent in 2003 to 16 per cent in 2004. Just 10 per cent of self-employed barristers in 2004 were from ethnic minorities. Women are doing better, now accounting for around half of new barristers, although self-employed barristers are still overwhelmingly male.

But the picture is actually broadly similar to that in law firms. Only 9 per cent of solicitors are from an ethnic minority, although 26 per cent of law students and 19 per cent of trainees are from ethnic minority groups.

Sets argue that the problem starts earlier than their own recruitment processes. Some are attempting to resolve it by catching potential barristers early. Matrix Chambers, arguably one of the more progressive sets, even visits a local primary school to tell children about life in the law. In this respect, chambers are mirroring the current efforts of law firms to reach out to those who might not otherwise consider a career as a solicitor.

Getting into the bar is, therefore, harder than getting into a law firm. The training is tough too, with all those who have gone through the pupillage process stressing how Rising stars: (l-r) Windle, Bicarregui and Tomsonhard it is. “I don’t think I really realised how exhausting it was going to be,” admits Bicarregui.

Tomson agrees. “It was much harder than I expected,” he says. “On my first day I was given a whacking great folder to read – I was certainly thrown in at the deep end. From day one I thought, ‘this is tough, I need to make sure I’m putting all my efforts in’.”

The warnings are tempered with perspective. Pupils rarely have to work the same long hours as trainee solicitors. Some sets practically kick pupils out of chambers when the working day is over – a stark contrast to the trainees working into the night at law firms across the City.

Despite the long nights, trainee solicitors have a major advantage over their peers in the bar. A recent survey for The Lawyer’s sister title Lawyer2B revealed that just 15 per cent of trainees fail to get a job at the end of their two-year training contract. In contrast, most of the big commercial sets routinely take on only one or two new tenants from three or four pupils.

Junior tenants say the issue of tenancy is something that hangs over a pupil’s head throughout the year. Tomson, who was one of two pupils at 4 Stone Buildings, says: “It was always made reasonably clear that only one of us would be taken on. You have to try to put uncertainty out of your mind and treat pupillage as a job.”

Not getting tenancy does not mean that a career as a barrister is over, however. A common option in criminal sets is to move on to do a third six of pupillage at a different chambers. Third sixes are also possible in commercial sets, although the market is much smaller and has been even more limited in the past two years.

For every barrister, whether pupillage has lasted 12 or 18 months, the transition from pupil to junior tenant is daunting. Support from chambers is good, but nevertheless it is a sudden change – from student to self-employed practitioner in a matter of weeks. Unlike the new assistant solicitor, who is a cog in the wheel of a massive organisation, a junior barrister is their own boss. If you do not work, you do not earn – it is as simple as that.

“The biggest thing is taking responsibility,” says Bicarregui, explaining her nerves the first time she put her own name to a document. “On the other hand, it’s really exciting.”

Scannell adds: “It’s often difficult managing time. The biggest challenge is that you don’t have a boss; you have to be proactive.”

The proactivity pays off. Commercial sets report that junior tenants are very busy and, with the right support from clerks, can quickly be earning sums equal to or above the salaries of their solicitor counterparts. While financially the first six months can be tricky due to the time lag between work being done and being paid, many chambers offer interest-free loans or other forms of monetary support.

“People see the junior bar as a strong place to be at the moment,” says 3 Verulam Buildings senior clerk Nick Hill. “They still represent excellent value for money.”

Most importantly, the junior bar reports immense job satisfaction. Windle describes a “fantastic sense of freedom” in being self-employed. “You long for that feeling of excitement, of standing up and doing it for yourself,” she says.

Those are not words emanating from the dissatisfied ranks of solicitors and represent the biggest difference between the two professions. Getting into the bar is immensely hard, and becoming harder, but once established the recompense is enormous. Barristers have the advantage of managing their own work-life balances, a luxury an assistant working their way up the ladder towards partnership cannot afford. Large salaries cannot always compensate for low morale and no partnership prospects. Until assistants routinely report, as do junior tenants, that “what we do is fun”, the attrition will not stop.

can City firms learn anything from the bar? By Joanne Harris