Preparing for commercial life

In the wake of The Lawyer survey revealing widespread trainee disillusionment, Jacqueline Siers calls for more co-operation between academia and firms. Jacqueline Siers is chief executive of BPP Law School.

Reading the articles about students seeking to leave the profession (The Lawyer, 19 May), I was struck not so much by what was said as by what was missing.

One essential issue that does not seem to come out clearly – particularly in the commercial arena – is the current misalignment between the agendas of firms, law course providers and law students applying for the legal practice course. All three parties can benefit by talking more openly about common concerns and challenges.

In an attempt to further its understanding of the agenda divides and to find ways of bridging them, BPP Law School has undertaken research and has held discussions with firms. Clear themes can be identified from the responses.

It seems that while firms say they have long been obliged to think and act as businesses, they believe that other sections of the legal world, including students and law schools, have not risen to the challenges of commercial change. This is change driven by market factors such as global competition and by client pressures including demystification of the law, flexible pricing and client mobility.

Private practice firms that operate in this highly competitive market have been transforming themselves into business-oriented lawyers. So it should come as no surprise that, even at the recruitment stage, they are seeking trainees whose qualities are different from those of previous generations.

Students entering commercial practice are attracted by the glamour of City practice, the promise of overseas travel and high-quality work as well as the high salaries. But they can also be naive and ill-informed about the realities of City work – the long hours and the absorption into large teams working on one transaction.

Judging from some of the attitudes emerging from the Lawyer trainee survey – including the fact that one in three of the 200 questioned wanted to quit the profession – it is important that students and all who advise them, including careers offices, properly appraise the new climate of competition.

The implications need to be worked out so that students can develop realistic expectations of what a career in private practice entails before they begin training.

The commercial section of the profession needs less risk-averse, more entrepreneurial and more mobile trainees who are prepared to construct their own portfolio career in the law and who are prepared to see the law as a practical tool to achieve commercial ends rather than treating it as an academic parlour game.

In selecting candidates, high academic ability is not the be-all and end-all it once was. Firms are just as likely to be looking for evidence that recruits have initiative, energy and people skills.

Desirable experience includes early acceptance of responsibility, such as becoming treasurer of a university social society, and voluntary work or travel. Candidates' presentation skills may count heavily too and some evidence of commercial acumen or general business awareness may help.

Before arriving at law school it can be vitally important for students to gain experience of office ethics and etiquette by taking part in work placements. BPP Law School has found that students who do not do work placements are at a considerable disadvantage and suffer a culture shock when they do have to confront the dynamics of the real workplace.

Training providers need to respond to both the students' need for training and the private law firms' need for the right product.

Law school teaching staff have an obligation to keep themselves at the forefront of best private practice.

For example, staff should regularly revert to private practice in order to refresh their commercial skills. BPP is also exploring reverse secondments, whereby a private practitioner delivers lectures at the law school in return for training in academic teaching.

BPP would argue that the long-term solution to misalignment of agendas is constant liaison and communication between commercial firms, providers and students. Only by these three groups working effectively together will the commercial practice get the trainees it needs.

In the Student Focus (The Lawyer, 19 May) Eversheds' salary for a London-qualified solicitor was incorrectly stated as £22,000. In fact it is £30,000.