Recruitment system is now at risk

Last week’s news that the SRA plans to withdraw from the Graduate Recruitment Code, which stops firms offering students training contracts before their final year of university, touched a nerve right across the profession.

Richard Simmons

If the SRA’s plans go ahead, trainee recruitment is likely to become significantly more competitive. Theoretically, it means that for the first time firms could offer training contracts to the brightest 18-year-olds straight out of school.

Senior figures in the profession have already raised concerns that the SRA’s withdrawal could lead to an atmosphere of “paranoia” in the recruitment market, with firms desperately fighting to snap up the “best” school leavers in the hope of getting an edge in the battle for talent.

The diversity implications are frightening. The most polished teenagers are likely to be those with the best educational background. Late developers (read: normal people) are likely to miss out. The legal profession then becomes a group of super-driven automata who have dreamed of becoming lawyers since they were on their mother’s milk.

All this is hypothetical. In practice, hiring trainees two years in advance, as firms currently do, is already a long lead time, so it’s unlikely they will take to recruiting 18-year-olds to start five years later. A firm’s staffing needs may have changed a lot in the meantime, not to mention the school leaver’s aspirations.

For more detail on the latter, look out for the results of Lawyer 2B’s Student Attitudes Survey in the summer, which will map the current generation’s career hopes and expectations.

Nevertheless, the SRA’s decision has the potential to seriously disrupt a system that, on the whole, functions well. While adherence to the code is voluntary, the smooth operation of the graduate recruitment market ultimately relies on the majority of parties playing by the rules. Most do, though there are always stories of firms who don’t play ball to steal a march on their rivals.

The SRA says it has decided to withdraw from the code “on the basis that it is not appropriate to be involved in recruitment practices and procedures”. If it really feels that regulating recruitment of solicitors falls outside its remit, so be it. But it is unclear what it thinks the benefit of withdrawal will be.

All it is likely to do in practice is destabilise a system that works.