So Berwin Leighton Paisner has been caught massaging its retention stats.
For those who missed the original story, BLP originally announced that “the firm has offered roles to 15 of our 20 final-seat trainees with 14 accepting,” clearly implying that it only had 20 qualifiers.
It quickly emerged that was not the case and that BLP hadn’t included three further qualifiers in its figures as they had “dropped out of the process before the firm could make offers”.
This wasn’t an oversight on BLP’s part: firms know very well that no one reports retention figures in that way. The legal press want the total number of qualifiers, not the number who applied for jobs, and have asked for that figure twice a year for the last decade or more. Occasionally, some firm or other will argue that not counting the drop-outs is a ‘fairer’ way of reporting retention, as it shows that the firm ‘had space for all those who wanted to stay’. Of course, by this logic a firm could have 20 qualifiers, see 19 quit, offer a job to the remaining one and claim that “100 per cent” was an accurate representation of the firm’s retention that year.
Firms also sometimes argue that the trainees who don’t apply for NQ jobs shouldn’t be counted because ‘they are leaving for personal reasons unrelated to the jobs on offer.’ Well, duh. There’s always context. Maybe a departing trainee is going to look after their sick mother full-time, maybe their significant other is relocating to Yemen, maybe there wasn’t a job in their preferred department, or maybe they hate the firm so much they can’t bear to stay another day.
Equally, the trainees that eventually stayed may have happily taken a job in their first-choice department, or desperately tried to get a job at literally any other firm before eventually sucking it up and staying put. There’s always context, but leaving out a certain group of qualifiers distorts the picture further, rather than somehow making it clearer.
BLP isn’t the only culprit, of course. It would be naïve to suggest that other firms don’t try to massage their numbers as well (although unlike BLP, their press releases are often carefully phrased to obscure without actually omitting details). Sometimes they get called out on it; no doubt they get away with it sometimes too.
Why does it matter though? After all, the omission of a few trainees is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. Big organisation spins results to make itself look good. Hold the front page.
Well, for starters and to quote the late, great, legal novelist Henry Cecil: “I once heard a judge say that he never cared for the defence that it was only a little one.”
And while a slightly inaccurate figure in a soon-to-be-forgotten news story seems no big deal, it is ultimately pulling the wool over the eyes of students who may be considering joining the firm. Notably, BLP also refused to comment on whether any of its trainees who were staying on in NQ roles were on fixed-term contracts. The firm is under no obligation to release those details – but there’s no point denying that it is information that’s of interest and relevance to students making a decision about what firm to join.
Trust in public institutions and large corporations is down generally, and law firms spend a lot of effort trying to persuade students that they’re not horrible sweatshops full of legal automatons. Despite the fine words, a cursory glance of internet messageboards will show that many law students remain deeply cynical about the culture within firms. Stories like this do the legal profession no favours.
BLP itself claims in its graduate recruitment literature that it is a firm with a “difference”. Its lack of transparency over trainee retention makes it look like just another corporate machine.