Truth behind good retention rates

Catrin Griffiths

Great news for junior lawyers: trainee retention rates are on the up. Over the past month many firms have issued upbeat bulletins on their spring qualifiers and the trend is uniformly good. Top of the pile are Nabarro, Olswang and Osborne Clarke, which all scored 100 per cent, but the following firms have also released strong figures: Ashurst (96 per cent), Clifford Chance (94 per cent), Herbert Smith Freehills (90 per cent), BLP (89 per cent) and Allen & Overy (84 per cent).

Let’s dig around the numbers for a bit. It’s striking that firms are getting much better at predicting their business needs. Those requirements have remained steady over the past two years. Take Ashurst: of its last two cohorts, 47 were given newly-qualified jobs out of 54. Compare that to autumn 2009 and spring 2010, when exactly the same number was retained post-qualification, but the overall total trainee intake was 11 more, at 65.

Here’s the not-so-great news: it’s a percentage game. Although Olswang’s 100 per cent rate looks marvellous, it cancelled its 2013 recruitment round altogether (The Lawyer, 8 February 2011). 

The Olswang experience is echoed in larger City firms. The magic circle has long relied on an enormous graduate intake but the days of growth are over. Clifford Chance’s 2015 intake will be cut from 120 to a maximum of 100, and Allen & Overy is also reducing its 2015 trainee intake – down to 85 from its historic level
of 105.

 These figures don’t take mergers into account, either, which is another factor that will reduce overall intake as firms examine economies of scale. I rather doubt Wragges Lawrence Graham will keep their combined trainee numbers, for example. And DWF, in the course of its many mergers, has collected vast number of trainee places that seem generous from an outsider’s point of view.

 A couple of years ago there was a rumour that a major City firm was going to cancel its entire trainee recruitment programme and put the money into headhunting newly-qualifieds. So far, only niche media firm Wiggin has gone down that path, but given client demands for new ways of working, the rise in paralegals, apprenticeships and low-cost centres, I wouldn’t bet against larger law firms thinking the unthinkable.