US firms top London retention rankings

Organic growth strategies for London bear fruit as 2008 trainee retention figures outstrip those of domestic rivals

US firms top London retention rankingsUS firms are leading the way on London trainee retention, with a large ­number seeing all their qualifying trainees remain at the firm this September.

As reported by The Lawyer last year, US firms vowed to focus on organic growth in London, pledging to ramp up their trainee intakes in the coming years. Kirkland & Ellis, for ­example, launched its first London training scheme last autumn.

Many firms have backed up their promises with ­September 2008 qualification offers. Top of the list are Bingham McCutchen, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Covington & Burling, Debevoise & Plimpton?and?Dewey & LeBoeuf, with each ­boasting a retention rate of 100 per cent. Five UK firms attained 100 per cent retention.

The intake at US firms is generally smaller than at their UK counterparts (Dewey had the largest intake with seven), but one advantage of this is that it can make it easier to plan ahead.

White & Case’s retention rate is 93 per cent – up slightly on last year’s 92 per cent – with 13 of its 14 trainees ­staying with the firm.

White & Case graduate recruitment and development manager Emma ­Fernandez says: “We only ever recruit the number of people we think we’re going to need in two years’ time – as opposed to at some other firms, where they recruit a large number because they need a large number of trainees as a resource.”

Cleary graduate ­recruitment partner Shaun ­Goodman agrees, having seen 100 per cent of trainees remain with the firm for the second year running.

“It’s clearly easier to absorb a limited number of people and it’s inevitable that it may not be possible for larger firms to take on a number of trainees purely as a function of numbers,” he says.

Cleary also operates a model whereby for the first few years corporate ­assistants practise in a broad range of corporate law, M&A, finance and capital markets, similar to the model followed by Slaughter and May.

Correspondingly, four trainees are qualifying into corporate this year.

Goodman says this broad spread helps when it comes to retaining trainees.

For US firms with smaller offices in London, having fewer ­potential departments to qualify into can result in ­fluctuations in retention rates.

Morrison & Foerster (MoFo) began its trainee programme in 2006 and is now up to two trainees per intake. However, after two years of retaining all of them, this year one of them left the firm to do sovereign funds work – which is not offered at MoFo – elsewhere. This put the firm at the bottom of the retention table with a rate of 50 per cent.

The firm’s director of administration Margaret Mannell says: “US firms put the same commitment into retention as UK firms and for all US firms it’s ­important, as the expression goes, to grow your own. A lot of us spend so much time and money in recruiting and training, we would aim to continue with our 100 per cent record.”

Overall, the majority of trainees at US firms in ­London were soaked up by corporate and finance departments this year, although some firms also saw several qualifiers in litigation and support departments, such as tax, pensions and employment, as well as in competition.

However, with the economic climate continuing to cause concern, keeping trainees is not a given. ­Traditionally US firms have suffered?from?being ­perceived as relatively unknown quantities for London trainees, who are uncertain of whether they would be laid off at the first sign of struggling profits.

Mayer Brown training principal and ­general counsel Steven Gare says the one sure way to deal with a dismal marketplace is to invest in the firm’s future via junior lawyers.

“The only way to deal with it is to actually be ­committed to the careers of young lawyers, regardless of what the market’s doing,” he explains. “You can build up the reputation for being a firm which treats people properly, or you get the ­reputation for hiring in good times and discarding ­people in bad times.”

Firms that fared less well this year included ­Shearman & Sterling, which could offer first-choice qualification options to and retain just 57 per cent of its seven trainees, ­following retention rates of 100 per cent in 2007 and 80 per cent in 2006.

The firm says this year’s drop was due to trainees deciding to practise in areas and jurisdictions where no places were available. That said, the firm has almost doubled the size of its trainee intake in the past year and says it is confident about improving its retention rate in the future.

Dechert, Orrick ­Herrington & Sutcliffe and Sidley Austin also retained less than two-­thirds of their intakes.