Some ideas from smaller firms who were finding it hard to recruit new assistants

The Society’s consultation on education and training, and CPD, will close on 9 February 2007. That is just the start of a process to ensure the system becomes representative of the majority. But the legal profession will not stand still during this time, and as we know there are issues as we embark on 2007. Can the profession address some of them, albeit reform could be on its way?

Like chargeable hours, assistants do not grow on trees. This is the harsh reality facing the legal profession in Scotland. But with the profession unable to absorb the hundreds of Diploma graduates exiting our institutions each year, what is happening to the profession’s new lawyers? If trainees are going into the wash and not coming out the other side, should the profession be looking at the bigger picture – how to assist law students (rather than trainees) with their metamorphosis into capable and enthusiastic assistants?

“Test-tube” assistants

“Grow Your Own Assistant” was coined by Graham Gibson, partner with Kirklands Law Ltd. Interested in the numbers (that not everyone with a Diploma gets a traineeship), the situation puzzled him, but he did not think Kirklands could do much to help. That changed when Kirsty, a first year law student, wrote to Kirklands requesting work experience. “I had always thought that we were too small and too stretched to offer a trainee a start. But having a capable law student with us has changed my view. When we have more office space my firm will benefit from having a trainee, and that helps at least one more Diploma graduate.”

Running in parallel with the Society’s own training register, which training firms and Diploma graduates register with, Kirklands have pioneered an all-encompassing clearing house for traineeships and summer placements. Firms which might also be interested in sowing the seeds of assistantship can register. But other than the urge to help the next generation of lawyers into the profession, what would be the drivers behind a policy decision to “grow” an assistant?

Show me the assistants

Innes & Mackay in Inverness have found themselves with no new blood, but a bevy of highly qualified solicitors. Ian Clapham of the firm says: “We needed to redress the balance, but we were finding it hard to recruit assistants – it is our perception that NQs are lured by the glamour of the big teams in the big cities. So, despite the many challenges we are sure we will face as a training firm, we took the decision to recruit a trainee, and she started in September 2006.”

Ian Clapham is under no illusions as to the challenges. A good solicitor does not always equal a good trainer, he says, and there could be uncertainty about the delegation and supervision of work. Looking at it strategically, however, he is in no doubt as to the benefits of having a trainee. From their freshly honed legal skills to their ability to use IT, trainees offer training firms ample opportunity to immerse them in the firm’s culture and assess their suitability for a post on qualification – luxuries not available when recruiting assistants.

If one thing is for sure, rural firms want “good people” just as much as the bigger players – not people who are looking for an easy life, and critically not trainees who will desert the firm for the central belt post-traineeship. Innes & MacKay will incentivise the post-qualification opportunities and will aim to select trainees who want work in the area. There will always be an element of risk taking this approach, but then the risk of losing trainees applies to all firms. However, with a more diverse range of law graduates than ever before emerging from 10 Scottish universities, and with work-life balance becoming a factor for young professionals generally, perhaps the risk for firms like Innes & Mackay is not as great as it once might have been.

Ian Clapham also knows that the antidote to this might be to take on summer students, and is looking at how going forward the firm might instigate summer placements.

The student’s story

Kirsty knew that the larger firms might not consider her summer placement application until she had completed third year. But with summer and Christmas holidays, she worked at Kirklands for almost six months between first and third year. “I’ve learned so much, and not just about the law – about office life too. Six months is an entire seat of a traineeship!”

Kirsty says that an increase in the number of placements would be music to the ears of law students: “These days students who genuinely want to enter the profession are clued-up about the importance of summer placements in helping to secure those coveted traineeships, and they are not too concerned whether the placement itself leads to one. The earlier any firm can take us on during the LLB, the better.” On the other hand, like others, she is not convinced about the possibility of compulsory placements for all law students, which some have speculated could come out of the consultation. Although good in theory, firms would have to absorb all law students, including those who don’t plan to go into the profession. She also questions whether mandatory work placements would falsely raise student expectation about entry to the profession.

Training in-house

In-house solicitors make up 27% of the profession, but the number of traineeships is small in comparison. Says Janet Hood, Chairperson of the In-house Lawyers’ Group: “We have all heard about the increasing number of disappointed Diploma graduates, and in-house lawyers obviously have a role to play in this. It is the Group’s responsibility to ensure that in-house practitioners are properly informed of the issues surrounding numbers.”

With HBoS deciding this year to recruit trainees, Liz Campbell, Director (Education & Training) at the Society clears up any speculation about the criteria for offering traineeships: “In Scotland there is no requirement to have particular breadth in a traineeship. All the Society would ask is that the employing solicitor makes it clear to the prospective trainee when recruiting that there will be exposure to only one particular area of work. If a firm or organisation has concerns about the range of work it could offer a trainee, they may wish to consider arranging to share a trainee with another firm or organisation. In this way, responsibility for training would be shared and the trainee benefits from gaining a broader training base.”

Nothing to lose

Whilst summer placements may not be linked to the traineeship recruitment process, they offer much sought-after exposure to legal life. A placement might fuel the desire to enter the profession, but equally it might force some to re-evaluate their career plan. With some LLB providers not yet having produced graduates, it is almost certain that the number of applications for traineeships will continue to rise. Nevertheless, as assistants continue to play hard to get in Scotland, could more work placements help to reduce the number of law students who apply for the Diploma and a traineeship, not having first assessed their suitability for the profession?

Small and medium sized firms and in-house lawyers are not as well represented at law fairs, and can be dwarfed during the recruitment process by bigger firms which can offer a much glossier brochure to prospective trainees. Grow Your Own Assistant could just be the initiative needed to source the people your organisation wants. And whilst the profession can pat itself on the back for taking this lead, it is Scotland’s increasing number of law students who will be grateful for efforts to increase the availability of summer placements and traineeships to help them design their career paths.

It remains to be seen how the profession views mandatory work placements and alternative Diploma/traineeship structures, and having read this you may be minded to take part in the Society’s consultation. But as law firms across the country are needing assistants now, many potentially great assistants are struggling to get into this profession now. So, because the partner/trainee ratio is not what you might think, and because you might eventually be able to attend one of the Society’s “Train the Trainer” CPD events, this new year, why not resolve at least to consider “growing” your own assistant? To be bold, summer placements and traineeships allow parties to suss each other out before committing to ongoing employment – a win-win situation, wouldn’t you say?

Collette Paterson is New Lawyers’ Coordinator at the Law Society of Scotland    
The Society’s consultation is still ongoing –

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