New research is to be undertaken by the Law Society of Scotland to analyse in-house trainee data, in order to form a clearer picture of whether more traineeships could be provided

The topic of in-house traineeship numbers is one that is discussed time and again. We have known for a long time that the number of in-house traineeships has been sitting disproportionately lower than the number of our members employed at in-house roles later in their careers. 

Our latest iteration of the trainee statistics, published annually around February and available on our website, shows that 11% of traineeships in the 2016-17 practice year took place within the in-house environment. In the same period, around 30% of our members were practising in-house. This clearly shows a positive flow of people moving to work in-house, but that organisations aren’t necessarily functioning to their fullest potential as a training ground for the future of the profession. 

However, some of the fundamental questions deal with whether we are even looking at a “problem” at all. Does the fact that there aren’t more in-house traineeships matter? Do our in-house organisations want to support more trainees? Do they have the capacity to support more trainees? Are those working in private practice happy to support a higher volume of lower pay-grade employees, potentially later losing them to other workplaces? After all, there will always be a certain level of attrition as people look for career diversification elsewhere and firms cannot support the same progression for every solicitor they employ from trainee level. It’s highly possible that our research might tell us that the current level of in-house traineeships fits into the current careers landscape of the Scottish legal profession. 

Asking the key questions

The main problem we have in terms of an explanation of “why we are where we are” with in-house traineeship numbers is that it’s often built on a foundation of anecdotal evidence. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it can be heavily influenced by those who are the most effective at making themselves heard, so we don’t get a complete picture of why our numbers are the way they are. 

So, we are committing to conducting more formalised research into this area to uncover more about why traineeship numbers remain proportionately low. It’s likely that barriers to recruitment will differ for each organisation as we look at the vast range from public to private sector, those with a sole in-house counsel to those with legal teams more reminiscent in size to big private-practice firms. Everyone is in a different position when it comes to taking on trainees.

Asking questions about perceptions of traineeships will be key, as the anecdotal evidence we do hear tells us time and again that there are likely to be a lot of myths to bust when it comes to trainee recruitment. Often these myths can make employers feel they are unable to take on trainees when in fact this isn’t actually the case. Some of the major myths we know about, but would like to know the prevalence of, relate to issues such as misunderstandings about who can train a trainee, areas of law trainees need to be exposed to during the traineeship and a requirement to offer different seat rotations. 

Mythbusting is relatively easy to deal with, whereas other barriers to recruitment might deal with perceptions that are more ingrained within the in-house and private practice cultures. We will be looking at the perceptions of in-house traineeships in specific organisations and across the profession more generally. 

Why do it?

Why are we ultimately conducting this research, you might ask? 

First, we want to make sure we are serving our in-house organisations as effectively as we can. If we are coming across perceived barriers to recruitment that can be addressed and overcome, the in-house profession can benefit from growing its own specialised, dedicated trainees with sector-specific knowledge and skills from the get-go. We can help organisations with the traineeship recruitment process, we run a dedicated trainee helpline, and we provide clear training guidelines that can be easily followed by any organisation. If it’s just a case of connecting people to what we offer already, we can do that without making any significant changes. If we find that actually we aren’t providing enough in terms of guidance and support, we will be able to identify what more we can provide for in-house employers.

The second reason relates to the work we do with new lawyers, specifically students. In my role, I support those at the junior end of their professional careers, which includes signposting traineeship opportunities and future career paths. We have a duty to ensure that career paths and options are open to those building careers, therefore it’s crucial that we stay in touch with employers to represent the students’ interests. These new lawyers looking for their first, or next, opportunity are the future of our legal profession. 

Lastly, we want to make sure we have an accurate picture of careers across the whole of our legal landscape. Over the next few years we aim to expand our careers support and introduce a new strategy to help people at different phases of their careers. We feel we are not as well versed in the dialogue around in-house traineeships as we are with private practice. We want to get a better feel for where people move around in their professional lives and how they navigate the various options available to them. This goal is leading us to a tangent at a very early stage, as one of the interesting aspects we can also investigate at this stage is in-house secondments. How many people actually spend time in-house during their traineeship? What strings do employers feel this adds to a trainee’s bow?

Next steps

We’ll be inviting members of the in-house profession to take part in focus groups over the next few months, to gather the qualitative evidence we need to assess the pervasive issues for different employers. Because the makeup of in-house employers is so vast, we’ll be engaging with a spread across the whole landscape. In addition to identifying barriers, we want to hear from employers who already regularly take trainees to help us understand the full range of benefits in doing so, their recruitment processes and their motivations for continuing every year. This is scheduled to take place in autumn 2018 and we’ll be contacting all our in-house members to participate, but if you would like to register your interest now for a focus group, please do get in touch at oliviaparker@lawscot.org.uk

There are a lot of interesting questions we hope to answer over the next few months, so we ultimately have a better understanding of the present and future status of in-house traineeship numbers. The range of organisations making up our legal ecosystem only serves to make the conversation more complex and intriguing!  

The Author
Olivia Parker, careers development officer, Law Society of Scotland 
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