Why is the proportion of in-house trainees much smaller than that of in-house solicitors? The authors report on research the Society has been carrying out into this vexed question

The in-house sector is thriving, with the number of in-house solicitors growing significantly over the last 10 years. In-house traineeship numbers have, however, remained fairly static. In the 2018-19 practice year, 12% of traineeships were in-house, whereas around 30% of solicitors worked in-house.

Such a statistic might invite a collective shrug of the shoulders among the profession. Training in private practice before moving in-house once you have more experience is a well trodden route, and there remains a long-held perception that law firms offer better training than in-house legal departments, or that in-house teams cannot offer the right kind of experience for those early in their careers.

We wanted to test such perceptions, and in 2019 we carried out detailed research into the in-house traineeship market through an initial survey of in-house solicitors and a series of follow-up focus groups.

Who responded

In March 2019, the survey explored perceived barriers to taking on trainees, the benefits of having a traineeship programme, and what motivates organisations to take on trainees.

We received 321 responses, with respondents reflecting the broad in-house community. Around 57% worked in the public and third sectors (including central and local government, public bodies and charities). Just under 34% worked in private sector commerce and industry. And about 9% responded “other” or “prefer not to answer”.

Over half of respondents, at 52%, indicated that they had some form of traineeship programme; 39% said they previously had a traineeship programme but no longer did, or never had a traineeship programme, and 9% preferred not to answer this question.

What the survey told us

Our analysis of the survey findings identified the following insights, which are based on respondents who answered “strongly agree” or “tend to agree” to the survey questions.

The most significant perceived barriers to taking on a trainee were:

  • the inability of in-house teams to offer a traditional three or four seat rotation (43%);
  • a lack of personnel resource to support supervising a trainee (37%);
  • a lack of financial resource to support taking on a trainee (32%);
  • the inability to offer a trainee exposure to a number of areas of law (31%);
  • the belief that private practice offers a better grounding for someone starting out in their legal career (28%).

The most important factors in deciding to take on a trainee were:

  • the opportunity to “grow your own” trainees by shaping their experience (67%);
  • trainees providing an invaluable additional resource for the team (67%);
  • an obligation to support the future of the legal profession by offering traineeships (64%);
  • succession planning (63%);
  • trainees contributing fresh and innovative ways of working to the team (62%).

For organisations that have secondment relationships with private practice firms and/or employ paralegals, these factors do not appear to have a significant impact on the decision to take on trainees or not (see table below).

Focus groups

Having analysed the responses from the survey, we were keen to collect further, qualitative evidence on the in-house traineeship market. As well as hearing about the positive experiences of running traineeship programmes, we wanted to examine some of the challenges identified in the survey.

Across September and October 2019, we held three focus groups with 21 different in-house legal teams represented. Some participants had large and well established traineeship programmes, others were in the early stages of creating a small traineeship programme, while another group had no traineeship programme but were interested to hear others’ experience.

Key themes from the sessions included:

Recruitment practices

  • In-house teams feel they are at a disadvantage, as they often recruit outwith
  • the traditional recruiting periods of private practice firms.
  • The volume of applications was reported to be high for most organisations, and the administration connected with recruiting burdensome.
  • The quality of applications was very variable, often poorly tailored to the role and not exhibiting a good understanding of the organisation.
  • It was recognised that in-house teams need to work more proactively with university careers advisory services to get their opportunities promoted.
  • There are benefits and limitations of combining traineeship recruitment
    programmes with wider organisational graduate training schemes – some had
    done so very successfully whereas others had found these didn’t integrate well.

Candidate profile

While overall it was agreed that the skillset is not significantly different, focus group participants highlighted key attributes for an in-house trainee, including:

  • The level of autonomy and responsibility can be higher in-house at an earlier stage, so trainees need to be self-starters and independent workers.
  • Bringing skills and experience from other types of job are extremely valuable in-house. An in-house traineeship may particularly suit individuals who have had a previous career in another sector or role.
  • In-house trainees need to be motivated by the service or product their employer provides, rather than by fee targets or winning clients.

Value of trainees

From those that had traineeship programmes, the experience was positive. Key benefits included:

  • a cost-effective way to add valuable resource to the team;
  • succession planning and the concept of “growing your own”;
  • trainees filling the gap where teams had issues recruiting qualified solicitors;
  • trainees helping to revitalise the office and create a better team culture

Other key issues

  • For those without traineeship programmes, a lack of budget was often cited as a major factor.
  • Non-legal colleagues sometimes struggled to understand the salary and short-term contractual issues connected with traineeships.
  • Taking on trainees requires buy-in from senior management, which can be difficult to achieve.
  • It can be difficult to source relevant TCPD.
  • Many law firms are now promoting a greater work-life balance and encouraging flexible working, which had previously been a key benefit of working in-house.

What are we doing now?

We are:

  • continuing to raise the profile of in-house traineeships with students and in-house legal teams, through a series of blogs profiling different traineeship experiences and our “Careers outside a big firm” roadshow;
  • discussing in-house traineeships with university careers advisers, and developing good working relationships so that organisations can reach students who may be interested in working in-house via careers advisers;
  • considering an appropriate forum to offer in-house traineeship providers an opportunity to network with each other and ask questions;
  • looking at the Society’s TCPD ethics course to see how this could be better tailored for in-house trainees.


Question not at all sometimes yes N/A
Does the number of paralegals or other support staff affect the decision to offer traineeships? 42% 13% 2% 43%
Does the number of secondees you host affect the decision to offer traineeships 26% 6% 1% 67%
Myths, and the reality

The research identified perceptions or views that do not correspond with the requirements of the Society. We selected four of the main myths that we heard, and highlight the correct requirements below.

Myth Reality
Trainees need to be exposed to various different areas of law during their traineeship and have structured seat rotations What you need: • Supervising solicitor (3+ years qualified) • Legal work for the trainee to undertake for two years • Trainees to meet PEAT 2 outcomes There is no set traineeship – it is not one size fits all. A trainee could do their whole two years in one area, e.g. conveyancing
Taking on a trainee is administratively burdensome and law firms are better set up to manage this The “to do” list: • Advertise for a trainee • Ensure you have a qualified supervising solicitor • Choose a start date and get the trainee to apply for an entrance certificate • Begin the training contract • Train the trainee, carry out reviews and enable TCPD
In-house teams cannot compete with large firms to attract the right talent Students tell us they actively look for roles, and they will apply for opportunities based on what they value. This might be: • Looking to explore different areas of law • Specialising in a certain area • Prioritising certain benefits • Working for an international organisation
In order to offer a traineeship, there needs to be the prospect of a qualified post for the trainee at the end of two years A traineeship is the final period of training. There is no expectation on the organisation that at the end of this training they will retain any or all of their trainees. Once qualified, newly qualified positions will be available and trainees can apply for any and all which suit them.
Find out more

The in-house community is a key part of the Scottish solicitor profession. If you would like to discuss the research or our work in this area, please contact Beth Anderson, head of member engagement for in-house lawyers, Yasemin Guven, careers and outreach coordinator, or Nicola Johnstone, research executive, on inhouse@lawscot.org.uk

The Author

Beth Anderson is head of member engagement for in-house lawyers, and Nicola Johnstone a research executive, at the Law Society of Scotland

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