Get a Training Contract Or Get Deported: The Fate Of The Foreign Law Graduate In The UK

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If, like me, you’re not British or European and are applying for training contracts, you probably read last month’s story about the American trainee at the London office of stricken US firm Dewey & LeBoeuf who is fighting deportation. It sent chills down my spine, writes Carmody Wilson

But, in a way, it was also encouraging. Because the American in question got the training contract in the first place. This in spite of ticking ‘yes’ in that horrible little box that asks if the applicant requires permission to work in the UK.

Nearly every firm asks it. I have felt that, in previous applications, by ticking ‘yes’ I am exposing myself to further scrutiny. My application thereafter must be faultless for the HR representative to not put me in the bin, I suspect.

Such behaviour would, of course, be considered discrimination and woe betide the firm which admits to it…

Under the current shifting sands of immigration rules, all non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationals wishing to work in the UK must apply for the ‘Tier 2’ visa. There is a cap of 20,700 places for those earning under £150,000. There is no cap on visas for those earning above that amount. So those outside the EEA applying for a training contract will be competing with all other professionals of all stripes to get in under this year’s cap. Tier 2 applications also require a certain amount of savings can be shown and that your employer is a registered sponsor.

Some firms state that they do not provide sponsorship for trainee hopefuls who require work permits. This is largely blameless. The process by which firms must abide in order to provide sponsorship would seem cumbersome at best and onerous at worst.

Luckily for me, due to a change in personal circumstances, I no longer require a work permit, and so have been happily ticking ‘no’ in that insidious little ‘bin me’ box on all recent applications. But it was a little unnerving when attending a recent interview at a medium-sized firm that the senior partner didn’t appear to know anything about work permits. When he asked the younger partner about it, she appeared to think it was something that could be investigated and dealt with later. Such laissez-faire attitudes could see students get a training contract only to learn that the firm isn’t in a position to sponsor them, thereby putting their career in jeopardy.

It’s important for both firms and trainee-hopefuls to get it right, not least because young graduates who don’t find training contracts may find themselves forced back to their native country with qualifications that don’t match the ones required by local firms. It is a risk that all non-EEA law students take in studying in the UK, but it doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching.

And as our American friend has shown, once you get a sponsor, it’s no ticket to paradise. If you’re sacked, or your firm goes bust, you’re much more vulnerable than your peers. Not only do you have to scramble to get another position to complete your training, but you have to do it within the stringent 60-day limit set by the UK Border Agency. All eyes on you, mystery American.

Carmody Wilson graduated from City Law School this summer and is currently a freelance features writer and critic at Newsquest.