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Fears of trainee recruitment free-for-all as solicitor watchdog threatens to bin code of practice

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Exclusive: Solicitors Regulation Authority to bail out of rules covering training contract applications; sixth-formers prepare for law firm recruitment milk round

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Regulators were in the line of fire today for potentially triggering a recruitment free-for-all after withdrawing support for a voluntary code of practice covering training contract offers.

The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) revealed that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has flagged up that it is removing itself as a signatory to the “code of good practice in the recruitment of trainee solicitors”.

The move could see law firms jettisoning an agreed recruitment timetable and ditching the current gentleman’s agreement only to offer training contracts to those in their second year of undergraduate study. That raises the prospect of sixth-formers being wooed by smooth-talking magic circle recruitment partners.

A senior JLD official said his group was “disappointed” with the regulator’s decision.

“We hope that the SRA will reconsider their stance,” chairman Max Harris told Legal Cheek. “But this looks increasingly unlikely. The effective date of the SRA withdrawal is not yet known, but should not impact on this year’s recruitment cycle.”

However, magic circle firm Clifford Chance has this year brought forward its training contract application deadline by a month to 30 June, spawning suggestions that other major players will also break from the code’s agreed recruitment timetable.

At the core of the code is an agreed recruitment timetable stipulating a deadline for training contract applications of 31 July at the end of the student’s penultimate year of undergraduate study.

It then sets out that TC offers will not be made before 1 September in the student’s final year of undergraduate study. The code goes on to stipulate “this applies to all applicants whether or not they have undertaken/are undertaking a vacation placement with the employer and whether they are law degree or non-law degree students”.

But the code also addresses more general issues, for example, saying law firm and other “employers will not discriminate directly or indirectly”. Further, it places certain responsibilities on wannabe solicitors.

It instructs students to:

“Respond as promptly as possible to an offer of employment as a trainee solicitor. If the student is unable to give a final decision, he or she must ask for time to consider the offer, but must indicate the date by which the decision will be given. In all cases, unless the student has been given an extension of time by the employer, the student must make a decision one way or the other within four weeks of receipt of the offer”.

The code also encourages students with more than two offers to “turn down the excess offers that he/she does not wish to hold” without delay.

Before the SRA experienced a dose of cold feet over the code, there were four signatories. In addition to it and the JLD are the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) and the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

In a joint statement with AGCAS, the JLD said:

“We restate our commitment to the principles of the code. We will be looking at its content to update it in line with modern recruitment practices.

“The JLD and AGCAS want to ensure that those who follow the code are not put in a less favourable position than those who do not.

“If the SRA does remove itself, we will be considering the possibility of alternative signatories to ensure the survival of this code, in order to promote continued fair recruitment practices across the country.”

An SRA spokesman emphasised that the authority had not yet come to an ultimate decision regarding its support for the code. “Discussions are not finalised as yet,” he said, maintaining that a formal announcement would come eventually.

However, the SRA man gave a strong indication of the regulator’s thinking, adding that the rationale behind dropping the code was that it “doesn’t add anything to our regulatory remit; it’s very much about how firms employ people, not about maintaining standards in the profession. Recruitment matters are covered by employment law”.

To which the JLD’s Harris responded:

“It is a testament to our profession that we promote principles of fair trainee recruitment. The JLD strongly believes that fair trainee recruitment does play a part in maintaining standards in the profession.

“The code encourages employers to provide students with sufficient time to gain a breadth of experience. This gives students an opportunity to determine the type of law they want to practice. If the right decisions are made in a student’s legal career, their training can be more focussed, better informed, and ultimately lead to better quality within the profession”.