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Revised trainee solicitor hiring code is here; market braces for chaos

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Law firm pressure forces junior lawyers group to drop application deadline guidance

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Law firms have the green light to recruit trainees more or less whenever they fancy after amendments to a long-standing code of practice were released today.

Fears mounted that the move could launch a free-for-all that will see top firms racing to bag the best performing students at ever-earlier stages in their education.

Those concerns were exacerbated by the decision of the profession’s regulator last May to remove its imprimatur from the voluntary code.

The reformed version of the code — which is being promoted by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division — advises “employers can set their training contract application deadline at a point of their choosing”.

The code goes on to say that firms should not set deadlines before the start of students’ second year of undergraduate study.

However, the revision is a move away from the historic position under which firms and others in the trainee solicitor market were asked not to set deadlines before 31 July of students’ penultimate year of undergraduate study.

Other reforms to the code include a move to allow employers to make training contract offers at any point during a student’s penultimate year, or later.

Under the previous code, it was suggested that offers should not be made before 1 September in the student’s final year of undergraduate study.

Under the revised guidance, students may accept offers at any point after they are made, but they:

will not be obliged to accept (nor should they be put under pressure to accept) before a deadline of 15 September in their final year (or four weeks after an offer has been made, whichever is later).

According to a JLD statement, the code has been updated “to reflect modern practices” — in other words, a recognition that the employment market was increasingly ignoring the previous version.

The code was launched as a recommended standard of good practice for employers, students, higher education careers advisers and faculty staff.

But its relevance was dealt a blow when the Solicitors Regulation Authority backed out this spring. While the code has always been voluntary, regulator support gave it added muscle.

Launching the revised version of the code, JLD chairman, Max Harris, acknowledged it was:

likely that we will see some changes to the application deadlines at law firms. Indeed, we have already seen a few firms break away from the 31 July application deadline.

Harris — an associate in the IT and commercial department at the London office of global law firm Baker & McKenzie — continued:

It is important that this code works in practice, and setting an artificial deadline of 31 July did not necessarily achieve the ideal student protections. By 31 July many vacation schemes and training contract interviews will have been completed, and therefore firms may be stuck in a bizarre situation where they have to keep their applications open until 31 July even though by that point they have already made their training contract allocations.

Harris added:

If that was the case, students who apply to those firms on 31 July may be applying for a position that has already been allocated — or offered — to someone else, which would be a waste of that applicant’s time.

Harris rejected fears that the lack of SRA backing will render the code useless.

I am confident a significant amount of law firms will abide by the new code,” he told Legal Cheek. “One concern from the previous code was that firms who abided by the code were sometimes put in a disadvantaged position compared to those who didn’t abide by the code. Some firms were making offers earlier than 1 September, and by 1 September, firms who were abiding by the code found that some of their applicants had accepted training contracts elsewhere. This code seeks to avoid that situation, and also offer more transparency to students.