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Exclusive: Freshfields trainees bemoan lack of PA support as firm braces for low retention rate

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Claims of longer hours and greater uncertainty hit magic circle giant

Trainees at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer are fuming about an overhaul of the firm’s personal assistant (PA) policy that some are claiming is forcing them to work unreasonably long hours.

At the same time, these same hard-grafting magic circle rookies are fearful for their futures amid internal chatter that Freshfields is set to post an unusually low trainee retention rate this autumn.

These twin concerns have led to the voicing of an avalanche of further gripes, with the full collection contained in a recent internal email sent to trainees that has been seen by Legal Cheek.

Some of the complaints are pretty standard stuff — such as work allocation and seat moves — that tend to be voiced by most trainee intakes across the City. But the unhappiness about PA support and retention rate fears are unusual for such a prestigious firm.

The former issue boils down to trainees no longer being able to rely on the same level of PA assistance that they claim was enjoyed by previous intakes. It’s a situation that is made worse by the fact that the rest of the magic circle offers what Freshfields’ trainees believe to be a “dedicated” PA support service for their youngsters. Without such a facility, some of the Freshfields trainees say they are having to stick around the office “even later” to complete basic administrative tasks such as printing, expenses and receipts. Already, according to the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey, Freshfields is in a group of firms with some of the longest average working hours in the City — although most of the rest of the magic circle also feature in that group too.

When Legal Cheek put the PA support claims to Freshfields the firm contested them, with a spokesperson telling us:

While the support that is available to our trainees has not changed, it is delivered differently.

It is worth noting that Freshfields, which continues to expand its support office in Manchester, offered voluntary redundancy to all of its London secretarial staff earlier this year in a consultation that affected 180 members of staff. Our sources within the firm tell us that morale is not good among some of the remaining PAs and there have been instances of them refusing to do tasks asked of them by trainees.

Making all this worse is the anxiety about post-qualification retention. Legal Cheek understands that Freshfields is bracing itself for one of its lowest trainee retention rates in years. A number of sources have approached us claiming that the firm — which is normally a strong retention performer, regularly posting 80% plus — could reveal an autumn 2017 score of around 65%. That would place Freshfields in a similar range to fellow magic circler Clifford Chance, whose spring trainee retention rate was a very disappointing 67%. With the Legal Cheek Firms Most List showing Freshfields’ NQ pay standing at £85,000, a full £37k more than its second year trainee rate, the cost of failing to make the cut is high.

Interestingly, the word is that it isn’t further outsourcing to Manchester that is behind the anticipated retention drop, but rather Brexit. As uncertainty prevails about the UK’s future deal with Europe, associates are apparently opting to stick around at the firm longer than normal, with the lower than usual attrition resulting in reduced capacity for newly-qualified talent.

Freshfields declined to confirm the retention rate claims, with a spokesperson stating:

Our retention rates across each intake vary. We balance a number of different factors when determining the offers that we make to individuals; our process is ongoing and we are not in a position to confirm retention rates at this stage.

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62 Comments

Anonymous

Retention rates will be down across the City in preparation for 2018, which most likely all senior lawyers are worried about. Sensible.

(21)(1)

Anonymous

God forbid trainees doing printing…

(22)(8)

Counsel at FT100

I’m glad that I chose not to pay multiple £100s per hour for that.

(12)(1)

Anonymous

waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

(8)(2)

Anonymous

65% is a lot better than the approx. 50% when I qualified from uncle Freshies in 2010. To be fair the firm did everything it could to offer positions in offices around the network.

(2)(3)

Anonymous

And presumably those who miss out will be able to get pretty decent NQ spots elsewhere anyway

(8)(8)

Anonymous

Well, not if other firms are experiencing similar difficulties.

(12)(0)

Anonymous

Pfft they will just massage the figures like A&O do.

(5)(0)

Logic

Slave drivers, the lot of them. Shame.

(8)(1)

Counsel at FTSE100

Agreed. I would never instruct a MC firm. For similar reasons I would never own a piano with ivory keys, or purchase a blood diamond.

(26)(3)

Anonymous

I’m just curious to know if that is a principled objection to the business model, or are you worried about the quality of output from sleep-deprived zombies?

(4)(0)

Counsel at FTSE100

Both, but largely the latter. If you can get the same work product from elsewhere that is ethically better then it is an easy choice. And often MC offers less value – higher rates for slower performing and more error-prone zombies. With MC firms you are often just paying for the brand, which holds little value these days in my eyes. It isn’t as if law firms offer the equivalent of a QC stamp on a legal opinion.

(19)(3)

Anonymous

Pretty skeptical of your username, given that any sensible in house counsel would know that the “brand” of a lawfirm very much is the equivalent of a “QC stamp” on a legal opinion – no-one ever got fired for buying IBM, etc…

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Freshfields is a business,securing a TC there does not guarantee you a permanent job.In difficult commercial times they are clearly going to cherry pick the strongest candidates.

(7)(7)

Asmodeus

Insightful

(16)(1)

Long term thinker

It is a pyramid where the partners are sucking everything they can out of these poor trainees. They won’t end up with the strongest candidates, they will end up with the most desperate ones who are willing to bend over out of their deluded dream that it will be as easy to reach partnership as those born 15 years sooner. That isn’t going to land Freshfields with the highest quality partnership material in 10 to 15 years from now, and it isn’t going to do the profession any favours either. For goodness sake you greedy Freshfields partners, do the right thing and give your junior staff some proper PA support and quit your hell bent pursuit to take home an extra £50k each.

(28)(0)

Anonymous

With the culling of up to 20% of the partnership in Germany, I imagine they’re looking to increase their take-home by more than just £50k.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Hello Freshies HR!

(1)(0)

Future Freshfields trainee

As a future trainee, this is worrying 🙁

(11)(2)

Anonymous

You must remember that the US firms in London are taking large slabs of highly paid work from the MC.The US model has fewer associates who work longer hours.These US firms also dominate the lucrative American market where the MC are realative nobodies.

(8)(4)

Anonymous

The American firms still don’t have the breadth or quality of work of the MC though. Sure, if you like drafting everything from scratch with no precedents or knowhow, working 19 hour days every day, and being looked down on for struggling to do senior associate work as a trainee, then the US is a good option. Much as people like to say ‘they’re the same except for pay’, the US firms have a far higher bellend ratio and more boring work.

The MC still utterly dominate on banking clients and FTSE100s, to at least the same extent as the white shoe dominate in New York.

(5)(6)

Anonymous

Not true,most half decent MC finance partners have already been poached by US shops.

(3)(2)

Anonymous

Taking their clients with them!

(2)(3)

Anonymous

Being in a MC firm myself, I think the bit on 19-hour workdays and being looked down on for struggling to do senior associate work as a junior applies to my team as well…

(7)(0)

Anonymous

That’s a shame – it’s not my experience at all but some are worse than others.

(2)(1)

Anonymous

If this comment isn’t written by an MC HR team, then it displays a gobsmacking level of naivety and/or ignorance, particularly as to the la la land implications that (a) working hours are any different between MC and US (the real differentials are between practice areas, not between firms) and (b) that the difference in work-type is sufficient to have any material effect on your life as a trainee/junior associate.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

You’ve got a guaranteed job for two years coming up, and sponsorship through law school. Looks like you have a pretty good existence until at least the end of your TC.

(10)(0)

Future Freshfields trainee

I know I am in a fortunate position and I took FF because I would like to do a seat in one of the specialisms, which would not be as easy in a US firm. All of this uncertainty may have blown over by the time I finish my TC, so maybe it is the intakes before me that will get the worst of it all

(6)(5)

Logic

Quite while you can, you’ll save yourself 4 years. Pick a different career – law sucks. Look at it, idiot lawyers getting bent over by clients by the slave driver partners who are laughing all the way to the bank. There are careers out there where your talent will be far better nurtured.

(9)(1)

Logic

Quit*

(0)(2)

Anonymous

That’s easier said than done. Lots of lawyers would love to change careers, where you aren’t at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. Reality is we have a lack of transferable skills to do the more ‘interesting’ corporate roles, such as M&A/IB (whether in banks or big corporates), general management or business development.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Hardly likely considering the distinct probability of a hard brexit.If anything there will be fewer NQ positions in two years time.

(2)(0)

mid level slave

stay on for a few years, I know it sucks in the short term, but having a MC branding will do you good in the future

(6)(1)

Anonymous

The rot is only just starting,the MC have lost masses of clients to US shops.

(4)(4)

Anonymous

@FF trainee, you are naive and have fallen for MC bullchit. FF like all the MC recruit the vast majority into corporate, banking and finance. Those other departments at FF and in the MC in general are usually loss making, break even or very barely slightly profitable. That is one of the main reasons why US firms are more profitable than MC firms and pay much higher comp. So not only do FF recruit less into other areas, and you will take whatever job they give you at the end, but if you qualify into another department, your future is very uncertain since the MC firms are constantly downsizing them with a mind to eventually even scrap them. Partner prospects are currently also especially very very dim if not impossible in these areas.

(2)(4)

Anonymous

Depends – regulatory and contentious practices can be extremely profitable. I think this post mostly demonstrates that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course partnership is slim. You make senior associate and you go elsewhere within a year or two.

(2)(1)

Anonymous

I’ve been an associate at both of these types of firms and I do know what I’m talking about, thanks. The MC firms are getting out of low margin areas. How many partners at A&O have been made up in generate corporate bonds or global loans in the last 5+ years? Probably zero. If you don’t understand that US firms are much more profitable than MC firms and the major part of that is specialising in high margin areas, you need to stop posting and get back to finishing my bibles. Chop, chop.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Also, as a general rule, the more profitable departments at MC firms, e.g cap markets and corporate, subsidise the less profitable departments e.g. real estate, pensions, employment. And the larger US firms in London have poached much/most of the top talent in the profitable areas from the MC.

(0)(0)

Future Freshfields trainee

Interesting debate. All I said was I wanted to try a seat in a specialist area, and this is because most of my experience to date and part of my degree has been in this area – hence, I am just curious. I know it is likely I will end up in something like Corporate at FF, which sits fine with me.

I have considered other career paths but I really think law will suit me. I have interviewed at top IB and consulting firms and the nature of the work just wasn’t for me in the end (probably an unpopular opinion!). It’s all swings and roundabouts I guess, and it depends on your motivating factors and preferences as to what is best for you individually.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

#lifestory

(2)(1)

Anonymous

I’m the guy above, sorry, was making the point generally about the MC. Wasn’t really trying to take you to task. If you’re open minded about where you qualify, you’ll be fine. I pointed it out because I often see people say “I chose the MC over US firm for the broad range of practice areas”. The points I made above aren’t honestly debatable, it is the case. Doesn’t mean you can’t qualify and have a career e.g. in employment, but being aware of the wider context is smart.

(0)(0)

Anon of 7

Since when did counsel “instruct” solicitors?
What is the obsession with retention?
Why would a trainee or qualified lawyer do admin work?

(0)(5)

Counsel at FTSE100

2012.

(2)(0)

Doc. Ludvig Friedrich Von Lowenstein

Yes, this is fascinating stuff Anon of 7.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Getting lawyers to do admin work is like the pupil who was asked to stand behind his master whilst he used his computer. Every 5 mins the master asked the pupil to move to the left one inch, until the pupil realised he was being used as a sunscreen.

(12)(1)

Anonymous

Retention rates are vital because they highlight the direction firms are moving towards.The MC know if they have any chance of competing with US firms they have to work their staff harder and cut non performers.

(2)(3)

Anonymous

Retention rates are influenced by many factors outside of business models and success. They really should be taken with a pinch of salt unless they are consistently low or high.

(3)(1)

assoc

Freshies is astonishingly traditional and very Oxbridge. The firm has a very clubby atmosphere and squeezes every drop from its junior associates and trainees. Partners are so divorced from reality it’s truly unreal. Even by MC standards Freshies treats its trainees poorly

(9)(2)

Anonymous

They treat everyone outside of the partnership poorly. But they have got to pay for that flash new office they are moving to and continue to excessively line the partners’ pockets somehow.

(6)(1)

Doc. Ludvig Friedrich Von Lowenstein

Many of my patients were lawyers. The most common complaint was of their bosses making them do insane stuff like sun screening and admin work. I’m no lawyer but if an employer hire a trainee solicitor and the job is actually a trainee admin worker or sun-screener, I would have thought that’s a breach of contract.

(1)(3)

Anonymous

It is very simple,your job as a trainee is to work quickly and efficiently for long hours learning very quickly from your mistakes.Your role is to work very hard without complaint to enable the partners to make shed loads of money.Your voice is not important.

(5)(1)

Anon of 7

Retention rates are vital as they high light the direction a firm is going in. Please splaine me?

Of course removing admin support from lawyers , trainees or otherwise will reduce retention rates, as it removes the capacity of the lawyer to conduct remunerative work.
I’m no psychiatrist, but the directors of such firms have psychiatric issues, which they pass on to their junior staff by way of the stress of being ordered to do insane stuff

(1)(1)

Anonymous

The MC model is becoming more American,fewer associates,fewer TCs,and work people harder.Or is
this due to less work?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

As a trainee at another MC, I never do printing unless it’s perhaps five pages here and there to hand to someone for reference. My secretary and the print room do it all and then I check it’s right.

I can’t fathom why FBD would want trainees doing it since clients are going to obviously refuse to pay trainee fees – the entire point of secretaries is to take away all the admin so you can focus on doing actual legal work.

(5)(4)

Anonymouse

Doing insane stuff, looses the firm shed loads of money.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

DO AN ARTICLE ON THE GUARDIANS LATEST UNIVERSITY LAW LEAGUE TABLE!

The comments will be wild!

(4)(3)

Anonymous

Waiting for a Freshfields trainee to start a crowdfunding scheme to help them post-retention drop

#Charity #representation #MagicMeAMagicCircle

(2)(1)

Anonymous

Trainee at another MC firm. My secretary and reprographics do printing. I have absolutely no idea why anyone would think doing printing is a valuable use of trainee time. The firm has paid thousands to get you to the start of a TC, and are paying you a high salary to work every day. Secretaries also get paid every day, precisely to do things like printing. So why you would think a trainee should do that…

(4)(2)

Anonymous

Secretaries work fixed hours. You do not. You can do printing when secretaries are busy. It may not be a “valuable” use of your time but most will not see your time as valuable at all.

(2)(0)

Doc. Ludvig Friedrich Von Lowenstein

Some sane people here

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I once slyly watched a partner attempt to use a photocopier. It was magical the way he tried to conquer the ‘new technology’.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I think it’s more of a case of welcome to the real world!

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.