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

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By Thomas Connelly on

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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