They should look to the past before making decisions on trainees’ futures, writes an anonymous trainee solicitor-to-be
In light of the current pandemic, and reduced workloads, many law firms are considering deferring training contract start dates.
Whilst this is an unprecedented situation; this is not an unprecedented consideration. Law firms have had to consider deferring trainees during the financial crisis and mergers.
This is an open letter to these firms on what they can learn from the financial crash, mergers and other players within the legal world, during this difficult time.
The 2008 financial crisis
In 2008, a number of law firms offered their incoming trainees cash incentives to defer their training contracts for a year. It has been reported that some firms paid future joiners up to £10,000. This resulted in graduate recruitment further down the line effectively being frozen. Whilst this was beneficial at the time, due to the slower market, it subsequently resulted in firms being top heavy. Making them cost inefficient, due to their experience-based billing structure. For firms to mitigate this, they should carefully consider deferring training contracts this time around.
Law firms should also look at their retrospective conduct. There is a stark contrast between how firms treated their future joiners just over a decade ago, to now. Previously firms would reimburse trainees for Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) fees, if the qualifications were gained prior to accepting the training contract.
It is now unclear if firms who have, or are considering, deferring training contracts will offer future trainees a grant during this period. This puts future joiners in a precarious position. These individuals may have already relied upon their training contract start dates (i.e. entering into long tenancies) and need to be supported during this period. It is not enough for partners to email links to employee assistance programmes, when these individuals are at risk of falling below the poverty line.
To minimise this, law firms should provide sufficient grants to future joiners if their training contract is going to be deferred. The tactic of providing sufficient grants for deferrals was not only utilised during the crash, but also during the merger of Nabarro, Olswang and CMS. CMS offered £10,000 to future joiners to defer, voluntarily. Law firms should not exploit the bargaining power they have by not offering future joiners a grant to defer, instead they should consider reimbursing them for this time.
Elsewhere in the legal industry
The legal sector is traditionally risk averse. Cultivating innovation in this industry is difficult, never mind in the middle of a global pandemic. This period presents an unprecedented opportunity for development. If law firms are considering deferring trainees, they should consider utilising this time to educate their next generation of joiners on embracing disruptive legal services and technology.
The best response to this challenge requires innovative and collaborative thinking. We have witnessed the Solicitors Regulation Authority achieve this through the relaxation of LPC exam rules in response to the lockdown — it is now time for law firms to do the same.
Worried rookie is a future trainee solicitor.