Law: Definite articles are so hard to find: The big firms are being more cautious - or realistic - about the number of trainees they recruit and retain, warns Sharon Wallach

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The Independent Online
COMPETITION for work is still intense among young lawyers, according to Simon Lipson, of the London recruitment consultants Lipson Lloyd Jones. 'Firms are stuck with the high numbers of trainees they took on when they were recruiting heavily three or four years ago,' he says. The result is that not all articled clerks are offered jobs after qualification and there is 'a large body of exceptionally highly qualified young solicitors' looking for work.

Firms are now more cautious - or more realistic - in their predictions of future needs. Freshfields, in the City of London, expects to take on about 65 new trainees, 10 down on last year. According to Guy Whalley, the partner responsible for trainee recruitment, the reason for the drop is that the growth of the Eighties cannot be sustained in the Nineties. 'It is better, if anything, to under-provide,' Mr Whalley says. 'And we don't want to fill all our qualified places from the home-grown product, without a leavening of people trained elsewhere.'

More than 90 per cent of the firm's March qualifiers were kept on as assistants; for next month's qualifiers, the figure will be around 80 per cent. 'Normally we would expect to keep them all,' Mr Whalley says. 'But there have been one or two casualties this time, people who for one reason or another have not quite made it.'

Freshfields receives 'thousands rather than hundreds' of applications. More and more of them, Mr Whalley says, come from non-law graduates. Some of these, he believes, are people who a couple of years ago might have been won over to accountancy or the City. 'Maybe they think law is a safer bet these days.'

In common with many colleagues, Mr Whalley believes that a background other than law is not a bad thing. 'A number of non-law disciplines turn out very good lawyers, and they provide variety. I am dead against pulling in a lot of clones of people who are already here; it would be wrong for the culture of the firm.'

About a quarter of Lovell White Durrant's new trainees - three or four down on last year - will have a non-law background, according to John Trotter, the partner responsible for trainees. Over the past four years an average of 80 per cent of the City firm's trainees have stayed on after qualification. 'It is our aim when recruiting that all will stay on, partly because we have invested a lot of money in their training,' Mr Trotter says. 'Sadly, some don't live up to expectations, and the trend in business necessarily affects the market.'

The Manchester-based firm Pannone March Pearson is considering taking on seven or eight trainees in 1994. 'Many of our departments - personal injury, commercial litigation, for instance - are still very busy, and there is a solid requirement for new blood,' says Sue Nickson, a partner. The firm's retention rate is 75 to 80 per cent. 'It depends on accommodating the individual in the department in which he or she wants to work. But in fact the majority of our partners grew up through the firm, myself included.'

Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, a medium-sized commercial City practice, plans to take eight new trainees in 1994. Nigel Bamping, a partner, says this is relatively low because 'we are not a trainee solicitor sausage machine and we want to give the best training'.

After an initial weed-out by his firm's personnel department, Mr Bamping had to search through more than 200 applications - many from people established in other careers, including an ophthalmologist, an Army officer and a former insurance company director. 'It is important to look beyond the obvious products of law school,' he says.

Virginia Glastonbury, a partner at Denton Hall Burgin & Warrens, of London, agrees. A history graduate herself, she is a firm believer in variety of experience. 'The nice thing about law is that in the long term it is not a narrowing choice - you can stay in private practice or not and there are so many fields in which to work.'

Denton Hall reports a steady increase in trainee numbers over the past couple of years, in direct proportion to the growth of new areas of work in the firm - energy, privatisation and environmental law, for example.

However, the firm operates a policy of recruiting in slightly lower numbers than other practices of comparable size. This, Mrs Glastonbury says, is so that 'we can be absolutely sure that the trainees are getting the right training and that we are getting it right when it comes to qualification. It's crazy to get people used to you and then not keep them on.'

Another reason for getting it right is that trainees are a major financial burden on the larger firms which sponsor them through their professional training. Matthew Moore, who is responsible for marketing at Pannone March Pearson, voices a widely held concern: 'The time four or five years ago when firms began funding recruits through their finals and Common Professional Examination courses coincided with local authorities beginning to cut back on grants. There is a perception that as a result, we will finish up with a profession peopled only by those who can afford to finish their professional training. It's a worrying situation.'

So, too, is the disparity between the numbers of potential trainees and articles on offer. The Law Society's recruitment service has more than 1,000 people looking for articles on its books, with registered vacancies only in single figures. 'Obviously, there are jobs and people we don't know about, but it is a reasonably accurate reflection of the market,' says Jenny Goddard, head of the service.

Last year, the College of Law reported that more than a third of its intake for the finals course did not have articles arranged. In some cases, it was not a matter of choice - the students were unable to find jobs. 'But it can be to do with the nature of the firm the student wants to join,' Ms Goddard says. 'The small firms don't operate by recruiting in advance, and many are cutting back. Also, unfortunately, some people are told to concentrate on getting their degrees and forget about finding jobs until later. That is not good advice.'

(Photograph omitted)