Law: Letting the trainee take the strain A professional breach of contract: Neasa MacErlean on firms accused of breach of contract for withdrawing offers of articles

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The Independent Online
ONE MEASURE of the depth of the recession has been turmoil in the legal profession over the recruitment of trainee solicitors.

Law firms are being accused of breach of contract for withdrawing their offers of employment to trainees. In most circumstances the jilted trainees are too anxious or too poor to put up a fight. But at the end of last year, the High Court, sitting in Stafford, awarded damages against a Shrewsbury firm for withdrawing its offer of articles to a prospective trainee, Bruce Drummond.

Later this year the firm, Wace Morgan, and Mr Drummond are expected to meet up again - this time in the Court of Appeal, where Wace Morgan will argue that the level of damages should be reduced.

Mr Drummond is one of an estimated few hundred would-be trainees who have had their offers of articles withdrawn or deferred. He was due to begin working at the firm in September 1991, but the firm cancelled the arrangement. Mr Drummond subsequently decided to train as a barrister but sued Wace Morgan as 'a point of principle' and for the extra costs that he had incurred through the firm's decision. His lawyers, Grindeys of Stoke on Trent, are also handling an action for a woman whose offer of articles was withdrawn two weeks before she was due to start in February.

The Law Society is getting a steady stream of inquiries - at the rate of four a month - from students whose articles have been deferred or withdrawn. Law firms are also telephoning in - at the rate of two a month - to ask if they will be disciplined if they revoke their offers.

The answer must be reassuring for them: the Law Society will not discipline its members who break their contracts with prospective trainees. 'It doesn't breach any of our professional conduct rules,' says a Law Society spokeswoman. 'What really upsets the trainees is the manner in which the firms handle this. If they send a nice letter and explain it properly, students are able to take it much better.'

The Trainee Solicitors Group (TSG), however, is angry. John Balsden, its chairman, says: 'It's not professional practice for a firm to withdraw from an employment contract without offering compensation: it's deplorable. And it's not a good PR exercise for the profession, although it does get hushed up very quickly because the firms don't want adverse publicity.'

Mr Balsden is calling on the Law Society to introduce a statement of practice for firms who take trainees. If firms have problems, he says, they should inform their prospective employees as soon as possible.

'I'm worried that after so many cases this kind of behaviour is becoming acceptable,' he says. 'We know that many firms are having a difficult time. What we want is an infrastructure of help and compromise.'

Over the last two years, the Law Society has logged 110 calls concerning deferrals and withdrawals from distressed students. The TSG believes that there are many others who do not pick up the telephone. Summer is the peak time for firms to make the volte-face, often the worst possible timing for the students. Some receive a letter cancelling their articles just a few days before they sit their final exams in July.

Some of those concerned believe that the Law Society has been notable only for the feebleness of its response. Two years ago, it issued a statement reminding firms that training contracts were legally binding and should be varied only by agreement with the other party.

Since then the incidence of breach of contract has increased and there is fresh talk that something needs to be done. One possibility is forbidding firms who breach contracts without suitable compensation from taking on trainees for a period of years.

Some firms, however, are taking a more positive approach to their own problems. D J Freeman, for example, has become one of the best communicators in the business since it felt obliged to defer the articles of its whole autumn intake - 21 trainees - in 1991. The students were given financial assistance for travel or study during the period of deferment.

The firm is one of the few that reveals its turnover figures to staff. The senior partner lunches with the trainees once a month - something many firms would regard as revolutionary. This year the firm will move from 'two-year recruitment' to the practice of recruiting only one year in advance. 'Hopefully this approach means that we will never have to go through that ever again,' says a spokeswoman.

With hindsight, many firms have been able to see that they were recruiting for a downturn in a boom, and as a consequence, over-recruited. Turner Kenneth Brown is another City firm that has had to defer about a dozen of its offers.

The firm has given grants to those students - sometimes amounting to more than pounds 5,000 - to assist them in travelling or studying. 'It is actually quite beneficial in some ways,' says recruitment partner David Harris. 'The end result is that you have a maturer person and somebody with greater experience of the world.'