Firms braced for new twist on an age-old discrimination issue

New age discrimination laws will impact on the legal market, says Joanne Harris

FIRMS across the country are changing the way they recruit lawyers in an effort to comply with new age discrimination laws, which came into effect on 1 October.

Among the changes, Clifford Chance and Simmons & Simmons are emphasising experience and skills in their job advertisements instead of asking for associates with set
PQE levels.

Clifford Chance will now advertise vacancies by asking only for a minimum qualification level, while Simmons is looking at replacing PQE with a skills-based framework.

Simmons graduate recruitment manager Vickie Chamberlain said: “We’re in the process of putting in place a competency framework which will overtake the whole reference to PQE.”

Other firms are also examining ways of better defining skills when they advertise vacancies in order to take the emphasis off the length of time for which a solicitor has been qualified.

Lovells HR director Kay Willis told Lawyer 2B: “The law is designed to be age neutral. The challenge that we have is that it’s designed to protect older and younger people.”

All employers in the UK are affected by the new legislation, which is designed to removeall direct and indirect discrimination based on age, as well as harassment and victimisation. The law has introduced a default retirement age of 65, and also allows workers to request that their employment continues beyond this age.

Employers are not able to use age as a recruitment policy. This means that they cannot automatically disregard a younger candidate for a managerial role, for example, or throw out an older person’s application if the job is a physical one.

Many companies, including law firms, have already decided to ditch the requirement for dates of birth on application forms. Deborah Dalgleish, head of graduate recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, said that from 1 November, all application forms at the magic circle firm will ask for the day and month of birth only, in order to distinguish between two people with similar names.

Herbert Smith got rid of the date of birth requirement two years ago. HR head John Lucy commented: “Date of birth is neither here nor there to us. We’re just conscious that you don’t want to be creating a position where you could be seen as using some of the data to discriminate.”

Dalgleish said that Freshfields will ask for dates of birth only on the diversity monitoring section of an application, which is not shown to the recruitment panel. The firm is renaming its graduate recruitment department ‘trainee solicitor recruitment’ to avoid any ageist connections with the term ‘graduate’.

In a similar move, Simmons will refer to ‘candidates’ instead of ‘students’ and will use the term ‘interns’ for vacation scheme students. The firm has been planning schemes to encourage potential lawyers who are embarking on a second degree or second career to cometo the firm.

Chamberlain said: “A lot of people applying for training contracts don’t fit the usual description of ‘student’.”

Meanwhile, firms have also been reviewing policies for more senior staff and lawyers, including whether lockstep is still permissible.

Allen & Overy partner Richard Turnor, who has been advising firms on how to comply with the legislation, said: “In order to justify lockstep, you have to have thought through how the lockstep meets or doesn’t meet business needs.”

Eversheds is one firm that is revamping the way it pays partners. From May 2007 the firm will be remunerating its equity partners solely on performance, with no element of seniority.

Many firms have been extending the element of performance in their salaries for assistants too. Norton Rose recently slashed the number of billable hours needed for its assistants to qualify for a bonus down to just 1,400 hours of work plus 100 hours of ‘knowledge management’.

The worry that both law firms and companies have is that failure to comply with the legislation in all its detail could lead to hundreds of expensivediscrimination claims.

However, it is likely that it will take several years for the first cases to reach court religious discrimination laws were brought in 2003 and the first case has only just been decided.