The trainee rumour mill is in full swing at the moment, with law firms’ deferral programmes causing most consternation.

This month Linklaters became the first magic circle firm to offer its trainees the chance of a year off – a move which many believe will see the floodgates open on similar programmes across the City. That is, if firms haven’t already instituted cutbacks by more circuitous routes.

‘Career breaks’ are believed to be the latest ‘opportunity’ on offer to newly-qualified assistants by firms bent on managing out an unwanted surplus. Nevertheless, Linklaters’ future trainees were jumping at the chance of postponing the start of a life in the law because they were getting a half-year salary – 14,250 – for the privilege. A far cry from those at KLegal, some of whom threatened legal action after being offered a measly 2,500 in the firm’s second round of deferrals. The firm is currently in negotiations with its trainees seeking to agree an improved package.
However, despite a GTI graduate recruitment trends survey finding that the number of vacation placements has also dropped, from an average of 42 in 2001 to 34 last
year, the number of training contracts remains constant, averaging out at 28 per firm.

The economic climate is also biting at the newly-qualified level, with a number of firms proving more than a little evasive about supplying their latest retention rates. Not as evasive, however, as when it comes to women partners. While all firms are happy to shout about the record numbers of women entering the profession, several top 10 firms (Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Lovells and Norton Rose – shame on you) are less than willing to disclose the ratio between men and women in the equity partnership. This despite the fact that, as Jennifer Currie discovers in her feature on page 12, the lack of female equity partners in the legal profession often has very little to do with discrimination and everything to do with the fact that they simply don’t want it.

The market continues to be tough, particularly for corporate work, but don’t be put off. Firms have laid off trainees before and had their fingers burnt. They have vowed not to make the same mistakes again.