Retention round-up 2013

The training contract might be sorted, but what are the odds for keeping your job once qualified?

Securing a training contract is only the beginning. Then comes two years of hard work, with a possible sting in the tail at the end – even though you will be a fully-qualified solicitor, the firm has no obligation to keep you on.

Fortunately, retention rates of newly-qualified (NQ) solicitors are generally quite good. Firms spend a lot of money on trainees in course fees, salaries and recruitment campaigns, and every one that leaves at the end of their training contract represents a big waste of money.

Nevertheless, it is a rare firm that will manage to cling on to every single one of its qualifying trainees. Many different factors come into play: some trainees cannot secure a job in their preferred department and leave to find a firm that can accommodate them. Others decide the law is not for them after all, and leave to pursue another career. And there’s no accounting for the vagaries of the human heart: every year there will be trainees who relocate to another city or country after qualification to be with a loved one.

It is not always the trainee’s decision to leave, of course. Sadly, some are let go because they haven’t made the grade. And sometimes, the firm will have over-hired and simply does not have enough work to go round. When this is the case, the retention rate can often fall dramatically. In the early days of the recession, NQ retention across the country dropped as trainees who were hired in times of plenty qualified in times of dearth. 

Generally speaking, though, each year about 80 per cent of NQs stay on at the firm that trained them. If you discover that a firm’s retention rate is significantly below that 80 per cent, there is probably a good reason for it.

However, it is not a good idea to take retention figures in isolation. Looking at trends over a period of years is a much better indication of how likely a firm is to keep on its trainees. Some firms are known for doing very well year after year, while others continually post below-average results.

This year’s retention

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A handful of firms recorded 100 per cent retention in autumn 2013. Their success is certainly to be lauded, but bear in mind that firms that manage a perfect retention score usually have smaller intakes and so have an advantage over firms that recruit scores of trainees. 

Holman Fenwick Willan is the most impressive of this year’s ‘100 per cent club’ – it managed to keep hold of all 15 of its qualifiers.

Of the largest recruiters – those with more than 30 qualifying trainees – Clyde & Co led the pack, keeping all but one of its 37 qualifiers. Slaughter and May came close behind, retaining 45 out of 51, or 88 per cent. Slaughters is a good example of a firm that has posted consistently high retention results over many years, so trainees there can feel quietly confident they will be kept on after qualification.

Just behind Slaughters are Linklaters and Pinsent Masons – both examples of how a firm’s fortunes can change from year to year. Linklaters kept on 47 of 54 qualifiers (87 per cent) this autumn, a 9 per cent increase on 2012, while Pinsent Masons’ improvement was even more dramatic. It kept on 57 of its 68 qualifiers (84 per cent), 11 per cent up on 2012.

At the other end of the scale is DWF. Of the firms with more than 30 qualifiers, it performed the worst, with a retention rate of only 70 per cent. Yet it has historically recorded strong retention, including a perfect 100 per cent in both 2009 and 2011. So what’s changed? Mergers. DWF has grown rapidly in the past two years, acquiring Newcastle’s Crutes, Birmingham’s Buller Jeffries and much of the failed national firm Cobbetts. It also took on all the trainees at those firms, resulting in a huge increase in the number of qualifiers this year. When DWF kept on 100 per cent of its trainee group in 2011, it only had 16 to accommodate. In 2013, it had to find space for 46, and in the end could only manage to keep 32.

At the bottom of the league is US firm Orrick, which did not keep any of its five qualifiers. Orrick is a victim of the fact that firms recruit so far in advance: calculating how many NQs will be needed in four years’ time is a challenge for graduate recruitment teams. Orrick miscalculated: anticipating it would double in size in London, it ramped up its trainee numbers just before the recession. But the firm will hire fewer in future, so its retention rate should improve again. 

This year’s qualifiers at Orrick and DWF could not have known that their chances of retention would be dealt a blow by factors beyond their control. It shows that past retention figures should be viewed with caution, as you never know what future shocks may befall firms.

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