Editor’s weekly: Annus horribilis for trainees

The past year has been one of the toughest seen by lawyers. With deals drying up and firms being forced to lay-off under utilised associates it was only going to be a matter of time before the recession caught up with the graduate recruitment market.

The early casualties were future joiners with many being asked to delay their training contract start dates. The first to announce trainee deferrals were Newcastle’s Muckle and Ward Hadaway way back in December 2008.

But that list grew rapidly to around 40 during the first six months of 2009 after Norton Rose announced it was offering its future trainees who agreed to defer for either four or eight months a lump sum payment of up to £10,000. But the money did come with some strings attached as the trainees were encouraged to do something for the good of the community.

Thankfully, most of the deferrals were voluntary but some firms such as Lovells, Reed Smith and Field Fisher Waterhouse made theirs compulsory after insufficient volunteers came forward. Shoosmiths also made its deferral programme compulsory. But more shockingly, it also asked future joiners to withdraw their training contracts altogether, with no compensation (read article).

Unsurprisingly, when the Shoosmiths story broke Lawyer2B.com’s message board was inundated with users slamming the national firm for being such a scrooge. But two of the trainees, Tom Goff and George Roberts, who were affected by the move leapt to their future firm’s defence by penning an open letter to Lawyer2B.com. “In spite of the bad news, we are committed to our firm, and are resolved to rise to the challenge in these tough times together,” they wrote (read more).

Unfortunately, for the duo the letter didn’t have the impact they’d been hoping for with many Lawyer2B.com posters claiming they were just trying to score Brownie points. But whatever their motives Goff and Roberts may have had a point – looking back on the terrible year the legal market has had £10,000 does seem a tad generous.

As the deferrals gathered pace some firms were also forced to scale back their graduate recruitment programmes. As a result a number of summer vacation schemes were cancelled as firms decided to stop accepting training contract applications over the summer. The good news, however, is that the bloodbath that was predicted with would-be investment bankers snatching training contracts off law graduates who had dreamed of a career in law all their lives did not materialise. Indeed, most firms reported receiving a similar number of applications as in previous years with some even seeing a dip. Nobody really has an explanation for this other than that students are so worried about securing a graduate job that they’re just burying their heads in the sand. Or perhaps students took heed of the Law Society’s warning about the oversupply of law students (read article).

But students cannot stay away forever so although conditions in the recruitment market are beginning to stabilise the worry now is that the training contract time bomb might just explode next year instead (read article).

Merry Christmas.


PS – this is my last newsletter of 2009 so look out for my next installment on 7 January.