Trainees take the hire ground

Acculaw’s radical plan to cut law firms’ costs by hiring out trainees is dividing opinion in the recruitment sector, says Husnara Begum

Analysis

The number of graduates recruited by City law firms could be reduced dramatically following the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) decision to back a revolutionary training model for aspiring solicitors.

Under the model, which was ­exclusively revealed by Lawyer 2B’s sister title The Lawyer recently (19 September), Acculaw will recruit its own trainees from postgraduate law schools and then second them to firms on an ad hoc basis, meaning the ­number of training contracts firms offer can be scaled back. For example, a firm that hires around 60 trainees per year can cut that down to 40 and then turn to Acculaw for additional resource as and when it needs to.

Although the programme has been received with a lot of scepticism by a number of law firm graduate ­recruitment teams Acculaw, a for-profit organisation, has already signed up Olswang for a pilot project. The move follows the firm cancelling its 2013 graduate recruitment scheme and the deferral of its 2013 trainee intake earlier this year.

Acculaw trainees will spend at least three months with each firm and be seconded to a maximum of three firms or in-house legal ­departments. However, it remains unclear what will happen to them at the end of their training contracts because, unlike a law firm, Acculaw will not be in a position to offer them newly qualified (NQ) roles. This could move the bottleneck further along the food chain.

As one recently qualified solicitor put it, “Even with a merit award, scholarships and strong work ­experience at leading US law firms, it’s not smooth sailing to find NQ ­litigation roles in London.

“Therefore, I have difficulty in ­trying to be optimistic about [the] Acculaw [plan]. Much as it would be great to have many more capable graduates securing training contracts, all Acculaw would do is to move the bottleneck from graduate to NQ level.”

What is more, the quality of work handled by the trainees may be lower than that being done by their law firm counterparts. Indeed, it is questionable whether a firm will treat such individuals as anything more than glorified paralegals, who are typically deployed on mundane tasks such as due diligence and disclosure.

Acculaw claims the scheme will help firms cut the upfront costs ­associated with offering training ­contracts to students while they are still at ­university. Such overheads include graduate recruitment ­marketing activities and Legal ­Practice Course  (LPC) sponsorship. It is estimated that it costs a firm approximately £175,000 to recruit and train one graduate.

“Our model was developed to reduce volatility in the number of qualified lawyers available in the ­market,” says Susan Cooper, founder and CEO of Acculaw. “The traditional model is costly, inflexible and ­inefficient. We want to ensure that capable, talented graduates receive better opportunities to enter the legal profession by making training more attractive and commercially viable to firms and in-house legal departments.

“Training contract numbers have dropped by 23 per cent since July 2008. Legal process outsourcing threatens to reduce that number ­further. The number of lawyers ­available in the market should be ­governed by the supply and demand of legal services, not the temporary effects of recession or the lure of short-term gains from outsourcing work to low-cost jurisdictions.”

But CMS Cameron McKenna graduate recruitment partner Simon Pilcher argues that the scheme is unlikely to appeal to medium-sized  and larger City firms, and highlights quality control as a key problem with Cooper’s plan.

Pilcher claims: “It doesn’t seem like the most logical way for us to recruit trainees, because we ­deliberately spend a lot of time on selecting candidates.

“The other issue is the quality of candidates that Acculaw is able to deliver to firms, because this looks like a last resort option for students who haven’t been able to secure a training contract in the traditional way.”

However, Pilcher admits that Acculaw’s offering may appeal to a smaller law firm or in-house legal department that simply does not have access to a large recruitment budget.

Indeed, Sonica Dahri, who completed her training contract with NEC Group, welcomes the development. “I think this is a good idea,” Dahri says. “As trainees we’re all ­hungry and like sponges essentially, so any trainee who has the option to work in different law firms and in-house departments should jump at the chance. To make contacts at those places is a great opportunity.”

Trainees recruited by Acculaw should expect to receive salaries in excess of £20,000. Although this is above the minimum set by the Law Society it is still significantly lower than typical City salaries for trainees, which start at £30,000. Meanwhile, a paralegal employed by a leading City firm could earn up to £24,000.