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Junior Lawyers Division

Acculaw's new training contract recruitment model - innovative or short sighted?

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Grace Cowling, a member of the JLD executive, reviews the Acculaw trainee recruitment model and assesses the implications for junior lawyers and the profession.

Acculaw launched its new training contract recruitment model this month (September 2011), which is now supported by Olswang, and already it has been a hot topic in the legal press with students, trainees and qualified solicitors among the many to put forward their points of view for and against this highly controversial initiative. As a result Acculaw has been defending itself on the Lawyer website.

Who are Acculaw?

Acculaw is a profit making organisation and at the time of print it was hard to glean what type of company they are as there were some errors with its website (www.acculaw.co.uk). On the face of it however they appear to be a recruitment company as there are options on their website for paralegals and training contract candidates to sign up.

So who exactly are they and what are they trying to do?

For law firms it is marketed as a scheme to ‘minimise the risk, uncertainty and headache of sourcing trainees, leaving [firms] in the comfortable position of knowing [they] have access to a pool of trainees as and when [they] need them’. It is also marketed as a cut price method of recruiting for firms as Acculaw claim that training a trainee costs on average £175,000.

Acculaw claim they will ‘approach the market in search of the best, most promising graduates whom [they] are confident will match [firms’] trainee requirements. [Acculaw] then prepare them through an induction process ensuring that they are able to ‘hit the ground running’ when they first come to work for [firms]’. On qualification Acculaw states that they will approach firms to determine whether a firm is interested in employing any of the trainees who have been seconded with that firm.

For graduates it is marketed as ‘a truly unique training contract, working for more than one firm throughout [their] training contract, a fresh approach to trainee management’. The Acculaw training contract’s point of appeal is the immediate start ‘or within a year at most’. Acculaw claim it is not an easier route, but will not be put off by some of the more typical reasons why a candidate has been unsuccessful in the past (although they don’t expand on this).

How will it work?

If candidates are successful in securing a training contract offer they will be seconded out to ‘organisations’. The number of ‘organisations’ will range from one to three. Secondments will be for a minimum of three months. Once a trainee is seconded to an organisation, that organisation is committed to training and treating the trainee in exactly the same way as it treats its own trainees. Acculaw will monitor the training and each trainee will have monthly meetings with Acculaw’s training principal. Trainees will be paid a salary by Acculaw, not the law firm. Salaries are expected to be in excess of £20,000.

We are taught during our legal studies to consider both sides of the story but my initial instincts on this new training contract are that it is, at best, a short-sighted, short term remedy to the recession and yet another example of firms declining to invest in the future. It is a quick and easy way for firms to save money at the expense of junior lawyers and the future of the profession. It is interesting to see that it is the magic circle firms that are keenest to support this scheme.

Before I launch into a tirade against the scheme it is worth setting out the points that have been put forward in its favour.

The pros for junior lawyers

The plus points for junior lawyers are that it allows experience at more than one organisation, shows that a trainee is flexible, recruitment is quick and LPC students/graduates are targeted.

When responding to comments made to the Lawyer’s article Susan Cooper of Acculaw stated that ‘secondments will give [trainees] far greater opportunities to show potential employers what they are capable of rather than a one or two day interview process.’ She also comments that ‘[firms] need to make the same day-to-day training investment for Acculaw trainees and therefore it would not be commercially sensible for a firm not to consider an Acculaw trainee for a permanent position provided that trainee had demonstrated all the necessary skills, attitude and personality that a particular firm is after.’

Susan Cooper describes the rationale behind the scheme as making training more attractive to firms to avoid outsourcing rather than recruiting trainees.

‘With regards to social mobility Susan Cooper claims that the Acculaw scheme is designed to increase social mobility. The model aims to help those who perhaps haven’t had as much guidance in corporate life or lack the initial confidence because they are not fully aware of what is expected of them.’

The cons for junior lawyers

Unfortunately in my view there are a greater number of cons in relation to the Acculaw training contract. Trainees are supposed to he an investment in a firm’s future. Poor training/lack of investment could cost law firms more in the long run. If firms are not overseeing the training themselves how can they be sure it is up to scratch? How will the quality and consistency of the training be secured? A trainee should be viewed from the outset as a potential future partner.

The movement of trainees between firms in the Acculaw training contract is a step backwards for law firms. All too often in larger firms trainees are treated as a class of people and not recognised as individuals. Movement between firms will only intensify this and result in a lack of brand recognition for firms. How can trainees reflect/represent a firm when the firm doesn’t choose them? Movement could inhibit the ability of the trainee to create client relationships as well as relationships with other solicitors within a firm. The short term need for help in a department can easily be filled by a temporary paralegal position which is low cost to a firm and often involves low value, menial tasks which do not require much supervision. How can this type of ‘ah hoc’ work be said to ‘train’ someone?

In relation to the seats a trainee undertakes, will there be any choice if the positions are on an ‘ad hoc’ basis? There is usually some element of choice with seats in the traditional training contract. Another consideration is the effect this could have on the future legal market. Could this ‘ad hoc’ system push generations of solicitors into qualifying into one area, one which was particularly busy over the period of their training? If seat choice is reduced/nonexistent trainees may have little or no choice about which area to qualify into. This would exacerbate the current situation where there is an abundance of solicitors qualifying into certain practice areas as a result of the recession. Later down the line there may be very few solicitors of a certain PQE in some practice areas. One recent example is commercial property. But, those who genuinely enjoyed their commercial property seat over the recession and opted to qualify into that area (even though there has been a lack of work and jobs) are likely to be first to make partner at their PQE level due to a lack of competing peers. This happened after the last recession.

Although the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is backing this scheme there are some practicalities which need to be addressed from an education and training perspective. How will Acculaw, as training principal, be able to sign off its trainees? Surely without oversight of the process they will be unable to do this? Furthermore, what happens when Acculaw cannot find a placement for a trainee because there isn’t an ‘ad hoc’ need for them? This means that training contracts could potentially take over two years to complete with some enforced breaks in between seats/secondments.

One person has commented on the Lawyer article that this structure will remove key incentives for trainees. If a trainee knows they are only at a firm for a fixed period, sometimes as little as three months, it reduces the incentive to work hard and develop relationships. Even if the trainee isn’t of this frame of mind a three month secondment is not enough to effectively prove worth and develop relationships. In contrast, members of the law firm using the Acculaw trainee may be less inclined to ‘get to know’ or invest time in that trainee if they are only there for a temporary, perhaps very short period.

What happens on qualification? Susan Cooper of Acculaw states that they will be in the same position as trainees now - no promise of a job on qualification. However, firms are under pressure when it comes to retention rates and a certain number of trainees are usually offered a qualification job. Firms get to know trainees over two years so it is an easier decision for the firm when it comes to qualification, reduces risk of unsuitable NQs. Furthermore trainees usually know early on the prospects of being retained based on whether a certain department is hiring or how many trainees are interested in the same practice area. It is important to consider what the chances are of qualifying into a firm/practice area if only three months has been spent there and a trainee hasn’t set foot in that firm for perhaps 21 months?

It is unclear where Acculaw’s average figure of £175k to train a trainee has come from. Furthermore the assertion that the traditional training contract is ‘costly, inflexible and ineffective’ has not been supported. If firms want their trainees to undertake secondments outside of the firm then surely they should look into providing this themselves and having more say in where the trainee goes rather than leaving it up to a recruiter and the “ad hoc” need for a trainee somewhere else. In any event, trainees often pay for themselves and if not, it is up to a firm how much non-chargeable work they give to trainees.

The Acculaw method will undoubtedly create a two tier system of solicitors; those who qualified the Acculaw way and those who qualified the traditional way. This will create a split in the market between those firms seeking to employ NQs from one route over another with a great chance of the traditional level being favoured leaving the Acculaw qualifiers in a difficult position. There is also the City (London) v regions divide to consider. This gap will widen if Acculaw only target magic circle or ‘City firms’. There will be a larger split between ‘London solicitors’ and ‘regional solicitors’. This is exacerbated where a firm chooses to use some Acculaw trainees and some they have recruited themselves. At this point I feel sorry for the lone Olswang Acculaw trainee.

And finally there is the ever present issue of social mobility. I find it hard to see how the Acculaw training contract increases social mobility. Those who have less money and therefore are more desperate for a job are more likely to be pushed down the Acculaw route. These are the people who will have less choice in what they can wait for as in terms of training contracts while the debt increases, especially with the lack of funding at the moment. The salary is lower compared to those trainees recruited by City firms directly and there is no LPC funding which is a disadvantage to those who have had to take out large loans for their studies.

If you wish to comment about anything in this article please email the JLD at juniorlawyers@lawsociety.org.uk

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Your Junior Lawyers Division is dedicated to meeting the needs of all LPC students, LPC graduates (including those working as paralegals), trainee solicitors, and solicitors with up to five years post qualification experience.

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