In this article Paul Gilbert, Chief Executive of LBC Wise Counsel, explores the opportunity for in-house teams to recruit and manage trainee solicitors as part of the mix of resources within the in-house team.
In 1999 I was General Counsel for the mortgage lender Cheltenham & Gloucester (C&G). We had a reasonably big team of about twenty lawyers. However we wanted to recruit one or two more lawyers to cope with the expansion of the business and the legal work that was being created as a result. We went to the market through traditional means, but we were disappointed not to find candidates who “got” the in-house role or who were affordable.
Then one of my team mentioned that in the business elsewhere they were aware of two LPC graduates who were in non legal roles because they had not been able to secure training contracts. The idea to offer one of them a training contact quickly developed. We cleared the regulatory hurdles (which are modest and reasonable) and invited both of them to apply for one newly created trainee post.
So impressive were they that we in fact offered them both a role. The initiative proved to be a great success and both have gone on to have wonderful in-house careers. These are the key advantages of what we did way back over fifteen years ago. I believe these advantages are even more relevant today.
- There are minimal recruitment costs because there are no agent/head-hunter fees that can add tens of thousands of pounds to a process. These costs – sometimes 20-40% of the final salary package are a very significant burden on hard-pressed budgets. It doesn’t feel sustainable on this basis, but for now is often a disincentive to recruit at all.
- The hiring risk is better managed. In other words the risk that despite all good intentions and rigorous process, in the end the new lawyer is not able to make their contribution in a way that the employer and lawyer hoped. The training contract obviously has a fixed term and it is therefore more straightforward to manage expectations that the arrangement is for the training contract only and with no commitment beyond it.
- For the same reason career management is much less contentious at least for these first two years. Most in-house teams have flat structures and promotion opportunities are often limited. If a three years PQE lawyer is recruited, then at 5 years PQE they will have a decision to make about whether their next move is imminent. Losing talent at this level is predictable but still very disruptive. I am not comparing a trainee with a 5 years PQE lawyer, but I do feel that disruption costs are rarely quantified and yet are always significant. Some recalibration of the profile of the in-house team can take some stress out of the system at least.
- There is always a body of lower risk legal work in every team. It is enormously helpful to have the opportunity to manage this work with a resource that will relish the activity. It is ideal work for trainees and will be a relief to the whole team.
- There is a wonderful opportunity to mentor new talent, to shape the skills to your needs and to encourage the in-house mindset at the earliest stage in a legal career. Developing these softer skills has an advantage for more senior lawyers as well. I look back at my time at C&G with some fondness. We did many great things, worked on lots of interesting projects in a fast-paced and appreciative business, but the fondest memories are of offering two great colleagues their training contracts and then seeing them make such a fantastic contribution.
- Typically at least one seat in a training contract will need to be served in a law firm (because the breadth of work is not available in the in-house team – for example litigation). We found that we could easily “swap” trainees with a law firm on our panel. They would take ours for six months and we would second one of theirs to us. We also encouraged our trainees to network with trainees in our panel firms and it was again easy to set up reciprocal training and mentoring arrangements. Frankly it was joy and brought us much closer to important external advisors.
- It is easy to repeat the process and, in effect, to create a conveyor belt of new talent that is affordable, clever, committed and loyal. It also has the collateral advantage of putting something back into the legal profession. This is not a the key reason for doing it of course, if it otherwise would not make sense; but I think we all have a responsibility to help the profession develop, especially for newbie lawyers coming to the profession and wanting their chance to make their impact.
- As a long-term play it also works well. It may not be possible to employ every trainee on a permanent contact at the end of their training contract, but we at least have that opportunity. In effect at the end of each training contract there is a ready-made lawyer, familiar with every aspect of the operation, inducted beautifully, effective on day one, with zero recruitment costs and minimal recruitment risk. This is perfect isn’t it?
- And if it is not possible to offer a permanent contract the newly qualified lawyer is launched on to the market with impeccable in-house credentials.
- The final advantage is that this represents a further maturing of the in-house sector. It again helps to rebalance power within the profession, de-stresses and de-risks the build up of pressure in the in-house environment and forces at least medium term planning cycles, as opposed to the short term-ism that often proliferates. As teams become more used to the opportunity so the market will grow and quality, already good, will improve further.
Interestingly, in the UK markets, I feel the same way about hiring Legal Executive talent. CILEX is one of the most impressive, but unheralded networks in the entire profession. The talent pool is wide, varied and invariably excellent. It baffles me why we do not do more in this space.
I would go so far as to say that in the UK the first question for a General Counsel who has a recruitment need is whether the role is better suited to a Legal Executive. This is not just about lower salary costs, but also about stability and commerciality. I won’t slip into cliché, but General Counsel really should ask the question about what type of lawyer they need and look beyond PQE as the differentiator.
My challenge to every in-house legal team, whatever the size, sector or location, is to consider (at least) when and how trainees or legal exec talent would be advantageous. A once a year assessment will ensure the opportunity is not missed.
In this regard it is worth mentioning a new business that is creating a positive impression. The business is called Accutrainee. Accutrainee sets out to deliver a flexible and efficient way to manage trainees. They in fact are the employer and recruit trainees which they then place on secondment law firms and in-house legal teams in accordance with their clients’ requirements. The result, potentially is a really efficient and flexible opportunities to bring trainees into the team.
By so innovatively redefining how trainees can be sourced, Accutrainee can “de-risk” the process for employers and provide new opportunities for graduates as well. Their ambition is also to improve diversity in the profession. It is genuinely impressive.
The role of the trainee within the in-house legal team is still underdeveloped and modest. It is a significant area for most teams to explore. It should be a conversation within every team every time recruitment is considered.
Are you an in-house trainee or paralegal or looking to appoint a trainee in your in-house legal team?
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