‘The Challenges Facing Prospective Trainees in an Uncertain Economic Climate’: A Personal Perspective by Christopher Agnew

by ScotsLawBlog on May 10, 2012

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We are pleased to welcome Glasgow University law graduate, Christopher Agnew, as he pens this incisive guest blog post regarding some of the challenges facing prospective trainee solicitors in Scotland in the current uncertain economic climate.

Entering into a life in law, as I did in 2005, I would expect that my peers would have thought little about the prospects of entering into the profession following the culmination of their university life; it was arguably a guarantee as the Training Contract levels were steadily increasing through 2004-2007.

Following the Economic downturn in 2008 the Legal Sector, as well as many other private sectors, has been greatly affected and has accordingly tightened the reins on spending and staffing levels. As at November 2008, the level of Training Contracts registered by the Law Society of Scotland had fallen to 592 and plummeted to 427 in the following year.

One may argue that there is a direct correlation between the economy and the uptake rate of Trainees. As the economy started to level out, the training contracts were on the rise – up to 527 in 2010 – but then followed a second dip in 2011, to 93% of those in 2010.

There are various issues affecting prospective trainees in the current climate, over and above the current climate. One may argue that the competition has never been greater for one position, with literally hundreds of people applying for a solitary place. The challenge to stand out as a candidate even before interview is made harder still because of the graduation rate of those with a Diploma in Legal Practice. In recent times, it would seem that where the number of Diploma graduates and in fact, Diploma Providers has seen a gradual increase, the number of training contracts has declined over time and shows little sign of significant increase.

The Law Society of Scotland has sought to support those seeking a training contract with the introduction of various alternatives to the two year traineeship. The idea of a part-time training contract as well as a flexible training contract, whereby two or more firms take on the responsibility of training one individual, are seen as attractive alternatives given the current challenges in employment. On the face of it, one may see this as a motivating factor in encouraging employers to take on trainees and play their part in shaping the future of the Legal Profession. Some may argue however, that where the individual is responsible for seeking out two or more firms who are willing to enter into a flexible arrangement, it may be seen as a disincentive to those seeking a training contract – surely searching for one training contract is hard enough, without having to try harder to convince two firms to split the responsibility?!

Where payment in concerned, the Law Society is due to reconsider the recommended minimum level for a first and second year trainee in or around June 2012. I feel that it is important to note that the current position is one where the wage is a recommended minimum and therefore, law firms are free to offer any level of remuneration in which they can afford and also enter into negotiation with their prospective trainee regarding a mutually agreeable wage level. Prior to their consideration of wage levels for 2012-2013, the Council of the Law Society has responded to various queries regarding payment levels of Trainees, and in particular their stance on Training Contracts for no remuneration, with a decision which will guarantee new trainees no lower than the National Minimum Wage throughout their Training Contract.

The challenges facing those seeking Training Contract are arguably the greatest they have ever been. On one hand, the Professional Body is offering alternatives to encourage firms to take on trainees knowing that it will not be a two year commitment, and on the other hand, they are effectively nullifying any negotiation which may take place between the employer and employee regarding wages, by setting a definitive minimum; a minimum which some small to medium sized firms may not be able to afford in the current challenging economic climate.

On a personal note, I graduated with honours in 2010 and successfully completed the Diploma in Legal Practice in 2011 at Glasgow University. Following completion I have sought and found various Legal Work Experience placements offering a taster of general practice however have yet to find that elusive Training Contract. I am confident that the number of Training Contracts will gradually increase over the next three to five years, however the longer the stall in Training Contract numbers, the greater the opportunity for Diploma Providers to flood the market with future traineeship hunters.

Christopher T Agnew

Christopher Agnew is a 24yr old Diploma Graduate currently seeking a Training Contract, living in Motherwell, Scotland and can be found on various Social Media Platforms including LinkedIn – http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/christopher-agnew/4b/8a6/41b and Twitter – @agnew1_law. Since completing the Diploma In Legal Practice, he has sought out various work experience placement, including most recently, 8 months with a Wishaw Practitioner, spent in the Court department and involving matters including Civil Litigation, Commercial and Residential Conveyancing, Civil Disputes, Matrimonial and Child Law Issues and Private Client Work.

The view expressed in the preceding article are merely social observation and any personal views contained therein are entirely his own.

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  • http://twitter.com/HighlandLawyer A Lawyer

    This isn’t the first time that there has been a shortage of traineeships. In the early/mid 1990s the number of available traineeships dropped sharply and unexpectedly, it having always previously been assumed that if one got onto the Diploma there would be some sort of traineeship available afterwards. It is disappointing that lessons haven’t been learned since then about managing the numbers of entrants against number of traineeships.

    As to the minimum wage, the law says there is a national minimum wage for all employees. As a trainee you are required to attend at certain times and do certain work as instructed by your employer, so you are an employee. Arguably the Law Society is simply restating that training firms must comply with the law. Irrespective of that, the last time there was a traineeship shortage, some firms did outrageously exploit trainees taking them on for nothing but not giving a good traineeship anyway. Consider, if a firm is willing to exploit a trainee by paying nothing, what moral standards are they teaching within that traineeship?

    However, if you are determined to go into law, do not get too disheartened if you are finding it difficult to find a traineeship.

    First if you keep looking that can demonstrate to potential employers that you are determined. Just in the meantime do things that “add value”; keep up to date in the law, submit responses to government consultations, go to seminars or courses intended for CPD, write articles for legal journals, voluntary work at CAB or Law Centres, etc. These will keep your hard earned qualifications fresh, keep you in contact with the legal profession and demonstrate that if you are not yet a solicitor you are definitely a lawyer. Also don’t overlook other skills or qualifications that might be useful to an employer – IT and secretarial, health & safety, first aid are not directly required for a trainee but can be useful to the employer and could make the difference in deciding between two candidates.

    Second if you are determined to have a legal career, consider other options than Solicitor at least as an interim. With degree and diploma Registered Paralegal is one option; alternatively would you consider being an Advocate, via a Bar apprenticeship? There is also in-house legal department work, where the lawyers often do not have practising certificates. Alternatively, there are various law related careers other than the practice of law: police, sheriff officer, various government or quasi-government bodies (e.g. RoS or OPG), legal publishers, legal IT businesses. While they can provide a lifelong career option themselves, if you do want to go back to getting a traineeship they are related and make it easier to keep yourself up to date in the law.

    Thirdly, who knows what the future will bring. A lot of Solicitors have worries about ABS allowing non-Solicitors into legal services; if you can’t get a traineeship, maybe you can end up as an ABS competitor to Solicitors!

  • A Student

    As someone lucky enough to have secured a training contract, I know just how tough the competition is.

    But I do support the Law Society’s new policy.

    A culture where traineeships can be undertaken unpaid creates a false market: there are plenty of good candidates out there, and many may be willing and able to work for free, so why should any firm pay considering whether they can afford to pay a trainee do so when their competitors might not?

    The result will be to close off part of the already shrinking market in traineeships to only those who can afford to work unpaid for two years. And the legal profession is far from diverse enough as it is.

    Even if it does result in more traineeships, if the need for trainees is not linked to the need for NQ solicitors, then you have succeeded in shifting the problem 2 years down the line. The over-supply just comes at the NQ job-hunting stage. Unsuccessful candidates at this stage have just wasted 2 more years and many thousands of pounds more.

    There is much for the legal profession and the Law Society to do. As Christopher suggests in his post, prospective trainees can hardly match up firms looking to share the costs and benefit of a trainee; this must be something the Law Society, or other professional bodies, are working to establish. In the longer term, something needs to be done to restructure the whole Diploma and Traineeship. It is clearly wrong to be pushing out 650+ diploma students, at great cost to the students (with a modest contribution by the tax-payer), when there are only 450-ish jobs at the end of it.

    The situation is far from perfect, as Christopher and many of my colleagues are painfully aware, but unpaid traineeships is not the answer.

  • http://www.wardblawg.com/scotslawblog/scots-law/why-paid-traineeships-are-not-enough/ Why paid traineeships are not enough… | ScotsLawBlog

    [...] yesterday’s guest blog by Christopher Agnew, we welcome another guest poster, Tim Haddow of Edinburgh University’s Law [...]

  • RobMarrs

    This is a very interesting piece, Christopher, thank you for posting. Thank you, also, to you Gavin for publishing the piece on your blog.

    Having read it closely, I thought it necessary to clarify a number of matters.

    The number of people taking the Diploma has fallen from its 2009 peak of 774 to 682 in 2011. That’s a fall of roughly 12% in two years. For the past few years the Society has taken a number of measures to manage students’ expectations about traineeship opportunities, including providing a comprehensive Guidance Statement attached to all Diploma application forms and publishing the traineeship statistics on our website. By providing this information we are aiming to ensure students can make informed decisions about whether to start the Diploma.

    I would observe the following factors which may impact on Diploma numbers further in the future: (a) students making increasingly better informed choices about whether to undertake the Diploma as a result of information about number of traineeships and funding arrangements disseminated by the Law Society of Scotland ( (b) the – as yet unknown – impact of the move to a loan-based system for Diploma funding rather than grants.

    Flexible traineeships have always been possible. We understand the difficulties of getting two firms to sign up independently of each other. We have, however, had a number of trainees and firms carrying out successful flexible traineeships in a variety of ways, including some where two or more firms/organisations share a trainee.

    The Society is working with a number of other representative bodies to consider ways in which we can assist firms in taking a trainee on a more flexible basis. We hope to announce more details on this matter in due course.

    If any of your readers (either potential trainee or training firm) want to discuss flexible options I’d advise them to call Katie Wood, here at the Society, on 0131 476 8105/8200.

    One aspect of flexible training is part-time training. It may well be the case that a firm would struggle to pay someone full-time hours at the National Minimum Wage. If that is the case, there is always the possibility of undertaking a traineeship on a part-time basis. This would mean that the training would be stretched out to three or, even, four years but the lump sum that the firm paid per month would be considerably lower. Again, if you require detail please call Katie on the number above.

    We have, for a number of years, set a recommended trainee salary. The vast majority of practice units have paid around, at or above the recommended salary that the Society has set out.

    It has always been possible for firms to pay less or more than the recommended rate. Some firms have paid below the recommended salary.

    As Christopher notes, over recent months we have received a small – but growing – number of enquiries about unpaid traineeships. We sought legal advice on this matter. This advice makes it clear that the legal status of a trainee is important as it determines the statutory employment rights that a trainee has – including the entitlement to pay the National Minimum Wage under the 1998 Act.

    The new policy will mean that all new trainees have to be paid (at least) the NMW. The recommended rate is still just that: a recommended rate. We move to a system where there is a regulatory minimum (that of the NMW) and a recommended rate (which is significantly higher).

    We will continue to encourage firms to pay the recommended rate. There is still the opportunity for a potential trainee to negotiate a salary lower than the recommended rate but they cannot negotiate to anything lower than the NMW.

    The Society has a responsibility to our members and to our future members. Moreover, we are helping to ensure that the profession is a place for individuals from all backgrounds and not only those who can afford to work for two years unpaid (or for very low pay) or, for that matter, individuals who are able/willing to take on enough debt to see them through two years of training

    To finish on a positive, there is some good news at the other side of the traineeship. Our research shows that over 90% of those exiting from the traineeship in 2011 are employed as a solicitor at present. That is up from around 85% the previous year.

    Thanks again, for your contribution to the debate, and I hope that my – admittedly extended thoughts – are of some interest.

    Rob Marrs
    Education and Training Team
    Law Society of Scotland

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