Former City lawyer questions firms' recruitment systems

Keely Lockhart argues the legal profession is hurting itself by forcing students to make big career decisions early

Charles Plant, chairman of the Solicitor's Regulation Authority (SRA), has hit out at commercial law firms' recruitment process. Plant, a former partner at City law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, has questioned why students who want to work at City firms are forced to decide to become commercial lawyers up to four years before qualification.

Speaking at a seminar on the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), a recently published report commissioned by the legal profession, Charles Plant called the recruitment process an "extraordinary procedure" adding that the UK system for recruitment to the legal profession "isn't followed anywhere else in the world".

Too much, too young?

A shortage of training contracts and the need to cover the rising costs of the LPC is the root cause of the problem.

At present, to ensure you have the best chance of getting a training contract with a City law firm (and thereby securing debt-free funding of your LPC), as a student studying law as an undergraduate you should start thinking about legal work experience in the first year of your degree and will be expected to apply for training contracts in your penultimate year.

If you're not studying law at undergraduate level, you'll still need to decide that you want to be a lawyer and what kind of firm you want to work at by your second year of university to maximise your chances of securing a training contract, potentially two years before you set foot in law school.

This system is in danger of creating a homogenous pool of overspecialised young lawyers who lacked the right level of experience to make sound judgements about their future careers when they applied for training contracts. As a consequence, many end up not wishing to practice in the area in which they trained.

Changing priorities

The Junior Lawyers Division, a part of The Law Society that represents the rights of junior lawyers, has been heavily involved in the LETR and is in favour of reforming the trainee recruitment system.

They told The Gateway that the division receives numerous enquiries from its lawyer members who want to change specialism and are looking for advice and training which, at present, is not always easy to find within most City law firms. They say that the problem is not only that students are being forced into deciding to become commercial lawyers early on in their academic careers, but also that the LPC compounds the issue by failing to properly educate students.

The JLD says: "If the LPC and training contract provided a good grounding in broad areas of law then early over-specialisation before, during and after the training contract wouldn't be such an issue." The JLD is calling for the SRA to tackle this problem of early specialisation more vigorously to ensure the system is reformed.

Changing the way firms recruit and train their future lawyers could mean students can make more measured decisions about the direction of their legal careers to ensure they get it right - the first time round.