Penelope Warne, senior partner and board chair at City firm CMS Cameron McKenna, is rightly concerned about how few training contracts are available for law graduates (In-house conference report). She urges us to discuss how we are to train future generations and stem the waste of talent.
But the answer is right under our noses. Law firms need to invest more in trainees and to stop ducking the issue by expecting their clients to do it for them.
The typical partnership model does not encourage partners to invest in their own business. All they are really interested in is getting the profits of the business out and distributed to themselves as quickly as possible. Investing profits back in to the business is the last thing on their minds.
The prevailing attitude seems to be that the cost of training the lawyers of the future is something other people should pay for. This has been brought home to me as an in-house lawyer by the number of firms trying to bill anything up to £80 an hour for trainees’ time, when we all know that their time is worth very little because they know very little.
The temptation is clearly too much for these firms. Just do the sums – £80 an hour is a fee income of £134,400 a year against a salary of less than half that. A profitable line of business, if you can get away with it. And until now, they actually have.
I am one of the first to say that trainees are important for the future of our profession, but is it really for me as a customer to pay for their training? It is not a business model that exists anywhere else in the commercial world. Surely, it is the profession that should be paying to train its own, not me.
The current shortage of training contracts is short-sighted and greedy. Not only will firms not spend their own money to invest in more trainees, but at the same time, they are busy compounding the problem by creating a whole new breed of paralegals who are cheaper to train and more profitable to run.
This prompts a vision of the future in which firms are all paralegals and partners, with no middle ground for trainees to occupy, so cutting off the supply of talented new lawyers.
Frankly, nobody comes out of this looking good. It makes the profession look short-termist and hypocritical. It makes the regulators, who are supposed to be watching the bigger picture, look asleep at the wheel. And it cries out for the young solicitors who have made it to qualification not to pull up the ladder after them, but to stand up and fight for their own.
Christopher Digby-Bell, London W1