Competition for traineeships with the UK’s biggest law firms has reached a new intensity, with an average of 130 graduates applying for each trainee job, new research suggests today.

As many as 78 more applications per place are being made this year than in 2007/08, when the figure was 52 applications per trainee position.

The study, a Sweet & Maxwell survey of HR directors at top 100 law firms, suggested that graduates were making more applications to a wider range of firms because of intense competition for a dwindling number of places.

It also found that employees in top firms were less willing to jump ship to other law firms. In 2007/08, 11% of top 100 legal sector staff moved to other firms, compared with 8.2% in 2008/09. A concern that new employers would make new staff redundant on a first-in-first-out basis was suggested as a reason for the apprehension, as well as a reluctance by firms to poach staff from rival firms in the economic slowdown.

The retention of key staff was rated as the most important job for HR directors, and more important than recruiting high quality candidates for vacancies. Some 96% of HR directors said retention was a high priority, compared with 64% who cited attracting quality candidates as a priority. Nearly two-thirds of HR directors said that making headcount reductions without harming quality was a high priority.

Sweet & Maxwell surveyed 25 of the UK’s 100 largest commercial law firms, including two magic circle firms.