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Training plus

15 December 08

The different trainee mentoring schemes operated by three firms, all aiming to provide a full learning and support environment

by Peter Nicholson

“Our trainees are so valuable to us…” How many legal practices can make that claim?

At a time when trainee places are suffering from cutbacks induced by the recession, it is refreshing to find some firms who regard trainees as not only capable of useful work, but as people worth integrating into the practice from day one – perhaps even to the extent of planning their own work programmes.

Mentoring nowadays is a fairly well understood concept. In the business context it essentially involves a more senior person acting as adviser or counsellor to someone seeking to increase their experience. Applied to traineeships, it can smooth the transition to office life, nurture a trainee’s confidence, and involve them from an early stage both in planning their own placements and in the firm’s business development in general.

It quickly becomes apparent that different firms have different approaches, albeit with similar objectives. Whereas for some the term is used in the essential sense just noted, with broader goals falling under a different umbrella, others have fully integrated the concept into the trainee’s day-to-day work.

Friend and confidant

HBJ Gateley Wareing falls into the first camp. Under their scheme, which has now run for five years in its current form, a qualified lawyer is paired with a trainee, usually one who will spend their first seat in the same department, right at the outset, and remains as their mentor throughout the two years of their training.

David Anderson, a two-years-qualified solicitor who has seen the process both as a “mentee” on joining the firm and for the past year as a mentor, describes the scheme as a means to allow a new trainee to understand the sort of things they need to be thinking about and what they are expected to do and achieve during their traineeship. “It’s an informal mechanism in which they are able to approach someone and say, ‘I’m not sure what’s expected of me here.’ It goes beyond the departmental side of things; it’s really a kind of transitional mechanism that helps them into working life.”

While discussions will take place most regularly during the early stages of a traineeship, mentors continue to schedule in meetings with their mentees throughout the two years. “It’s completely flexible in that as a mentor you should be as available as you can be for your mentee; however the firm does encourage you to get together, very loosely and in general, once every couple of months or so”, Anderson explains. “What actually happens is that I tend to meet my mentee almost on a monthly basis and it’s normally for a coffee or a lunch or something like that. Sometimes my mentee will have issues that he wants to discuss or something in particular, but not very often; normally it’s just a guiding hand kind of approach.”

Second year trainee Hannah Hoyle adds that the mentoring “allows trainees to share any problems and any issues that they’re having with their mentor in complete confidence. It also enables us to discuss our progress and our development, and we can benefit from the mentor’s experiences and knowledge as well”. As the mentor is someone you have known from day one, you may find them easier to approach than someone within your current team.

Woven into the fabric

For HBJ Gateley Wareing, it is important that mentoring is kept separate from appraisal and line management responsibilities, which are provided by other means within a practice area. When it comes to discussing particular tasks, or the trainee’s work programme within a team, Anderson comments: “Departments do that pretty well anyway: everyone gets looked after very well when they come in.”

By contrast, at Tods Murray mentoring goes hand in hand with departmental supervision. Supervisors – qualified solicitors below partner level, selected for their ability to combine mentoring with a formal management role – welcome a new trainee to the seat by establishing their objectives, discussing what is expected on each side, and explaining the support available. “Our aim is very much to try and start the relationship on that first day”, says Jenny Davidson Boyd of the HR team.

The system has evolved over the past five years as the trainee count expanded rapidly from four or five up to 20. The firm makes much of its relaxed culture and team approach, as witness the large turnout of trainees, NQs and supervising solicitors who welcomed me to the firm.

Private client associate Agnes Mallon describes her approach: “In our seat I tend to meet with the trainees once a week, depending what’s on. You’re not just telling them what to do, you’re there as a practical point of contact so it could be anything from not getting on with their secretary to personal issues that they’re finding it difficult to deal with. I think that’s what makes it different. You’re a point of contact who’s not a partner, I think that’s quite important to the trainee; and someone they can talk to.”

Commercial property associate Nicola Galbraith agrees. “Even the layout of our team, how we sit is arranged so that trainees can ask questions of lots of people. We actively encourage open and constant discussion so that nobody’s left isolated. It’s important when you’re coming to a big firm like ours.”

She adds: “What I say to trainees is, ‘I’m your person for asking stupid questions; ask away! That’s what I’m here for.’ I know from my own experience that I wasn’t given that.”

Confidence building

Like Mallon, litigation solicitor Siobhan Connelly trained at a small firm. “It was very much get on with it and sink or swim to a certain extent”, she says. “You did have support but there wasn’t the same structure. It worked in its own way; it was just a different way of doing things.” Interestingly, contrary to the common perception that in a big firm you specialise far more from an early stage, Tods claim that their trainee rotation policy alows their trainees to gain broad experience without pigeonholing them.

Trainee Stephen McGowan welcomes the atmosphere at the firm. “A lot of my friends seem to be under constant pressure and have increasing stress levels from week to week, and although that’s part of the job, Tods Murray does seem to have installed a much more friendly informal atmosphere, and that helps muster confidence in a young trainee who maybe hasn’t had any real world experience outside of having studied law at university. Having those levels of support is a good thing.”

In each of the firms I met, those whose memories of their training are relatively fresh are positively encouraged to act as mentors. “I think one of the benefits is that the mentors are generally younger people who are still in touch”, Galbraith comments. “I remember the absolute fear of going into a new job and I think that’s a very strong point.”

At the same time it would be wrong to give the impression that mentoring equals cosseting. McGowan, who had previous experience of licensing, was fast tracked into court and licensing work. More generally, the firm sees benefits for trainees in the learning process – the team approach along with departmental briefings at the outset provides “a sort of springboard into the department that wasn’t there before”, in the words of David Irvine, a banking lawyer one year qualified.

And personal development at Tods is encouraged in a wider context, through the firm’s active social and CSR programmes. Irvine adds that there is a growing emphasis on involving everyone from trainees upwards in business development activities. The “Premier Crew” social events allow more junior solicitors, and trainees, to practise networking in a relaxed environment with their peers from outside who will come through business in time. As Siobhan Connelly puts it. “It works really well, it’s a really good idea to encourage networking skills early on”.

Trainees can also put something back into the firm through the ongoing reviews of the traineeship programme. Recently these have resulted in “seat guidelines”, which have been drawn up for each team and set out any pre-reading, the trainee’s objectives once in the department, and what they should be able to do by the end of the seat.

Designed by trainees, for trainees

Pagan Osborne is another firm where mentoring has evolved to become fully integrated with the whole learning experience. Running in its present form for about three years, it also grew with the trainee intake. Again trainees have a mentor in their current seat, below partner level, who is responsible for the training, with partner input. Again the practice team approach predominates. “Here everybody cares about you and what you’re doing; everyone takes an interest”, comments Fiona McDonald, a mentor in private client work.

The specific training of the mentors was itself a trainee proposal. “The HR department thought it would be a good idea to have a trainee board”, McDonald explains. “They discussed the ups and downs of the traineeship and at that point the firm decided, let’s have the trainees in on the project and get them to feed into their own training plans and put together a training package for their mentors.”

Now the overall two year plan is arranged by the firm’s training co-ordinator Louise Walker, and the head of the legal services division, in consultation with trainees; the individual programme for each trainee is organised at trainee-mentor level and simply presented to the relevant partner for approval.

Trainees are regarded as so valuable, McDonald asserts, that with eight practice teams and around five trainees in the firm, teams may have to bid to secure their own trainee – not quite by a beauty parade before the trainees, but by putting in a pitch to the management board setting out what they would offer the trainee, the sort of work they would be involved in, what would be the benefit to the trainee. “At the end of the placement the trainee will provide an assessment: how valuable was it; how relevant to your training; how was the instruction and supervision within the team?”

Student’s eye view

Zara Mair and Jo Smith, second year trainees, both approve of the support network in place compared with their expectations of working for a partner in the traditional way. “Any training or mentoring issues that can’t be sorted out, the trainee goes to the co-ordinator who then goes to the head of the legal services division”, says Mair. “It’s very organised, and when you’re moving from one seat to another it’s good because you’re not completely blind”, Smith adds, explaining that the trainees help to produce trainee “bibles” – a parallel with the Tods Murray seat guidelines.

Mair indeed was struck on her first encounter with Pagan Osborne, at the academic fair, to note that whereas other firms sent along HR or a partner to keep an eye on things, Pagan entrusted the whole stall to their trainees. “It was apparent just how much value they put on their trainees. That was very important to me; you’re not just a number.”

Lianne Lodge, her current mentor, adds: “I think they’re far more approachable because of that – students can go up to somebody roughly their own age, and feel they’re getting the inside track on what a traineeship’s actually like.”

Both Tods Murray and Pagan Osborne encourage their legal staff in activities such as university tutoring, another way to build links with prospective lawyers and find out what they are looking for in a traineeship. And summer placements run by Tods and HBJ Gateley Wareing are valuable as an extended assessment forum for young hopefuls.

Culture fit

Asked if their respective schemes are relevant to other junior lawyers, all three firms respond that they are specific to trainees, but their support network continues post-qualifying and everyone is comfortable with asking questions of each other – whether or not still of the “daft” kind.

All the firms try and identify those whom they think will make suitable mentors; but rather than provide in-depth training, rely on the mentors to refer any problems beyond their competence to HR or other suitable adviser. All emphasise the importance of trainee feedback and the evolving nature of their schemes in the light of comments received. All are convinced of the benefits of their mentoring programmes not only in providing a more complete traineeship, but in attracting applicants and encouraging post-traineeship retention.

It is notable too that each firm has devised something to fit its own culture and working methods, and in each case, despite the differences in their respective schemes, those involved on each side of the relationship all appeared entirely comfortable with the system they knew. “It’s very flexible. It’s an approachability thing”, David Anderson sums up, in effect for all three firms. To which his colleague Hannah Hoyle adds: “Whatever your issue is, you know who’s there for you to talk to. The point is that you don’t feel, I don’t know who to go to.”

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