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From the other side

17 October 11

A partnership between a commercial company and three legal firms is proving beneficial to trainees at each of the organisations involved - and their employers

by Craig Watson

The ailing economy continues to prove challenging to all sectors of the legal profession – private practice and in-house – and to solicitors at all stages of their careers. But one innovative scheme designed to benefit in-house and commercial firm trainees is proving equally valuable to their respective employers and wider legal teams.

Colin Anderson, Legal Manager at Standard Life, is one of those behind the project. “It’s a simple idea, but one that has proved really successful. Standard Life has joined with several key firms to offer trainees in private practice a secondment with our in-house team. And the feedback shows that everyone has benefited from the experience.”

The scheme began several years ago following discussions between Standard Life and three firms – Dundas & Wilson, McGrigors and Burness. Although Standard Life has recruited its own trainees since the mid-1990s, the decision was taken to establish six-month secondments with Dundas & Wilson and McGrigors, while an exchange system that involved trainees swapping companies would operate with Burness. The trainees joined Standard Life’s 40-strong team of in-house lawyers and worked in core legal areas, for instance supporting its pension and life products or dealing with commercial and supplier contracts, dispute resolution, employment law and international legal business. Currently, six trainees are involved in the scheme.

Broader experience

Anderson continues: “The perception is that most legal trainees work in private practice, though others are taken on by central and local government, the Crown Office and some big companies. But not many commercial organisations appear to have seen the benefits, or perhaps their legal teams are too small to accommodate a trainee, given the need to provide supervision and training. Standard Life believes it’s worthwhile making the investment.”

But the secondment scheme also benefits the trainees and firms. “Trainees have a thirst for knowledge and want to stand out from the crowd,” Anderson says. “The scheme gives them experience in both private practice and in-house work – the two main areas of practice – which is great for their CVs and puts them in a better position when vacancies come up.”

Dundas & Wilson’s trainee secondments started after the firm’s work on the flotation of Standard Life. Partner Wendy Colquhoun says the scheme has been particularly valuable in the current economic climate, as it allowed D&W to offer additional trainee assistance to Standard Life.

She adds: “Secondments allow us to gain a better understanding of our clients, how they operate, their current plans and strategy, the key buyers and influencers, and enable us to identify any client legal needs or gaps which we can then try to fill by bringing forward a business proposition.”

Gillian Grainge, now a one-year qualified assistant at D&W, went to Standard Life for six months in 2009, based in the General Counsel’s office, which involved working on corporate transactions. From the outset and throughout her secondment, she was involved with a major transaction – the selling of Standard Life Bank.

She says: “I was fortunate to be with Standard Life during quite a busy period, with some big transactions going on. From a trainee’s perspective, it was a fantastic experience, which brought a variety of benefits. If anyone is thinking about doing it, I would really encourage them – I couldn’t be more positive about it.”

Commercial view

Diane Nicol, lead relationship partner for Standard Life at McGrigors, says the scheme allows trainees to achieve the firm’s ambition of being an “extended part of Standard Life’s in-house team” once they are back at the office, and provide advice in context. It also allows the firm to “showboat” the McGrigors approach to law, two cornerstones of which are pragmatism and approachability. She adds that trainees are able to build excellent relationships with the in-house lawyers, business people and professionals from other disciplines – “from whom they learn so much” – helping them to develop as more rounded lawyers.

She concludes: “We have no doubt that this arrangement has helped to develop and strengthen our relationship with Standard Life.”

Kendall Brown was seconded to the legal commercial team for six months from March, the final seat of her traineeship. The work involved drafting a wide range of contracts for suppliers and services. She has since qualified and now works in the employment team at McGrigors.

She says: “It is a fantastic experience at an early stage in your career. It has helped my understanding of financial services organisations – what they look for from their lawyers and how to take a pragmatic, commercially focused approach to providing advice to clients. It is very different to private practice and has allowed me to see both sides of the coin. The skills and experiences that I learned on secondment will definitely help me to become a better commercial lawyer.”

Exchange arrangement

Since the Burness secondment programme operates as an exchange, partner Alan Soppitt emphasises the “huge benefits” for both organisations. He says Standard Life’s trainees get to see life as a private practice lawyer in a large commercial firm. Burness trainees are given experience of instructing external law firms and seeing first hand what it is like to be a client of a law firm.

He adds: “For all parties, the general strengthening of the relationship and the deeper understanding of each other’s organisations and cultures is truly invaluable.”

As a Standard Life trainee who spent a six-month exchange with the Burness funds and banking team, Calum McNiven gained valuable experience of both in-house and private practice work. And partly as a result of the secondment experience, he was offered a place in the legal investments team on his return to Standard Life.

He says: “The opportunity to gain exposure to both in-house and private practice was a major selling point of the Standard Life traineeship and it did not disappoint. It was an eye-opening experience to be on the other side of the relationship between law firm and client, and one which allowed me to develop my soft skills on a daily basis.”

Colin Anderson concludes: “The traineeship should give the widest possible range of experiences, and the secondment scheme allows them to do just that. It’s win, win for everyone – the solicitors and their firms, the trainees and Standard Life all benefit. It’s a really positive experience for everybody – I know I would have benefited from it when I was training. It’s something we are very keen to continue going forward.”

Craig Watson is a freelance writer

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Jilted Trainee

Wednesday October 26, 2011, 13:46

Whilst the idea of a trainee swap is good in practice, the victims are those foolish in-house trainees who, despite choosing an in-house traineeship over a private practice traineeship, end up out on their ears when the private practice trainees are not retained by their firms, and are offered the NQ positions that should have been reserved for the in-house trainees....where is the benefit for the in-house trainees?