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Newly hatched

18 July 11

On the Society's figures, about one in five of last year's newly qualified solicitors are not currently working in the profession. What are the prospects this year, and what can NQs do to get a foot on the ladder?

by Peter Nicholson

As the majority of this year’s newly qualified solicitors complete their traineeships, what are their prospects in the job market? And what avenues might be open if their training employers are unable to keep them on?

If last year’s experience is anything to go by, there will be competition for whatever jobs are going. Law Society of Scotland figures show that in the calendar year 2010, 592 trainees were discharged on completing their two years. Of these, 467 are currently employed, 81 of them in-house. That leaves 125, or 21%, apparently without a qualified position in the profession.

More detailed global statistics, such as the percentage kept on by their training firms or the geographical spread round the country, proved elusive. However, responses from several of the larger firms to enquiries by the Journal confirm the impression that things are improving, albeit slowly, reflecting the wider picture for employment and levels of work across the profession. Recruitment consultants are reporting “pockets of activity”, said one, and solicitors at most levels are feeling a little more confident about changing jobs.

Some firms reported that their retention rates have moved back above 50%; others have figures of 75% or more, though sometimes the total number qualifying this year is down.

More than one reported that some trainees have chosen to move elsewhere, or have remained in an in-house position with a client to which they were seconded – numbers that add to those with a confirmed NQ position. And there is still the occasional individual who decides at this stage that law is not the career for them.

All that said, there is likely still to be a surplus of trainees seeking work over the number of places available in private practice. What are the options, and the best tactics, for those who find themselves missing out first time round?

In the right place

Claudia van Tooren is someone who knows what it’s like to qualify in a lean year, having come through in 2009, just at the bottom of the recession. Knowing that few in her firm were likely to be kept on, she had decided by March of that year that it would be wise to start looking round. But placing her name with agencies and on websites, searching the web, and sending about 20 letters and CVs, produced nothing that year.

“I was unemployed for two months and ended up with a job that October with Heineken UK, based in Edinburgh, in an internal audit post”, she says. “It was a non-legal job but something to keep my options open.” Focused on controls of business processes rather than financial auditing, van Tooren found herself dealing with all sorts of things from health and safety to stocktaking – “very paper based and process driven, but it involved travelling to other Heineken group companies in places like Amsterdam and Finland”.

It also put her in the right place when, 14 months later, a position came up with the company’s in-house legal team. “From the start I had a contact in the legal team and I had also done a few pieces of legal work for them, so I was well placed to apply for the vacancy.”

Now settled as an in-house lawyer, she can see herself staying with Heineken for the foreseeable future.

Of the others who qualified from her office that year, she believes, one moved to the Highlands and got a legal job in Inverness, one did some travelling and is now still looking for work, one got a non-legal job at the Scottish Parliament, and one got married and now has a baby.

Full circle

Another recently qualified solicitor, June (not her real name), tells how there were jobs for about a third of her trainee year, but not in areas she had worked or wanted to work in. “Quite a few of my year managed to get positions at other firms, by relocating. There were still a handful left on qualification who had not found something, and I know a few people who haven’t found an NQ job and as a result are branching out into other, non-law related areas such as charity, policy and starting their own business.”

She herself was unemployed for six months despite applying for jobs “all over the place – I had no qualms about moving anywhere in the world!” In the meantime she kept herself occupied by volunteering with a charity, using transferable skills picked up as a trainee to organise events and help out with administration. Now she at least has a short term legal contract – back at the firm where she trained.

The wider world

Also using voluntary work to help her move on is 2010 qualifier Jennifer Chowaniec. A search round the country from early in the year, in various practice areas, having produced the occasional interview but no job offers, she decided in October to follow up a presentation by Challenges Worldwide at a Law Society of Scotland careers seminar. The international development charity recruits, trains and manages expert volunteers to carry out short assignments for social enterprise in developing countries, and after discussing potential consultancies with them, she was matched with a project in Kenya by the year end.

“Working abroad was something I have wanted to do for a while”, she says, “and I concluded that the poor state of the job market at home was a good opportunity to undertake some substantive work elsewhere. Although I consider leaving the Scottish job market a risk, I decided it was something, both professionally and personally, that was worth doing. However, I try to keep in touch with what is happening at home and still search for Scottish solicitor jobs, whenever we have power and internet in Kenya at the same time!”

Chowaniec was assigned to a four-month project with a Kenyan women lawyers’ association, FIDA, writing a report for a UN committee during Kenya’s reporting period. She was then given some additional work involving draft legislation intended to advance the cause of gender equality in the country, often against stiff opposition. “This is a really exciting time for legal reform in Kenya”, she comments. “These changes are the start of a long fight between the law and tradition that will require more than legislation and judicial decisions to reconcile.”

With her project just finishing, Chowaniec isn’t quite sure what will happen next, apart from planning a bit of travel. She hopes to set up a further two-month project in Kenya, but has already decided that her next move will be to New Zealand, to try and find a qualified position there. “My discussions with various people in NZ indicate it could be hard work finding the right job. However, I am confident that the experience gained from working abroad, even for a relatively short period, cannot be a disadvantage, as long as I keep up to date with what is happening back home.”

Follow the dream

If you can catch the tide, you might even be able to turn your alternative dream into reality. Ask Rob Mackenzie who, having studied agriculture as well as law, trained with a view to practising in agricultural law but found last year that there was no place at his city training firm.

Mackenzie admits his efforts to find work elsewhere weren’t too strenuous, as he decided to follow his other ambition to set up his own food business using produce grown on his family’s farms near Tain.

With the raw materials on hand, the other necessary ingredients were some savings, start-up funding from Highland Council and the LEADER programme, some assistance in developing recipes from the chefs at Skibo Castle (contacts from student holiday work) – and the legal training: “quite useful in setting up contracts and suchlike”, Mackenzie says. “I’ve also had to go into food labelling and hygiene law.”

Going to market from April this year, his brand, Cullisse (the name of the home farm), now produces a collection of cold pressed rapeseed oil, marinades and sauces made with his father’s and brother’s oilseed rape. “At the moment I do everything myself: cold pressing the seed, bottling, labelling and marketing. I sell through food fairs, farm shops and currently about 10 delicatessens around the country. Money is starting to come in but I’m not yet up to a trainee’s earnings!”

Mackenzie has not turned his back on the profession, though has recently decided not to take up approaches from a couple of local legal firms: he didn’t want to commit full time, given the stage his venture has reached. “But one possibility is that I get the business to a stage where it can tick along with someone else looking after it while I go back to a legal career. I’m still doing the CPD.”

Pitched at the high end of the market, his products are attracting an encouraging level of interest, leading to talks with another business about a possible joint promotional venture. Mackenzie says his venture could go different ways in the next 12 months. “I would like to see it get to the stage where I have regular customers and a fairly decent income. I’m hoping to supply to 100 shops by the end of the year.”

Early start

Where does that leave the outlook for this year’s NQs? On these experiences, perseverance may be required – but may pay off. Morag McCracken, who qualifies in August, would agree. Not sure if her firm would keep her on, she started looking elsewhere about six months ahead – possibly a bit too early, as she says the agencies told her that more jobs might come up in the summer.

As it happens, she successfully applied for a one-year contract at her training firm, providing maternity cover, becoming the first of three trainees there to have found a position (a second has just secured a post with another firm). “I’m quite pleased that I was ahead of the game”, she says, “because it meant I was ready to apply when the opportunity came up.” However, she agrees that trainees still to finish are not yet out of time.

“A month ago I would probably have given you a tale of woe, but my luck has turned. I think I’ve been fortunate.”

Benefit of experience

And what advice can our case studies offer? Indeed, was there advice available for them when they needed it? McCracken thinks she made her own luck, though her firm has a supportive culture and will pass on any information about vacancies elsewhere. “You have to keep your finger on the pulse and keep up to date with what’s new. Be proactive and make sure your CV is ready to go.”

Van Tooren doubts that extra sources of advice would have made much difference to her year when there were so few jobs – except that she could have been told more about the different avenues that might be open. “My advice to others would be to insist that you have a broad traineeship to keep your options open; just keep on applying; use any contacts you have; and be open to the possibility of trying other things that might lead to openings for legal work – including in-house.”

June says it’s not the end of the world if you aren’t kept on. “It’s a chance to reflect on whether law is the career for you. Concentrate on your CV and don’t sit back and do nothing: get involved with a charity or volunteering with an organisation so there isn’t a gap in your CV. Keep in touch with your contacts – you never know when something might come up, and you want to be at the front of an employer’s mind when they have a role which needs filling.”

She would have welcomed hearing sooner about help the Society can offer, and felt “very cut adrift” for a time. “The best advice and support I found was actually through a retired partner I had worked for previously who met up with me every few weeks for a progress/pep talk and put me in touch with someone who totally rehashed my CV.” The Society’s CV advice was also helpful, once she found out about it, and she is positive about a seminar it organised for lawyers affected by the downturn: “It was actually a great chance to meet other people in the same situation.”

Keep the door open

Comments from the firms confirm that trainees should ensure their CVs are up to date, well presented and ready to fire off should the opportunity present itself. In addition they should get advice on interview techniques.

And if you haven’t found a job yet, don’t despair. “Things are so uncertain that firms are finding it very difficult to plan”, one chairman says. “Don’t give up if there isn’t a job just now – there may be in a few months.”

A further message coming over is to be flexible about what sort of post you are willing to take, at least temporarily – and in what part of the country. “Some people are far too rigid”, was one comment. Another was to “major in transferable skills” in your CV – avoid the “I really enjoyed corporate law” type of comment.

Chowaniec says others will have to make up their own minds whether to follow her trail abroad. “First, not everyone is in a position to up and leave and work unpaid. Secondly, I don’t know what consequences leaving the Scottish job market will have when I want to return home. However, I would say that, as there are currently insufficient NQ positions, those with flexibility must think outside the box.”

Mackenzie echoes that. “My advice to others would be never close any doors behind you. Leave as many opportunities open as possible. Don’t confine yourself to one thing – if you see an opportunity, go for it, and use all the skills available to you. Your legal training can be put to good use – it’s invaluable in other areas.”


LawCare on hand

LawCare will be at the Career Transition Workshop events to provide pastoral support and advice during and after the events. LawCare is a free and completely confidential advisory and support service for lawyers.

Trish McLellan, Lawcare Coordinator for Scotland, is keen that all new lawyers know they can contact LawCare.

She explained: “Those in the early part of their career are undoubtedly facing very challenging times. It is imperative that those who find themselves in such a position look after their health and wellbeing. We would encourage them to call us on 0800 279 6869 or access our website www.lawcare.org.uk, as there is a wealth of practical information and help to support them through such a difficult period.”


Trainee support

The Society provides a dedicated help and support service specifically aimed to meet the needs of trainees.

Trainees can contact the Society to discuss any issue or difficulty they might have with their traineeship, on a confidential or anonymous basis, with an experienced member of staff who can offer guidance, advice and assistance for individuals who need help. Please contact katiewood@lawscot.org.uk or 0131 476 8105/8200.

 

Jackie McRae, the solicitor co-opted to Council to represent the interests of newly qualified solicitors, can be contacted at jackie.mcrae@mhdlaw.co.uk

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