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Local leg-up

21 January 13

Traineeships are scarce, especially in-house, but one local authority is doing what it can to offer a valuable insight to its legal work to would-be lawyers

by Peter Nicholson

Legal traineeships are at a premium. Places in the public sector even more so. But one local authority has developed a scheme which, while not itself creating any new opportunities, has caught the enthusiasm of the legal team while improving the prospects of intending lawyers from the area.

A work experience initiative begun by West Dunbartonshire Council has developed into a structured programme which, those who have been on it believe, can only improve their chances of securing a full training contract.

Instrumental in setting it up has been Alistair Young, a solicitor with the council who also tutors on the Diploma at Strathclyde University. After offering work experience to a nephew and realising that it had possibly helped him secure a training place last summer – and knowing also of the difficulties facing his students in finding a place – Young decided to set up a more formal programme.

“My colleagues were keen, I had no difficulty getting co-operation, and management were very supportive,” he comments. The result is a very full four-day schedule in which several aspiring lawyers have now taken part, with Young and around a dozen colleagues covering topics including council housing sales and transfers, licensing, litigation, major council projects, childcare and data protection, along with servicing committees and the running of the council itself. Nor is it all sitting and listening, as participants may be offered pieces of research, or problems to solve themselves.

“We’ve tried to improve as we’ve gone on, through feedback at the end of the course,” says Young. “And we sometimes offer further work on a voluntary basis, possibly research, or letting people come back to spend further time here.”

While the experience can open the would-be trainee’s eyes to the range and variety of legal work in local government, it is also relevant to those applying for jobs in private firms, as Young’s nephew himself found. Young and his colleagues now add an aftercare service, offering advice on completing application forms, arranging mock interviews or presentations, and generally helping their candidate be best prepared for the hot competition they will experience.

Feedback has been positive, even from those who have yet to secure any further work. “One young man came in to thank us individually for our contributions, saying how he had found the programme very helpful, encouraging him to continue the hunt for a traineeship,” reports Joe Gribbon, a projects solicitor and a Diploma tutor at Glasgow University School of Law. “Another attendee was a former student of mine and both she and I felt the programme supplemented from a property, contractual and project perspective what she acquired on the Diploma, putting it in an in-house and public sector context.”

One who has since succeeded in obtaining a training contract is Jill Rogerson, who had sought out other periods of work experience, but who believes that her time at West Dunbartonshire was definitely of direct benefit. “It really gave me a practical insight to what it was like to work in a local authority,” she affirms. “With the variety there is, you can only cover so much on the Diploma. Being able to be there and speak to people about the different functions they do, see the council in action and understand how your role as a local authority solicitor fits in with that was really interesting, and probably isn’t touched on that much in the Diploma.”

Rogerson’s first application after her placing was unsuccessful, but some weeks later she won a traineeship with Dundee City Council. Each time she was able to chat to Young and his colleagues about the post, and go through a mock interview as preparation. “I felt more confident having been there and also because of the interview experience,” she agrees. “I knew what would be expected of me as trainee.”

The solicitors involved agree that there are benefits for the authority also, with a corporate social responsibility spinoff. As Andrew Fraser, head of the legal and regulatory team, puts it: “We’re always keen to encourage work experience because we know how difficult it is to get a traineeship. It’s a standard problem in local government: we’re now looking at cuts for the next 10 years, so if a vacancy comes up, you’re usually chopping the post, and trainee opportunities are few and far between.”

He adds: “The benefit for the council is community payback, putting a little back. It helps our Investors In People assessment; it builds an awareness of the work we do; and those who have been here go into the profession with a better awareness of what local government work is about, whether they go into that or into the private sector.”

Preference is given to those from the council area, or at least having some connection with it. Thus Gribbon adds: “It raises the profile of the council locally, and councillors appreciate the team making the effort to engage with young people locally. It also raises the profile of the Department of Legal, Democratic and Regulatory Services, who are often seen as back office staff, so it’s good for them.”

None of them are aware of anything similar offered by other authorities, though some councils are understood to make more informal arrangements. But they hope others may follow their lead. “Everyone’s in a pretty dark place with the economic situation, so it’s good for our morale as well to be able to offer something,” comments manager Alan Douglas. “We hope to be able to keep doing it, and it would be nice to see others taking it up as well.”

And while local authorities with their range of work may be particularly well placed to offer such an insight into legal work, Gribbon, who worked for some years in the construction and housebuilding industry, suggests that such a scheme could work in industry as well.

One benefit to the team was perhaps less expected but has been nonetheless real. “It’s good to see fresh faces about the place asking questions,” Douglas observes. “It keeps people on their toes and makes them reflect on their own role rather than just take things for granted. So it helps us as well.”

Or as Fraser comments: “Everyone has to up their game a bit. When you have people who are fresh and enthusiastic it’s good for the performance of your own team. In North Ayrshire [where he formerly worked] we used to take a trainee every couple of years and it definitely made the team more dynamic. So I like it from that point of view as well. It does create the culture that if you get the chance to bring in a trainee, you will, because people realise what a trainee can do for you.”

Perhaps Young should have the final word: “I’ve never experienced a time when so many people are chasing so few opportunities. I often feel there is a degree of complacency in the profession. Who will replace the current generation when they retire?”

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Sara Scott

Saturday January 26, 2013, 11:34

Great article and great initiative - well done to Alistair and his colleagues. Really hope more of this can happen in-house.