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Time to start growing your own?

16 September 13

Trainees are under-represented in in-house practice, but gain wide general experience there, and their employer benefits from their early understanding of the organisation

by In-house Lawyers Group

One of the many ways the Scottish legal profession has changed in recent years is the increasing move towards providing legal services in-house: 25% of qualified Scottish solicitors now work in-house. But only 9% of trainees are currently in in-house practice. However, in-house work can provide an ideal training environment.

The attractions of working in-house include varied and high quality work, strong client relationships, and the opportunity to develop generalist experience which is transferable in the wider legal jobs market. These are exactly the things which many trainees want from their legal training. So it’s somewhat incongruous that this large body of in-house legal practices offer comparatively few traineeship opportunities. There are many factors at play here, but in the modern profession there is now more scope than ever for in-house legal practices to offer traineeships to tomorrow’s new lawyers.

One perceived barrier to in-house trainee recruitment can be the relatively small size of the legal team. Is the team big enough to support a trainee full time for two years, following the traditional model of a traineeship? Sometimes not. But increasingly, in-house practices are responding by taking a more flexible approach to allow trainees to gain some experience of in-house work while completing the rest of their traineeship in private practice. Secondments, of which several dozen take place every year, are a key example of this. The Society has also taken steps to promote flexible and shared traineeships, which may allow an in-house team to reap the benefits of employing a trainee even within a relatively small in-house practice.

Here, people with experience of the opportunities available for trainees in in-house legal work discuss the benefits for both the trainee and the employer.

Sonia Campbell is a legal trainee working for The Moray Council. Her traineeship follows the traditional model of a single employer for two years. Sonia is clear that her experience in-house has provided her with high quality and transferable background knowledge of a range of areas of legal practice: “Over my traineeship I will gain experience in a range of areas of law from conveyancing to community care, and education to planning – to name but a few. In my first year as a trainee I have worked on a variety of projects, including assisting in the preparation of an adoption proof; undertaking my own transactions in selling and letting property; and advising council trustees on the use of trust funds.”

Sonia also highlights the benefits to the council from employing trainees: “While there are clear advantages to any firm in ‘growing their own’ solicitors, I think there are even more added benefits for in-house organisations employing trainees. It is very important for in-house legal teams to work closely with their internal client; it therefore makes sense for organisations to take on trainees who can work building up such good relations at an early stage. Creating positive working relations with elected members is key in a council, and if a team can nurture their own trainee’s skills in developing appropriate communication skills, this can be hugely beneficial.”

These considerations are mirrored in all in-house legal teams – while not all in-house lawyers will work with elected representatives, a really thorough knowledge and understanding of the client’s perspective is always crucial to in-house work.

The importance of client relations is something Stephanie Hood, a trainee with Harper Macleod, has also learned through her experience as a secondee to the Forestry Commission Scotland. Secondments of this nature involve a less traditional model of training, as responsibility for the trainees’ work is split among two teams, but can provide great benefits for all involved.

Stephanie commented: “Entering into a client’s work environment on secondment provides a unique experience within the legal traineeship. I can think of no better way to understand the needs of a client. The technical knowledge of the client’s systems and how they operate is only one aspect of this understanding. It also extends to an appreciation of the client’s working preferences, the challenges they face and the ethos that drives their everyday practices. This depth of comprehension would be near impossible to gain without the in-house experience.”

As well as the benefits to the trainee in understanding the client in this way, Stephanie also highlights the wider benefits to the firm. Having trainees, as well as qualified staff, who fully understand clients has great potential to enhance a firm’s client satisfaction levels and reputation. Stephanie reflects: “If law firms strive to deliver a service which is receptive, responsive and altogether in tune with the needs of their clients, equipping themselves with this degree of client understanding through secondments can only aid law firms in their path to achieving this.”

Söla Paterson-Marke, an associate with DLA Piper based in London, volunteered for secondment to UBS, the investment bank, as part of his traineeship. Söla was taken even further out of his comfort zone during his secondment, with increased expectations, responsibility and independence:

“Undoubtedly, there is a steep learning curve and you have to work very hard, as people within ‘the business’ will not make the distinction between a qualified solicitor and a trainee. I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of work, intense days and building my own internal network of ‘clients’ within the company.”

Another benefit to firms in sending trainees to this type of secondment is the skills and breadth of experience they bring when they return to a role within the firm. Söla comments that this experience on secondment at an early stage in his career sharpened his approach to client advice for the long term:

“All of this made me redouble my efforts to take a solutions-driven approach to every piece of work. It was also good to see at first hand that what clients want is commercially driven advice, the more pithy the better, but still covering all of the salient points.”

Despite these obvious benefits from a trainee’s perspective, the situation may not be as clear-cut for those providing the training. As well as concern that an in-house team simply cannot support a trainee in terms of work and training opportunities, several other factors are cited for reluctance among organisations to add a trainee to their in-house legal team – often relating to perceptions of cost, and the burden on others in the team.

Robin Baxter, VP Business Development at Iona Energy, challenges these preconceptions. He has worked as a legal manager both in local government and in industry. With his experience, Robin is enthusiastic about the value obtained by organisations opting to recruit in-house trainees: “While I have some sympathy with the view that trainees take up management time, add cost, and may not provide additional value to a legal team, over time I have come to believe strongly that it is a win/win situation for both employer and trainee.

“For me it’s a people thing first and a team thing second. Trainees are challenging. They ask ‘innocent’ questions that you do not know, or cannot remember, the answers to. Because they are starting from a new perspective, their development and progress appear faster than those of more experienced members of the team.

“This adds dynamism and energy. They bring fresh ideas and a current perspective on old issues.”

As well as trainees who are directly employed in-house, Robin considers that these benefits apply in equal measure to secondments: “A secondee also adds the perspective of private practice, ‘pure’ legal thinking and the client-lawyer relationship that can be very important to hard pressed decision makers.”

Robin also explains that offering a training opportunity can aid the development of the whole team: “Trainees bring out the best in other members of the team, who learn to teach, to counsel, to mentor and to supervise. These skills are transferable. They develop the team members and the team as a whole.”

The August edition of the Journal announced a new In-house Rising Star Award, to recognise achievement by trainees and new lawyers in in-house practice. Lynda Towers, chair of the Society’s In-house Lawyers Group notes: “This reflects the importance of in-house practice in Scotland today. Lawyers with in-house experience gain a unique understanding of their clients, so are able to promote a better service by absorbing the client’s working practices, needs and expectations. Giving trainees this exposure benefits the trainee, their colleagues and employer, and ultimately the client.

In-house Lawyers Group, The Law Society of Scotland

 

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