This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 1 October 2014 and is reproduced by kind permission (www.solicitorsjournal.com)
I wanted to join Michelmores as a trainee from the point I undertook work experience with the firm at the age of 17, and whilst I did make applications for training contracts to other local firms, this was only ever with the objective of providing a ‘safety net’ should my aspiration to join Michelmores not be realised. As a law student, I was never in the position where I had such a multitude of firms vying for my attention that I felt pressured or in need of any protection, and so I cannot claim that the perceived problems the Code aims to resolve have ever directly affected me.
However, what I did experience when applying for training contracts was that the majority of law firms did not even bother to reply to reject me. Had Michelmores not been as prompt as they were in keeping me informed regarding the selection process and my position in it, I may well have found myself in a position of limbo, waiting on other offers that never materialised. In my opinion the Code should provide reciprocal duties in this respect, in that if they require prospective trainees to respond promptly to firms’ offers by accepting or rejecting them and also advise that they should not hold more than two offers at once; firms should be under a corresponding obligation to let applicants know equally as promptly whether their application is being considered or not and in any event should always send a rejection letter rather than no response at all. Currently, on my interpretation of the Code, it is only when an applicant has attended an interview and/or gone through a ‘selection process’, that the firm in question has an obligation to let them know within two weeks whether or not they have been successful. I believe good practice should involve responding to all applications that are made.
The overarching question here is whether the voluntary nature of the Code means that it lacks ‘teeth’, and whether it would serve its purpose better as a mandatory code. There seems to be a slight mismatch in calling the Code ‘guidance’ and yet at the same time providing set deadlines for submissions and offers, which inherently gives a more compulsory impression. More than that, the imposition of specific dates arguably only works properly when adherence to them under the Code is mandatory and not merely voluntary. Perhaps the SRA have been overly optimistic in their expectations of firms’ voluntary compliance with the Code, and instead of asking politely that law firms ‘play nicely’ when recruiting trainees, they should be telling them that they will, or else. One possible way of remedying this issue could be for the SRA to make adherence to the dates and deadlines set out in the Code compulsory, leaving the remaining provisions as guidelines only.
The Code is perhaps slightly over-optimistic in its intentions given the difficulties that law students face in the current climate when trying to secure a training contract. In a previous blog “Are trainees truly wannabe solicitors or just bona fide dogsbodies for firms?” I cautioned against students accepting any training contract they were offered out of desperation, without first considering its calibre. That being said, I feel that the Code would provide reassurance to those students who find themselves in any awkward or pressurised situations during the application process. However, it is also important to keep sight of the fact that trainee recruitment is a commercial playing field and needs to be allowed to operate freely as such. Whilst I agree that an imbalance in negotiating power means that trainees need some level of protection in this regard, equally they do not require patronising. I am sure that there are ample numbers of commercially savvy and highly desirable prospective trainees that are able to play the recruitment arena to their benefit.