Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Law graduates hit by recession as legal profession dumps partners & staff

Tough times in Scotland’s legal sector has seen the shine taken off graduates expectations to enter the marketplace and make a killing …

The Scotsman reports :

When recession sours the joy of graduation

Collette Paterson

Published Date: 09 February 2009

AN IMAGE is lasting, and can be powerful, can't it?

The image of perfection that is Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or the existential horror of Edvard Munch's The Scream.
There is a positive and uplifting feeling associated with yet another familiar image – that of joyous graduates tossing mortarboards into the heavens, smiling as they contemplate a brave new world.

You may have a nostalgic twinkle in your eye, but the mood is lowered when thoughts turn to the graduates of 2008 and 2009.

In these challenging times, the completion of the honours year is not a liberating rite of passage; instead, the prospect of graduating looms heavily over thousands of students. On the front cover of this newspaper, an image of rows of graduands swathed in gowns was contrasted with a headline that warned of a slump in graduate jobs.

The effects of what was, in its infancy, a credit crunch, firstly seeped into, before proceeding to sink many businesses in previously prosperous sectors – banking, surveying, lawyering. At the Law Society, we must consider the impact of this, not only for our members, but also for students and trainees.

We are quizzed by diploma students and trainees as to why there are no sanctions on firms that withdraw offers of traineeships or make trainees redundant.

I'm in no doubt as to the sanctity of the traineeship offer. But in a recession, a numbers game begins, and law firms are thinking like any other business in order to remain profitable and afloat.

Yes, there are fewer traineeships on offer and we are dealing with students and trainees who have become casualties of that, but in a wider sense other news is reaching us daily: firms re-structuring, and closing down offices.

The society must always balance its dual function of regulating and representing the profession. When it comes to the relationship with the next generation of solicitors, the perception is that the membership function splits once more: how can we reconcile the need to represent our members with a moral obligation to represent those whom the profession's sustainability depends on?

There is the suggestion that pastoral care is just not enough in such challenging times, yet the society cannot give legal advice when students, trainees and training organisations find themselves at a crossroads in their relationship.

But there is a role for the society and, as this goes to press, we are writing a new policy statement based on legal advice the society has sought in relation to the matter. The statement should be read in its entirety, but essentially our position is that normal contract law applies to offers of traineeships made, and the nature of the training contract itself means it cannot be terminated. So, we encourage everyone in this situation to consider options carefully.

If solutions cannot be found, they should read our policy statement, and if they wish, seek independent legal advice on their position.

This begs the question, what are these solutions? Crucially, this is about alerting the profession to what we suspect are little-known, flexible options for traineeships.

Over the next few weeks, we will speak to the profession and encourage some lateral thinking such as sending trainees on secondment to a client, sharing trainees with another firm, reducing hours to part-time or reviewing salaries on an interim basis. Firms are already applying creative thinking across other areas of the business as they respond to the recession.

The society has been building up its support and advice for firms and individuals from a business toolkit to a directory of business consultants. Simple solutions yes, but potentially winning ones.

Graduates across all sectors are entering a volatile job market, but we must always think of our profession's reputation. A snapshot taken now of a sector affected by a global economic downturn, should not become the lasting image of the Scottish legal profession.

It is very clear, in order to survive, some firms analysing their businesses have made some hard decisions that may affect the next generation – but it does not always have to be all or nothing.

• Collette Paterson is the deputy director (education and training) at the Law Society of Scotland.

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