Lockdown spurs crisis for trainees

First published by The Times on 9 April 2020

The closure of Scottish courts to all but essential business is badly affecting smaller law firms, which in turn is leaving prospective solicitors in the lurch.

Forthcoming training contracts are likely to be mothballed as a byproduct of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service cancelling all new jury trials last month and adjourning the vast majority of cases being heard by judges.

Controversial plans to allow trials to proceed without juries were shelved within 24 hours of being floated at the beginning of this month, but — in the absence of an alternative — just a limited number of matters, such as bail undertakings and child abduction petitions, are currently going ahead.

Julia McPartlin, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, says that the cessation of court work is having a dramatic impact on criminal practices in particular and many firms are fearing that they may go out of business in the coming weeks.

Measures from the Scottish Legal Aid Board, which is allowing firms to claim interim fees for the first time, have been welcomed, but lawyers say that they will only go so far when no new cases are being heard.

McPartlin’s own firm, Hughes Walker, a two-solicitor practice, no longer has enough work to sustain both lawyers and she has gone onto the Westminster government’s furlough scheme, which means that 80 per cent of her salary up to £2,500 will be paid by the state during the crisis.

“Business is already much reduced and for the firm I work at we can no longer justify having two solicitors to deal with what’s left,” McPartlin says.

Ian Moir, a partner at Moir and Sweeney Litigation in Glasgow, and co-convenor of the Law Society of Scotland’s legal aid committee, draws parallels with the financial crisis a decade ago, which resulted in trainee numbers dropping from more than 600 to about 400.

The impact of the coronavirus is likely to hit the next generation of lawyers too. No firms have yet gone on the record to confirm it, but Moir says that those running criminal practices “are talking about their offered traineeships and saying they can’t see how they can let them start”.

Around a third of the Scottish training contracts commenced each year are offered by firms with five or fewer partners, a large proportion of which are criminal defence practices.

In 2018-19, 188 out of a total of 591 traineeships were in firms of that size. Even a small drop in that number would have a significant impact on prospective lawyers because there is already a mismatch between the number of students completing the diploma in professional legal practice and the training contracts available.

Each year more than 600 students are enrolled on the diploma course across the six Scottish law schools. Currently there are 648, but Law Society figures show that from the 2014-15 the number of trainees taken on has ranged from 540 to 591.

Scott Whyte, the managing director of Watermans Solicitors, says that mismatch results in a disproportionately high number of candidates applying for each role.

“The last time we recruited for trainees we had between 150 and 170 applicants,” Whyte says. “That was for two positons in 2017 and three in 2019.”

Whyte says that while “on the one hand you think it’s great because you’ve got the pick of the bunch, but from a recruitment point of view it’s a nightmare because they are all really good. There is not much that sets one CV apart from another”.

Meena Bahanda of HRC Recruitment says that the situation is worse than the society’s figures imply because the statistics do not take account of candidates from previous years that are still trying to secure training contracts.

That pool is also expected to increase. While until now the diploma has been valid for two years after completion, that limit has been extended to five years for those finishing the course from this year onwards.

“When we advertise for a traineeship we get 200 applicants, but how do you tell them apart when they’ve all been studying the same thing?” she says. “It’s soul-destroying having to go back to 199 people to say, ‘I can’t help you.’ ”

For now, it looks as though only smaller firms are contemplating cancelling this year’s training contracts and larger commercial outfits, such as Brodies and Burness Paull, say that their intakes will not be affected.

“We are monitoring the situation very closely, and it is our current position that we are not postponing our training contracts,” says Peter Lawson, the Burness Paull chairman.

A spokeswoman for Brodies says that the firm is “currently in the process of interviewing — using remote working tools — those trainees who qualify this autumn for newly qualified roles”.

“We will continue to honour all training contracts and other job offers that we have made,” she added.