LAW graduates coming out of universities in recent years will have felt like they are up against it. The number of trainees being taken on by legal firms has been greatly diminished since the worst depths of the economic slowdown a few years ago.
Although there has been a slight improvement from the industry’s low point, the number of trainees is nowhere near pre-recession levels. In the year to November 2008, 592 trainees were registered with the Law Society of Scotland. This plunged to 427 in 2009 before making a recovery in 2010 when there were 527. Last year, however, there were just 472 trainees.
This points to future problems for the legal profession, but right now it’s still feeling the effects of the financial crisis and its impact on industry headcount.
The drop in the number of trainees has precipitated a real problem for firms currently on the lookout for mid-tier staff. Many are discovering that there are fewer suitably experienced professionals from which to choose than in previous years.
The recession has meant the Scottish legal market is suffering from a distinct dearth in the number of experienced solicitors, in particular those with between four and six years of experience.
Areas such as corporate and real estate, sectors that were particularly affected by the downturn, are especially suffering from a lack of mid-level legal professionals as they were forced to trim down in response to reduced workloads.
This is a real issue for growing firms that now have to look outwith their own trainee pool for staff. Traditionally, firms would take on a number of trainees which created a steady supply of lawyers making their way through the system, providing a pool of talent from which growing firms could draw.
With a number of law firms having to impose recruitment freezes during the recession, the result is a bottleneck in the industry. This could have serious implications for firms that are looking to expand in the near future and require experienced solicitors to facilitate that growth.
One of the few silver linings to this issue has been the rise in quality and diversity of lawyers coming through, with many graduates competing for fewer places. Some academic institutions have been quick to respond to the current demands placed on the legal profession by adapting their courses to changes in the market. A great example of this is the launch of Aberdeen University’s undergraduate degree which gives students a dual qualification in English and Scots law.
We’ve seen people from a variety of backgrounds move into law, particularly those pursuing second careers, which has been of equal benefit. They bring with them strong business skills, a sound understanding of different sectors and a well-rounded approach to their working lives, which has maintained and, in many cases, even enhanced what the profession has to offer.
This has seen a number of firms move away from recruiting aspiring lawyers who take the tried-and-tested (and still valuable) paths to law by looking to attract high quality professionals who have taken a more unconventional route into the field. Firms are finding different ways of appealing to these people through their other commitments and interests outside of work.
In HBJ Gateley’s case, staff are encouraged to get involved with the many initiatives with which the firm engages. This has included raising thousands of pounds for charity through events such as the annual Sportsquest dinner, while Frazer Wardhaugh, a construction partner at the firm, recently travelled to Malawi to help build homes for orphaned and vulnerable children. Closer to home, our solicitors will also start working pro-bono with a large Scottish charity to provide legal support to those who might not normally have access to it. Embedding this in the firm has had the added benefit of attracting people who are passionate about different causes and bring with them the drive required for a successful career in law.
There have been many changes to the legal profession since 2008. Some of these present issues to the sector in the short term, but others represent a more profound and positive change for Scotland’s legal firms. How the industry reacts to and harnesses these changes will determine which firms successfully adapt to the changed landscape of Scottish law and make the most of the upturn in the Scottish economy. • Suzanne Grahame is chief executive of HBJ Gateley www.gateleyuk.com