Spirited defence of youth

THE motion heard at the debate organised by the Scottish Young Lawyers Association (SYLA) was provocative and topical.

With young lawyers bearing the brunt of the recession, there was perhaps never a better time to hold the discussion "This house believes that trainees are there to be exploited".

But even before the speakers had uttered a word, the SYLA fired the first shot in the battle. They came to the event, held in The Scotsman office, armed with an opinion from senior counsel that suggested the recent spate of trainee redundancies could have been illegal. According to Iain Mitchell, QC, the change in terminology from "apprentice" to "trainee" had confused some firms as to their obligations.

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"Because words like 'apprentice' are old-fashioned and they invent new words like 'trainee', they think it is a new concept," he said. "In reality it is, in substance, a contract of apprenticeship. From an economic perspective, the temptation to sack trainees is quite attractive. Legally the role hasn't changed at all. It is still the same thing that it always was."

Mr Mitchell contended a trainee's position was more secure than an employed lawyer, because their training contract does not actually represent a contract of employment

"It therefore follows," he said, "that there is no such thing as redundancy. So if somebody is made 'redundant' from a traineeship contract, they are not being made redundant; they are just being sacked."

The debate itself was no less strident. Chaired by Sheriff Deirdre McNeill, it pitched two teams of three against each other in an university-style debate.

Gary McAteer of Beltrami and Co opened proceedings, arguing the term "exploiting" could actually mean trainees were pushed to fulfil their potential. He said the tough traineeship was simply a preparation for the challenges that lay ahead:

"You may have the integrity of leaving university, but you can't have proper integrity until it is challenged and you can't be challenged without training."

Mr McAteer argued young solicitors should play a long game, looking at the potential for an excellent career, even if it means enduring unpleasant conditions during a traineeship.

Countering first was Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre, who opened by claiming that the eager-to-please nature of trainees made them vulnerable.

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He argued having trainees run personal errands or do excessive photocopying was contrary to the training contract, which compels employers to provide a reasonable standard of training, which "does not mean leaving a trainee to run a branch office unsupervised, shouting or bawling at them because of your inadequacies".

Calum McNeill, QC, opened by acknowledging the uphill struggle he and others faced in arguing in favour of the motion. "You can catch my forthcoming speaking engagements, as I address Amnesty International on the subject 'General Pinochet wasn't all bad'," he joked.

Mr McNeill urged the audience to think about the economic context in which the current problems for trainees have occurred: "This isn't a phenomenon that only affects graduates and trainees. It affects people at all levels of the profession. Those with jobs as assistants, associates, even partners are facing pay freezes, flexible working such as three or four-day weeks, and some are facing out-and-out redundancy."

Opening with his recollections of working as a legal trainee, Iain Mitchell, QC, contended that a trainee was "there to be trained and educated".

"What is a typical trainee's experience?" asked David Massaro of HBJ Gateley Wareing, the first of two trainees speaking on either side of the debate. He listed the common complaints of low pay, long hours and being given the most onerous tasks in the office.

"Why is it we are complaining about this now, when it has been going on for so long? I wonder if part of the reason is that as a generation, we are used to having things quite easy. We've never had to work all that hard or struggle and starting a traineeship might be a bit of a shock to the system."

Concluding proceedings, Barney Ross of the Crown Office, pointed out that trainees were valuable to firms, billing much more than they were paid.

"The position of legal trainees in Scotland is abberational," he argued, pointing to higher wages in England and Wales. "We need to ask ourselves in Scotland, why it is so much less?"

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With an audience containing more than its fair share of young lawyers, the motion was defeated overwhelmingly, something that may offer little comfort to the young lawyers who find themselves without a job.