Managing training contracts - hear from our seminar panel

Our Managing Training Contracts seminar in January heard from three organisations investing in in-house training contracts to resource their legal teams. Hear what they had to say about how organisations can benefit from offering training contracts, what supervising a trainee entails, and the main hurdles you may face.

Daniel Gwynn, head of legal services (property), Travis Perkins plc

The Travis Perkins plc Group (TP) culture and ethos is very much focused on ‘home growing’ our talent and promoting from within. The benefits to a company of developing its own talent, not just in the General Counsel Office (GCO) (which the legal team forms part of) but across the whole organisation, will be self-evident to anyone who has seen talent rise to senior positions from graduate or apprenticeship roots.

TP has provided a training contract for at least one trainee per year intermittently for a number of years, depending on the needs of the business. In addition, we also have two trainees on secondment for six months from our panel firms who do a six-month seat with the business to gain insight into the in-house life and the workings of a major client.

For managing the training contract effectively, our primary resource is the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), but we also share knowledge and best practice with other in-house teams and our panel firms. Regarding recruitment, salary and benefits, we are fortunate as a business to have our own recruitment department, who are able to benchmark to ensure we stay competitive, attractive and fair in the marketplace.

The recruitment department also assist the GCO with the advertisement of the role, through a variety of channels; CV sifting; and the facilitation of a one-day selection centre to identify the best trainees (and, potentially, a future GC!). The selection centre involves a myriad of tasks including role play, and the day finishes with an interview. We do not test for legal knowledge, and instead focus on commercial attributes and whether the candidate is the right fit for our culture.

TP has an annual turnover of over £6 billion, and is run along four divisions: consumer; general merchanting; contracts; and plumbing and heating. The successful candidate will undertake four six-month seats in the following practice areas: real estate; commercial; company; and either corporate recoveries or a discipline of choice on secondment to a panel firm.

Why bother with a trainee?

Our capability to ‘home grow’ provides an environment to produce lawyers who are in tune with TP’s corporate culture and understand our business strategy and risk profile. We all talk about wanting our people to be ‘commercial’, and in order to be so and have the confidence to make decisions, a lawyer needs to understand the culture, strategy and risk framework in which their decisions sit. Through our training, we mould our lawyers in our organisation’s image and make them a true business partner with other key stakeholders. We want our trainees to be ‘influencers’ within the business and not simply a ‘service provider’.

Knowing the business is also central to being ‘commercial’, and our training scheme involves spending time with the operational business and other central functions. This gives the trainee that wide knowledge and mix of operational and corporate skills that makes them a more effective lawyer on qualification than an NQ poached from private practice.

By nature of our size and sector, TP has a high volume of low risk work which amounts to a ready-made trainee caseload. This enables work to be done at the right level and reduces panel fees. However, trainees also assist with more complex work to ensure a thorough and competent training experience.

Do not overlook leveraging your relationship with your panel firms in return for your external spend and in order to help make the external provider a seamless part of the in-house team. TP gets the benefit of two seconded trainees (one commercial, one property) in addition to our internal trainee. We treat the secondees as part of the team and they add huge value to the business.

A yearly trainee intake provides a talent pipeline to fill vacancies in the GCO (and potentially other areas of the business), allowing for organic growth and effective succession planning.

As well as all the reasons above, providing training contracts is also in keeping with the GCO’s vision of ‘doing the right thing’ by giving back to our profession by training technically excellent, commercially astute and well rounded lawyers for the future.

What are the considerations?

Managing a trainee takes time and dedication, so an in-house team must ensure they are of the right size and shape to provide the management and training required by the SRA.

A consideration of the talent pipeline is also necessary to ensure the number of NQs are dovetailed with the business’s needs to ensure the best ROI. However, be mindful that well-trained NQs are in demand by private practice firms – often with deeper pockets – and this will impact your retention rate.

Finally, ask yourself: are you committed to the process? It should never be about cheap labour, and your organisation should be motivated to train their lawyers to be the best and reach their full potential.

For TP, training in-house is a cost-effective way to grow the team while adding value to the business and developing high quality, commercially astute and technically excellent lawyers that will be future leaders of the GCO and will ensure its continued success.

Susan Cooper, founder of Accutrainee

In-house lawyers need to deliver greater value for money to their boards by improving efficiency and reducing external legal spend. Taking on your own trainee solicitor can reap many rewards in this regard, both immediate and in the longer term. One thing is certain: with the changing dynamics of in-house workloads, how an in-house team is leveraged is becoming more and more important.

If you’re worried about quality, don’t be. There is an abundance of excellent talent out there, just desperate for the opportunity to become an in-house lawyer. The key, of course, is identifying the right fit for you and your team. It’s important to have a clear idea of the type of candidate you are looking for, including the skills, attributes and previous experience which will benefit your team. You may already have an individual in mind – a paralegal who has become an integral part of your team, perhaps – and offering them a training contract eliminates the risk of losing them elsewhere.

What does the process look like?

Here are some of the main points to consider.

  • SRA authorisation – You must be an SRA-authorised training provider to offer a training contract. You will need to nominate a training principal and complete a form for the SRA, making various declarations about your ability to train a trainee.
  • Selection process – It’s important to have a clear plan in place in terms of trainee specification, your selection process and who will run it. Our selection process consists of a first-round HR interview, followed by invitation to an assessment centre, which involves the completion of competency-based interviews, commercial awareness and attention-to-detail written exercises, and a presentation candidates must prepare, deliver and answer questions on. We sometimes ask candidates to return for a third-round interview to ensure we are selecting the very best candidates for our clients. Your own selection process may cover additional tasks such as psychometric testing and in-tray exercises, or simply a straightforward CV, cover letter and interview process. Either way, given market conditions, it is highly likely that you will receive hundreds of applications once you advertise a training contract opportunity.
  • Training plan – You will need to consider regulatory requirements and how they will be satisfied; for example, ensuring your trainee can gain practical experience in at least three distinct areas of English and Welsh law and practice, and that trainees are given the opportunity to develop contentious and non-contentious practice skills standards (which can be found on the SRA website). It’s worth noting that, since 2014, a distinct contentious seat is no longer mandatory, but trainees are still required to experience and demonstrate the contentious skills standards. If you feel that your organisation will not be able to satisfy these requirements on its own, consider arranging a secondment for your trainee or enlisting the help of someone like Accutrainee who can assist.
  • Registration – Training contracts, or periods of recognised training as they are now called, need to be registered with the SRA along with a fee, ideally at least 30 days before the training contract starts.
  • Supervision and training – Ensure you have dedicated supervisors for your trainee who will have overall responsibility for the trainee’s day-to-day tasks. Supervisors do not have to be qualified solicitors, but should have the necessary skills and experience in order to train in the given practice area. It’s important to ensure that those who will have supervisory responsibility are familiar with the regulatory requirements, and they should ideally receive some guidance on how to deliver a good training experience to the trainee. During the period, trainees will be required to complete the professional skills course, which, as the training provider, you will be required to pay for. This requires the trainee to be out of the office for approximately 12 working days over the two-year period. You may also need to consider additional formal training to supplement any lack of contentious work if your trainee has not received sufficient exposure to the contentious practice skills standards.
  • Practice skills standards and principles – By carrying out trainee work, trainees need to experience and demonstrate their ability to meet the practice skills standards by completing tasks first hand, or by assisting or observing others. Trainees are required to keep a detailed record (which needs to be verified by the supervisor) of the tasks they complete, the skills they have attained and reflections on their learning experiences. Trainees will also need to comply with the SRA principles.
  • Qualification – To qualify, your training principal will need to certify to the SRA that all regulatory requirements have been satisfied. You will need to submit a form and fee to the SRA at least four weeks before the qualification date and the trainee will need to approve a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS – formerly Criminal Records Bureau) check directly with the SRA.

What’s new?

As a final thought, it’s worth pointing out that the SRA is currently going through its ‘Training for Tomorrow’ programme. It has been looking at different routes to qualification, and there are some significant changes on the horizon. Although the SRA is still consulting on this, it is highly likely that from September 2019, individuals starting their journey to qualification will have to pass a new centralised exam, the Solicitors Qualification Exam, in order to qualify as a solicitor. There will be two parts to the exam, the first testing a candidate’s ability to use and apply legal knowledge, and the second testing legal skills acquired during the period of work-based experience.

There is currently a suggested longstop date of 2024: this will be the latest date by which an individual will be able to qualify under the existing route.

Susanna McGibbon, director of litigation, Government Legal Department

We have run a legal trainee scheme for over 25 years. As a large legal services provider, we are keen to recruit talent from all parts of the legal market. We see value in having a mix of homegrown lawyers and those who have qualified elsewhere and bring valuable private sector experience to the team. The importance of the trainee scheme to our business is reflected in the seniority of those who run it – all very experienced senior civil servants.

Legal trainees are one of our most important assets – the training they receive enables them to experience a range of government legal work and gain a good understanding of how different departments operate. We find that they become an important flexible resource in their post-qualification years. Our recruitment and selection process focuses rigorously on identifying those candidates with the potential and motivation to become excellent government lawyers with the knowledge and skills required to work on a range of legal topics.

Motivation for our work is important – we are keen to see a return on our investment. Happily, it is reflected in our high retention figures. We apply the Civil Service recruitment principles of fair and open competition, and strive to attract a pool of high quality, culturally diverse applicants. We advertise nationally through the Civil Service website and various online publications. We promote the scheme through campus events and attendance at law fairs.

Over the years, we have honed and refined our recruitment processes to increase fairness. We use blind sifting. Applicants complete three online tests. Those who reach the standard in all three tests are entered into a pool from which the top 150 are invited to an assessment centre, comprising a written exercise and an interview. Assessors have no access to the candidate’s personal information, eg A-level results, university, ethnicity etc.

Our training contracts follow a fairly traditional pattern of four six-month seats – two contentious and two non-contentious. In each seat, they work under close supervision doing real work for real clients. We take pride in the high quality training we provide. The supervisor in each seat is responsible for setting development objectives, supporting the trainee day to day, reviewing work and giving feedback, and ensuring they have a manageable and wide-ranging workload. It is crucial that the supervisor sets aside time each week to do this. Given the importance of the role, all supervisors receive management training as well as a briefing session on what is expected of them. This equips them to give effective feedback, hold difficult conversations, and avoid traps such as micro-managing. We aim to let our trainees thrive.

We encourage our trainees to provide feedback on how they are being supervised and we regularly evaluate our legal trainee programme. In a recent development, each trainee has a senior civil servant sponsor, who stays with them throughout their two-year training programme and into their first post-qualification job. Sponsors meet their trainees regularly to check that the seat is meeting the trainee’s learning and development objectives, and that supervision is effective. The deeper relationship and trust that is built between sponsor and trainee over that period enables trainees to feel confident to raise any issue, personal or professional, affecting them.

We maintain close links with the Law Society and the SRA, and one of our senior sponsors keeps abreast of developments and updates colleagues. Where appropriate, we will contribute to consultation exercises etc.

In terms of funding, we give support to successful applicants for the LPC, but funding for the Graduate Diploma in Law is generally not available. Trainee salary scales are in line with other Civil Service graduate schemes.

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