This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Read our cookies policy for more information.

ACCUTRAINEE: a new type of training contract?

14 February 2012 

An exclusive interview with CEO Susan Cooper

You may have heard a lot in the legal press online recently about a firm called Acculaw, which has recently rebranded under the ACCUTRAINEE name.  They are setting themselves up as an alternative to the standard training contract model. As their CEO, Susan Cooper explains in the following interview with Future Lawyers Network, they will recruit trainees directly and then second them out to the firms. There are pros and cons to this approach and it's fair to say it's had a mixed reception so far.  We explore some of the issues in this interview.

ACCUTRAINEE have agreed a pilot scheme with Olswang, the only firm to openly sign up to the idea so far, but ACCUTRAINEE say they are in discussions with other firms and hope to start recruiting trainees by mid 2012.

Interviewer

OK firstly can you give me a summary of the legal training market from your perspective. Where are you coming from?

Susan Cooper

In recent years there been a lot pressures put on law firms which have been having an impact upon the training market.  For example, the Legal Services Act, the change in client power and the advances in IT.  All of these things are squeezing the training market.  And just to top it all off the recent recession has had a significant impact resulting in a 23% reduction in training contracts over the last few years. 

Interviewer

Do you think it’s fair to say that firms are looking to cut costs?  Even if the recessionary principles weren’t there, do you think the other factors would be forcing firms to cut costs anyway?  They’re looking to become leaner and to provide, more value for money for the clients?

Susan Cooper

Absolutely. This isn’t just a recessionary thing when you look at the increase in powers that clients have got and in particular the way they are putting pressure on firms to alter their fee structures.  Clearly, when you shift from an hourly rate to a fixed fee or the other fee structures that are being mooted, the way forward for firms is to concentrate on their own costs in order to protect their profit margins. 

When you also consider that one of the main reasons behind the Legal Services Act, is to increase competition within the legal market, firms need to develop competitive advantage by looking at improving efficiencies of processes. 

Interviewer

OK so within that context, can you just explain briefly how the ACCUTRAINEE model will work?

Susan Cooper

What the ACCUTRAINEE Model does is make the training of future lawyers more attractive to law firms and in house legal departments.  Because they’re facing a lot of pressures, one of the immediate reactions - not least because of the recession - is to reduce their training contract numbers.  When you couple that with things like advances in IT and in particular the sort of threat that legal process outsourcing brings, you can see that demand for trainee level work can start to decline.  However, that doesn’t take us away from the fact that we still need to maintain a steady stream of qualified lawyers into the industry and also to ensure that the profession is not losing valuable talent.  So what the ACCUTRAINEE Model does is offer trainee services to firms in a far more cost effective, efficient and flexible way making it more attractive for them to continue training future lawyers. One of the things that ACCUTRAINEE is trying to offer firms is the ability to adapt the number of trainees and qualified lawyers they have to what they actually need in a shorter time frame.  One of the problems that firms have persistently had is trying to predict how many trainee solicitors - and therefore newly qualified solicitors - they need as they often recruit trainees 2-3 years in advance.  In a way the ACCUTRAINEE model offers a buffer for a firm to be able to have access to top quality trainees in line with workflow demand over a much shorter time frame.

Interviewer

OK can you explain how the model will work in a bit more nuts and bolts.  Please bear in mind that a lot of our audience will be 17, 18 or 19 year olds, or their parents so they might not be too familiar with the legal services and training market.  How does it work in terms of the secondments and their length?  How do you see that working?

Susan Cooper

Effectively ACCUTRAINEE itself recruits graduates as trainee solicitors so we offer them the training contract as we are authorised to do so by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.  However we only do this once we’ve had commitment from a certain number of firms to second those trainees.  This ensures that we have enough secondments in place for a trainee to finish their training contract. 

The number of firms that a trainee works for and the duration for which they are seconded very much depends on the type of firm the graduate wants to work for and the type of availability the clients have.  So for example if we’re talking about a larger multi disciplinary firm there is more likelihood that the trainee will work only for that firm for the duration of their training contract.  However with the smaller niche practice firms or in-house legal departments we’re more likely to bring together a consortium of 2 or 3 firms that a trainee will work for during their training contract. 

Trainees won’t be jumping in and out of firms as this will be disruptive for both the firms and for the trainees.   Typically each secondment will last for 6 months or more. 

Interviewer

So you won’t be setting up a sort of temping pool of trainee’s?

Susan cooper

No, we don’t have a big pool of trainees that firms can just flit in and out of as they wish.  The model is based on matching up the right trainees for the right firm.  We do that by understanding what the firms’ requirements are for trainees, including exactly the type of trainees they are looking for. Depending upon the size of their requirements and the number of months that they need, we will then determine whether we can recruit a trainee to fill a vacancy within one client firm or whether we need to put two or three clients together to form a consortium.  That trainee is then seconded to the different firms in order to complete their training contract.

Interviewer

So do you think you’ll be focusing on the smaller firms who don’t have the resources to set up and monitor training as effectively as the big firms?

Susan Cooper

There are different advantages depending on the size of the firm.  For smaller firms, the key advantage is that they’re not having to commit to an additional trainee in terms of either head count or employer’s liabilities as ACCUTRAINEE IS the trainee’s employer.  They also don’t have to commit to paying for a trainee at times when they are not using them such as when they’re off sick, on holiday or when they’re doing the PSC course. 

It also effectively ends the aggravation factor of taking on someone when they don’t or can’t offer all of the training specified by the SRA.  So for a niche practice firm they don’t get the headache of trying to work out where else the trainee will need to be seconded to in order to ensure that the three practice areas and the contentious and non contentious seat requirements are met.  We deal with all of that for them. 

With regards to the larger firms there are different advantages.  Clearly one of the big ones is cost; for the larger firms there’s a far bigger cost advantage of using this model but also these firms tend to recruit many years in advance.  Because we’re in a constant dialogue with them, the firms can eliminate the need to constantly try to predict their training requirements so many years in advance.

By telling us what their trainee requirements are in the near future, we can work to getting the right number and type of trainees ready for them in much shorter time frames.  For larger firms, this works in line with their own recruitment procedures should they have additional trainee needs over and above the number they have recruited themselves. 

They’re very different benefits depending on the size of the firm so I would hope that firms of all sizes would be interested in this model.

Interviewer

So given that you can be more responsive, is there a danger that the firms will want to take trainees from you when they’re short of staff and then drop them when the work dries out, when the clients go away?

Susan Cooper

In part, that is what the model offers, access to top quality trainees within short time frames when there is an unforeseen need for additional resources.  However, it’s not right to say they can then drop trainees when work dries up.  Our clients will have committed to a trainee for a specified time.  There is a degree of flexibility which is offered but we must ensure that each trainee is able to complete their training contract in a timely manner.

Interviewer

Let’s say worse case scenario, the trainees come back to you between secondments, what will they do? Presumably you’re still paying them, so what will they be doing if they’re not working for a firm?

Susan Cooper

Because of the up-front commitments we look for, this would only happen in very unusual circumstances.  One of the things that we can do which isn’t so easy for our clients is to look for an alternative secondment to a different firm that may have an immediate requirement.  You are right in saying that if this situation were to ever arise we will continue to pay the trainee’s salary.  We would also see if it was possible for that trainee to complete more of the Professional Skills Course which we pay for and organise which is required by the SRA.  

Interviewer

Just moving on from the model to the type of people. You’ve said that you may be taking on trainees that haven’t got firsts (degrees) or good 2.1’s.  Do you see yourself as offering hope to trainees that are traditionally overlooked by the larger firms?

Susan Cooper

As much as we try to introduce flexibility to our clients, we are also trying to introduce flexibility to the graduates in that we acknowledge that there are always individual circumstances which must be considered.  But I would stress that this isn’t an easy route into the legal industry.  We still have very stringent criteria which need to be met but what we try and do is to review each application as a whole, looking at all of the circumstances.  We try and encourage people to talk to us so we can understand why they’ve got to where they’ve got to and where they want to be heading. 

In terms of people that haven’t got a 1st or a 2.1, to some extent we will be governed by what our clients are looking for but if they aren’t specific that gives us a little bit of flexibility to review people who we feel would make fantastic candidates and exceptional lawyers but for one reason or another have been unsuccessful so far. 

One of the other things that this allows us to do is to bring in people who perhaps have not been able to demonstrate their skills in a one-day interview process.  This gives them an opportunity to go into a perspective employer’s office and have a large period of time, say 6 or 12 months to really demonstrate their skills. 

This can work towards helping diversity and social mobility in the profession as candidates who perhaps haven’t receive the same degree of guidance on how to conduct themselves in a business interview environment are given greater opportunities to prove themselves to prospective employers.  In some cases, we will mentor people who we feel have a specific need through this process. 

Interviewer

So do you think this opens up the question that in the past firms have been focusing too much on the academic qualifications and that there’s this idea that you can’t become a good lawyer unless you’ve got a 1st from one of the red brick universities?

Susan Cooper

I think I can identify with the situation that firms are in.  They receive a huge number of applications for a small number of positions and clearly there needs to be some form of cut off.  What is different about ACCUTRAINEE is that we’re in the business of recruiting trainees unlike the law firms who are in the business of offering legal services.  Recruiting trainees is what we do; so we’re able to focus more on the issues and the reasons why someone may not have achieved the things they could  have achieved.  Our focus is on sources the best candidates available in the market. It would be a very harsh reality if everyone believes that just because you didn’t get a 1st or a 2.1 that there was no way you could ever make a good lawyer.  And so it’s more about bringing flexibility and spending more time on trying to understand the circumstances of applicants that we feel would make very good trainee solicitors. 

Interviewer

So is the ACCUTRAINEE likely to come from a more diverse background than the traditional model?

Susan Cooper

I very much hope that they will come from a more diverse background.  I think the emphasis is on us recruiting trainees that we believe will make excellent lawyers.  We are looking for very high quality and a high standard of applicants.  But what we’re saying is, if there’s one particular element of your application that isn’t quite up to scratch we want to look at the reasons behind that.  The reality is that in many cases, someone won’t get through for a very valid reason.  Unfortunately there’s also another reality that currently there are people who are slipping through the net who are very talented individuals and are being lost to the legal profession.  And I think it’s those individuals that we’re really seeking to find, in addition to the high calibre, high quality candidates that law firms hear from year on year.

Interviewer

Do you think there’s a danger that there’s the perception this might create a two-tier system of trainees; the ones with training contracts that have gone traditionally to the firms and the ACCUTRAINEEs? 

Susan Cooper

This is something that we’re very sensitive to.  You have to understand that our entire brand and the success of our business is very much reliant upon our clients and our trainees being happy with what we’re delivering.  And so a big part of the process of working with a client, is clarifying the basis under which the trainees will be seconded to them.  If a trainee seconded from ACCUTRAINEE is treated in any lesser way than a firm’s own trainees, then the whole system and the model won’t work so we have systems in place to protect this. 

The discussions that we’ve had with law firms has been on the premise that when an ACCUTRAINEE is seconded to them, they are treated no differently to their own trainees in terms of training and treatment. This includes things like ensuring our trainees are invited to the firms drinks and have access to all the same training workshops.  So to all intents and purposes they should be treated as if they are one of the cohort of that law firm.  Subsequently if that trainee is able to demonstrate their skills during a secondment to a firm, there seems no commercial or logical reason why the firm would exclude that person if they felt that they had the right skills and personality to fit the job.  

Interviewer

I get the commercial drivers behind it but what mechanisms are you going to put in place to ensure that the ACCUTRAINEE is going to get the full range of work? For example, that they’re going to be working with clients and senior staff as opposed to doing the photocopying. 

Susan Cooper

The people that we talk to are all very aware of the requirements.  We will have agreed a training plan first of all with the client and in addition to that we’re in close dialogue with our trainees.  We meet with our trainees at least once a month so that we can have discussions with them about what they’ve done during that month, how their training is progressing and the kind of training they’re receiving.  Obviously if concerns are being raised that a trainee isn’t getting the right level of training with a client, then that needs to be addressed straightaway. 

Interviewer

Let’s just play devil’s advocate and say that a firm has got a diverse group of trainees that they’ve taken on to try to match their needs and actually they’re looking for the Russell Group, you know, they’re looking for the more traditional lawyer group.  You’re going to have to quietly ditch the idealistic kind of pallet and go for something a little bit more predictable in order to make the sums add up aren’t you?

Susan Cooper

At the end of the day we’re recruiting these trainee solicitors.   They become our employees and we must have the final say on who we employ and who we don’t employ.  However we are also offering a service to our clients and we need to be sensitive to their needs and wishes.  We will always look to source the best candidates based on their individual skill set, potential and passion to become an outstanding lawyer.  What we hope we can do is introduce trainees from a more diverse background for the reasons that I explained earlier. 

When you look at some of the typical HR requirements which focus on graduates who have shown an interest in - or a passion for - law from the age of 13 or 14, this points to people who have already got parents who are professionals or perhaps are even in the legal profession.  People from low income families for example may not even know what a legal career would entail until much later on but that should not suggest they will not be as committed to a legal career or as passionate.  We’re very much trying to avoid discriminating on these kinds of issues. 

There are many people who look fantastic on paper but time after time are not succeeding in getting a training contract.  We want to bring these people in and see if it’s something to do with the way they are conducting themselves during the interview process.  Is it that they’re unfamiliar with how they should conduct themselves, how they should be dressed or even down to some minor personal development issue?  We want to get an understanding of whether this is a simple issue that could be overcome with a bit of guidance or mentoring and thereafter that person is going to make a fantastic trainee.   These are the hurdles in the current model that people don’t have an opportunity to get over.



 

Recent comments

 

Have your say

Login or register to contribute.