Is the SRA’s voluntary code of conduct fit for purpose? 

Undergraduate students across the country have been anxiously waiting for confirmation as to whether or not they have been successful in their applications for training contracts.

However, there have been calls from some law firms suggesting that their competitors have an unfair advantage in their recruitment processes by failing to adhere to a voluntary code of conduct put in the place by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

The SRA’s voluntary code to good practice in the recruitment of trainee solicitors was drawn up in 2007 to assist with the recruitment of both law and non-law degree students as trainee solicitors.

Employers voluntarily subscribe to and agree to comply with their responsibilities under the code which states that offers of employment as a trainee solicitor will not be made before 1 September in the student’s final year of undergraduate study. There are now suggestions that those firms, who do not sign up to the code, may be preying on the fears of students and poaching the talent they want from under the very noses of their competitors.

Tracy White, Senior Human Resources Manager at Bircham Dyson Bell, told SJ of the difficulties her firm has had this summer: “We run our application process up to the 31 July and began our interviews the week beginning the 11 August. In that one week turnaround of shortlisting our applicants we had a small number decline our invitation to interview because they had already accepted training contracts elsewhere. It is frustrating that in the first week of August you find you can’t interview someone.”

She continued: “We didn’t give out our offers to those successful candidates until the 1 September and at least one had already been made an offer elsewhere. It would be interesting to know the rationality as to the code’s timeframes; is it to help students or is it to help firms? I suspect it is more to help students make the best decisions as to their futures, but I wonder if those who get an offer in August feel that they cannot take the risk of declining their first offer as they need a job, but then lose out on later offers made in accordance with the suggested timeframes.”

Informed choice

Trainee solicitor recruitment advisor to Burges Salmon, Frances Lambton, explained that her firm is a signatory to the code: “I have heard of students being given hints of how their application might turn out but have not experienced the loss of any potential trainees to other firms. It seems to us that most firms do stick to the guidelines; however, for those potential trainees that the code doesn’t cover it is a bit of a free-for-all. Our policy has always been to make all our offers on the 1 September, which gives us the chance to meet everybody we want to over the summer.

She continued: “It would be of great benefit for everyone to wait until 1 September to make offers so that all of the firms get to see all of the candidates and vice versa. We have had applicants who do not fit into the code who have pulled out of interviews because they have been made an offer elsewhere, which is obviously disappointing to us.”

There are obvious disadvantages to getting that early offer as Lambton explained: “I have got the impression, on occasion, that some of these students would have liked to attend to see what we are all about but nobody wants to turn down a job offer. They might know the outcome but they might miss the opportunity to see another firm, which is obviously why some firms like to get in there early.

Lambton supports the code and, in an ideal world, believes all firms should adhere to it: “It is a positive for those at that stage of their career when they might not be exactly sure what they want. They can make an informed choice on their offer. It is also good for the firm as it means you have people joining who really want to be there. It is a less stressful time for the firm and the candidate.”

Undue stress

Darren Hooker, a solicitor in the charity and social enterprise team at Stone King, shared his experience as an undergraduate searching for a training contract: “At the time I was making applications and attending interviews, I found there was an inconsistency between deadlines between firms. I had managed to secure an offer from one firm but was still waiting to undertake a final interview with another firm which was actually my preferred choice.”

Hooker believes that he could not take the risk of rejecting the offer of a training contract and so accepted the offer with the first firm before its deadline expired even though he was still waiting to hear from his preferred firm. “I was lucky enough to then secure a contract with my favoured firm but I then had a question of whether I could back out of a training contract I had already accepted,” he explained.

“I spoke with the Law Society for some advice, and was told that I could in theory be sued for a breach of contract. It was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but I eventually decided that I would back out of the offer I had already accepted to accept the offer from my favoured firm.”

He continued: “It was not a decision I took lightly, and it was a shame that something which should have been a cause for celebration caused me undue worry and stress. I think it would be a good idea, as far as possible, to maintain a consistent approach to application and interview processes between firms to ensure that this type of situation does not affect other prospective trainees.”

Unfair advantage

Mark Solon, a solicitor and director of legal training company Bond Solon, is of the belief that the application and offer window should be a mandatory period to stop some firms from having an advantage over those that follow the voluntary code: “What would happen to football clubs if the transfer window was merely optional? A mandatory window would improve stability and prevent firms from searching for the best candidates all year around.”

Chair of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society (JLD), Sophia Dirir, agreed telling SJ: “While the voluntary code was introduced before the JLD formed, the JLD is naturally concerned that firms are straying from the code. I’m sure our members would agree that it is a shame that some firms are gaining an advantage from disregarding the code, giving them what many would say is an unfair advantage over others. The JLD would be interested in knowing the extent of the problem.”

SJ requested information from the SRA as to the numbers of firms signed up to the voluntary code and whether there were any plans to make it compulsory. A spokesman responded that it was “not the right time to comment on this”. Perhaps changes are afoot.

This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 5 September 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.