From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 13/09/2011.
The LPC equips young lawyers for the commercial world but leaves them without fully developed family law skills, says Marilyn Stowe as she despairs of her potential trainees
Here in the office, it’s trainee interview time. This year we are looking to take on three new trainees: chicken feed compared to the numbers taken on by large London commercial firms but, like them, we are looking for high-calibre candidates with the ability to think on their feet.
The first interview, with our firm’s HR team, is pleasant enough. The candidates who impress are invited back for a second interview… with me. Now before I go any further, I’d like to point out that I don’t bite. However my son, who recently secured a training contract at a firm in London, pulled no punches when he heard about my interview technique.
“You aren’t easy, Mum!” he said, listening to me complain about the standard of some of our potential trainees, and how I had written them off immediately.
Perhaps I am a tough interviewer, but these days the competition for traineeships is – or should be – tougher than ever. The most recent Law Society figures showed that last year, while the number of full-time LPC places rose by 6.8 per cent to 11,370, the number of new traineeships registered tumbled to 4,874 – a decrease of 16.1 per cent.
At our firm, candidates are given 20 minutes to read through prepared scenarios and make notes, before they are interviewed by me. The scenarios are refreshed and replaced every year. They are inspired by some real-life cases, with identities suitably anonymised, and I will ask a potential trainee what should be done and how he or she would advise a client in such a situation. There are no trick questions.
For example, one of this year’s scenarios involves a Friday afternoon meeting with an English client, who lives with her English husband in Spain. She has made an appointment because she wants to know her options in English law, and casually mentions that her husband is issuing divorce proceedings in Spain next week. What next? There is a straightforward answer.
The candidates all have excellent degrees from Oxbridge and redbrick universities, together with outstanding results in the professional exams. At the time of writing, however, not one of them has known about the need to issue proceedings in England immediately, to protect the client before the husband has the opportunity to issue proceedings in Spain.
Each and every candidate for a training contract with our firm professes a great passion for the subject of family law. They tell me how immersed they are in the subject. Upon questioning, however, it emerges that many of the candidates have been unable to secure the preferred option: a training contract with a commercial law firm. Their qualifications are all tailored to commercial law. Questioned further, it becomes clear that there are large gaps in candidates’ knowledge of family law. Many have been unable to provide detailed answers to questions about financial settlements. As for the Anglo-Spanish scenario: the responses I have been given would land the firm with a whacking negligence claim.
For another fictional scenario, candidates have been asked to assist a client who has been violently attacked by a partner. The client is in receipt of state benefits and requires legal aid. Our firm does not have a legal aid franchise – but the majority of candidates, anxious to demonstrate their knowledge of domestic violence and the law, have had the client in court faster than you can blink. When asked how the client would pay the fees, they have had no response. When informed that failure to discuss legal costs can incur professional sanctions, they have fallen silent.
Have too many potential trainees fallen below expectations this year? Undoubtedly. Is it their fault? I think not. All have been keen, intelligent and have come across very well. Too many have been badly let down by a scarcity of practical family law skills, but I don’t accept that they are to blame. Instead, anyone having a quick glance at any LPC course provider will note how heavily the syllabus is weighted towards subjects relevant to a career in commercial law. By contrast a single, elective course may cover the vast area of public and private family law.
Perhaps my experiences are uncommon. Perhaps the training is very good and those future family lawyers have headed off for the bright lights of Central London. But I’m not so sure. It is all very well for LPC courses to churn out thousands of well-equipped, commercial lawyers of the future, and to advise candidates to choose only those electives that will help them down their chosen career paths, but it is not enough.
My plea to those who devise the LPC courses? With the best will in the world, not every student will secure a commercial training contract. An increased emphasis on the needs of practices like ours – one of nearly 7,000 (chk) firms providing family law services – wouldn’t go amiss.
POSTSCRIPT: I am pleased to note that since writing this piece for Solicitors Journal, Stowe Family Law has offered a traineeship to an excellent candidate. Not only did she shine at interview but, for the past seven years, she has excelled at her studies while also working part-time at Matalan – and I admired her for it.