Legal Recruitment from Ten-Percent Legal

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Newly Qualified Solicitors - heads of department jobs?

28/04/08 Newly qualified solicitors – head of departments?

We recently had a firm register a vacancy with us for a family solicitor at newly qualified level on the high street, dealing with private work being paid in the early £20,000’s. I thought this was quite a straightforward vacancy as it fitted in the area for the salary, family lawyers are increasingly hard to find posts for, got plenty of candidates. However after sourcing three to four candidates, and arranging interviews, we sent the first two candidates to the firm and eagerly awaited a response.

When our consultant got in touch with the firm to find out how they had got on, they told us that one candidate was going to make an offer and the other candidate was no good. We contacted the candidates for feedback and they both told us the same thing. The first one said that she had been there five minutes when the senior partner of the firm had informed her that she was going to be head of department for family law. I’d not realised this comment, in the area for the salary, family lawyers are increasingly hard to find posts for, got plenty of candidates. However after sourcing three to four candidates, and arranging interviews, we sent the first two candidates to the firm and eagerly awaited a response.

When our consultant got in touch with the firm to find out how they had got on, they told us that one candidate was going to be made an offer and the other candidate was no good. We contacted the candidates for feedback and they both told us the same thing. The first one said that she had been there five minutes when the senior partner of the firm had informed her that she was going to be head of department for family law. She had not realised this, and neither had we, and therefore she shook the senior partner’s hand, said no, thank you and walked out.

The other candidate had said that she thought the firm was really nice and she was waiting for an offer from them. We asked her about the head of department conundrum and she said that she had been told she would be running the department and would need to think about but that she had other interviews to attend anyway.

In the end, the second candidate decided not to take up the offer of running a family law department on a salary in the early £20K’s.

So what should you do in this circumstance? Well, in our opinion you should avoid head of department posts like the plague until you are at least one year qualified, if not getting close to three. It is not a question of seizing the bull by the horns, but rather from avoiding any difficulties in such matters as handling complicated files and making mistakes, and in the worst case scenario, ending up before the solicitor’s disciplinary tribunal. If you read the back of the Law Society Gazette and see where interventions have been made into law firms or disciplinary proceedings started, it is frightening the number of times that solicitors get disciplined and their defence is they were fairly recently qualified and ignorant of certain issues.

I think personally it is unfair of firms to expect this from a newly qualified solicitor in any event. If I had been offered a head of department post as a newly qualified solicitor, I would have been flattered on the one hand and possibly not able to see past the motives of the firm for making you the head of department and rather just looking at my own ego. This is partly why I think it’s unfair of the firm to make such offers. We know, as recruiters, why they are making this offer, and it has nothing to do with their considered competency of the person they are going to interview. It is instead a question of salary and the fact that they save an awful lot of money employing a newly qualified solicitor to run a department instead of the actual person who ought to be running the department, which is a two plus year qualified solicitor. The difference in salary is not actually that great when you take into consideration the work that that person will be doing. A three year qualified solicitor dealing with family law in the area that this firm were based in would have cost them in the reason of about £30,000 to £35,000. If you factor in issues such as newly qualified solicitors questioning matters on file or needing to seek counsel’s opinion, or needing to get things dealt with by you as the principal, you would probably find that the more experienced solicitor would make more money than the inexperienced one.

Sometimes we do wonder about firms, and we have noticed that when a newly qualified or recently qualified has been employed to run a department, on the whole it has been short lived. The newly qualified solicitor desperately wants to escape from the firm as they suddenly realise they are way beyond their depth and need to get into a firm with a supervisor, and the firm realised they’re not actually making any money on the newly qualified solicitor, seek to get rid of them. I have found over the years that the normal length of time that somebody lasts in such a role is about six months, possibly extending to 12 months, but even when they have been with the firm for two to three years, they’re still looking to get out because they still haven’t had anyone to benchmark themselves against as the only solicitor in the department. This often means that they want to go and work for a firm with a large department so they can see how other solicitors deal with matters and not the way that they deal with it.

So in summary, if you are a firm looking for a family solicitor to head a department, there is no escaping the fact that you need someone with experience, and if you do not do this then you will find that not only will your profits be affected but also you may damage the reputation of your firm. If you are a newly qualified or recently qualified solicitor looking for a family job or similar and get offered a head of department role, think about the motives of the firm for offering you this, and not your own ego or status. It may be the worse decision you ever make.

Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of Ten Percent Legal Recruitment (www.ten-percent.co.uk). He regularly commentates and writes on the state of the legal profession and the legal job market and can be contacted for media or press comments or free careers advice at cv@ten-percent.co.uk

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