Will touted new venture Acculaw provide new route to law or fuel lawyer sub-class?

It has its critics, but new training venture Acculaw has also won praise from notable figures

Even without another downturn, the outlook for law students remains far from rosy. The number of training contracts on offer last year shrunk to 4,874, a fall of 23% against its peak in 2007-08, while the pool of legal practice course (LPC) graduates without an offer continues to grow monthly.

Yet law firms eyeing the uncertain market are in some cases still scaling back their future intakes. In this context, former Lovells lawyer Susan Cooper (pictured above) claims to have found a workable solution with her newly-founded business Acculaw. The unusual venture will see Acculaw offer training contracts to LPC graduates and oversee their development by providing training and seconding them to law firms.

Acculaw, which has been authorised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to take on trainees, plans to first contract with law firms before deciding how many trainees to take on. Law firms will be able to specify the number of trainees they need during a particular period and some additional criteria, while also deciding the length of each secondment (although they are bound to a minimum period of three months).

Acculaw will, aside from monitoring trainees’ development, arrange and pay for the professional skills course, the final compulsory training element before a trainee can qualify as a solicitor, which is provided by schools like the College of Law.

“Once a graduate accepts a training contract with us, we become responsible for that trainee in the same way a firm is responsible for any of its trainees,” says Cooper.

Although salaries have not yet been finalised, it is anticipated that pay will start at around £20,000 per annum (against roughly £30,000 at City firms). Acculaw, meanwhile, will generate revenues from law firms, which pay a set amount per secondment and a premium if the trainee ends up in permanent employment at the firm.

The model has been authorised under longstanding regulatory standards initially envisaged for use by local authority legal teams, which were expected to second trainees to law firms, though it has been relatively rarely used. (An SRA spokesperson disputes Acculaw’s description of itself as the first non-legal service provider to win accreditation to train lawyers as the body has a training principal who is a practising solicitor, arguing the move is similar to accrediting in-house legal teams).

The project has attracted considerable attention, being hailed in some quarters as an innovative solution to the inflexibility of the trainee intake model. Despite only launching in December 2010, Acculaw has moved to cement its credibility with an advisory board that includes Henry Raine, a high-profile corporate partner at Herbert Smith until his retirement last year, and Practical Law Company founder Robert Dow.

Alongside Cooper, who last year completed an MBA at Cass Business School, Peters & Peters business crime partner Anand Doobay will act as training principal for Acculaw.

Former Linklaters managing partner Tony Angel informally discussed the venture with Cooper after an introduction from Richard Gillingwater, the dean of Cass Business School. Angel was impressed with the idea and Cooper’s pitch, believing it will have particular relevance for smaller law firms that struggle to recruit and train their own solicitors.

“It’s an intriguing idea,” he comments. “I don’t see it as replacing the traditional system, but it’s potentially a useful addition to the armory. My advice was to focus on quality not to expand willy-nilly – they will have to show they can get good candidates to be a success.”

carter-david-colBut not all City lawyers are sold. “There is a danger that the scheme will create a new sub-class of lawyer positioned somewhere in between a paralegal and a qualified solicitor,” argues Ashurst graduate recruitment partner David Carter (pictured). “There is no way that a temporary trainee will be exposed to high-profile work and clients in the same way as a permanent trainee, not least because of confidentiality issues.”

Cooper counters that its trainees will receive the same level of attention as permanent staff. “If there are any concerns that a trainee is not getting the same level of training or access to clients as other trainees, this will be addressed,” she comments. “The main requirement we have of our clients is that our trainees are treated no differently to their own.”

Cooper also asserts that Acculaw will be able to manage concerns over confidentiality. “Provisions will be in place to safeguard against confidentiality issues,” he says. “Trainees will not be switching from one firm to the next every few weeks and will be made fully aware of their responsibilities and our expectations with regards to confidentiality.” (However, even supporters of the scheme concede that confidentiality concerns are likely to impact on the work seconded trainees are given).

The scheme is targeted primarily at specialist law firms and in-house legal teams that cannot offer the practice spread needed to take a trainee through to qualification. It also offers an alternative to international law firms with small UK operations, which cannot afford to lose valuable partner time to the recruitment process.

Larger, full-service UK firms look less willing to use the model. “A firm like Ashurst would never sign up to this model,” says Carter. “For short-term projects, we can hire teams of paralegals. Our training programme is core to the business as it allows us to grow organically in the long term.”

Probably the most important early endorsement has come from Olswang, which last week became the first law firm to sign up to a pilot with Acculaw. Olswang had previously deferred its September 2011 trainee intake and cancelled its 2013 London recruitment round citing “changes in client demand”.

“The major problem with the current trainee model is the significant lead times for recruiting good quality trainees and the inherent inflexibility in the system,” says Olswang recruitment manager Ffion Griffiths. “That inflexibility does not reflect the requirement for law firms to be nimble in the current market.”

The venture also gains backing from some legal education professionals who believe it could offer a means of widening access to law, which can suffer from the bottleneck of the training contract. Cardiff Law School’s Richard Moorhead says: “Effectively, the scheme will ease the transition from paralegal to solicitor, which has always been a struggle for aspiring lawyers. If it does take off, this will increase diversity and open up access to the profession. Therefore it is to be applauded.”

Indeed, Acculaw will consider graduates that might not have been selected for a traditional training contract. “We appreciate that there can be many reasons why a candidate may have narrowly missed a 2.1 at university – we would still consider those who are in all other respects excellent, provided our clients have specifically approved this,” says Cooper.

It could also be that the largest impact of Acculaw is in pioneering a model which could be taken up by larger non-legal service providers such as publishing businesses or even law schools.

However, others argue that more fundamental changes are needed to ensure the legal education market functions properly. “This is a tactical, rather than strategic response to an ongoing problem,” says College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage. “The SRA needs to get its act together and get on with its legal education review rather than approving a venture that does not offer a long-term solution.”

Recent training contract deferrals and cancellations

June 2011: SNR Denton scales back graduate recruitment programme by 20% – number of TCs reduced from 35 in 2008 to 28 in 2011;
February 2011: Olswang defers September 2011 trainee intake and cancels 2013 London recruitment round due to “changes in client demand”;
June 2011: Allen & Overy announces intention to scale back the number of London training contracts by 14% from 2014, cutting numbers from 105 to 90.