The trainee retention rate is, in simple terms, the number of trainees who are kept on after a training contract (to become NQ or ‘newly qualified’ associates). This is often in the context of a law firm (although not always – especially with the new SQE qualification route, other organisations can offer more flexible periods of training). Larger law firms (for example, Silver Circle and Magic Circle firms) tend to have larger intakes, and so this piece of data ends up being a bigger deal in those contexts.
It is important to note that the trainee retention rate is not exactly the same as the number of trainees which the firm allows to stay on. There are actually a few different numbers that you need to be aware of when reading about different firms’ trainee retention rates. In order, they are:
For example, a low trainee retention rate could indicate that the firm were very harsh in giving out limited offers this time, perhaps due to unfavourable market conditions (step 3 would see the biggest drop-off). However, it could alternatively mean that very few of the trainees wanted to stay on at the firm in the first place (step 2 would see the biggest drop-off). There is obviously a significant difference between those two reasons for a low trainee retention rate, and so understanding all of the numbers above is crucial.
It is also worth noting that some trainees will be kept on, but only for a set period of time (if they impress, or market conditions improve, they are likely to be offered a role indefinitely) – these are known as fixed-term contracts. Some firms disclose this number, and some do not.
Finally, some firms will also specify which areas their trainees qualify into – this can provide you with an idea of what the firm’s priorities are in terms of practice areas at the moment.
There are a number of reasons why aspiring solicitors should care about trainee retention rates.
First of all (and perhaps the most obvious point), trainee retention rates can provide you with some idea of long-term job security. If a firm is consistently over-hiring trainees and then offering very few NQ places at the end of those training contracts, then you may feel a sense of insecurity in regard to your career prospects in the future. Most applicants will want to at least have the option of staying at their firm for a few years post-qualification for a few reasons. First, being able to stay a few years post-qualification means you can have a more settled early career (less hassle in moving around rapidly at the start, and more opportunities to develop a deep network early on).
Second, moving elsewhere is easier if you have a few years of post-qualification experience. This is most clearly illustrated by a quick search of any legal jobs board. Firms hiring external associates are looking for 3-5 years PQE associates (those who have a few years of experience after their training contract) far more often than NQ associates. The same often applies for in-house roles – the majority are not looking for NQ associates.
While the point above clearly references step 3 from the list above, it’s also worth considering why step 2 matters. If one of the firms you are considering applying to (whether for a vacation scheme, training contract, etc) has a very low number of trainees who want to stay on, this is likely an indication of unhappy staff. There are a number of reasons for this, and trainee retention rates give a glimpse into the reality of working at that firm – perhaps the culture of the firm is poor, or the salary is not competitive when compared with similar firms.
Trainee retention rates do vary widely across different types of firms, and even from year to year. An ‘average’ in the City might be somewhere around 75-80%, although numbers as low as 60% or as high as 100% are not massively uncommon, either.
Here are a few examples from 2023 so far. Note that US firms tend to take on far fewer trainees on the whole, and so their numbers tend to be more volatile each year. Also bear in mind that these numbers in general will change significantly each year, and so minor differences listed here are likely to come and go.
Trainee solicitors who do not stay on post-qualification, whether by choice or by force, still have a great number of options available to them. This is not always an indicator of weakness in your own performance – it might just be, for example, that your sponsoring firm had too many people wanting to qualify into a specific practice area that year.
There is still a significant market for NQs to move between firms, and you will likely benefit the most from this market by working with a legal recruitment specialist. You provide your recruiter with information (e.g. ‘I want to work as an NQ in X practice area at a firm which has Y salary and Z culture’), and they will then report back to you on what’s currently available. The process is particularly favourable to you if you’ve trained at a highly-respected firm, or if you’re looking for an NQ role in a practice area which is particularly in-demand (which changes all the time).
In short, trainee retention rates are an important piece of information for aspiring solicitors to be aware of. They can highlight a great number of points about a law firm or organisation that are often hidden elsewhere (e.g. practice area priority, internal issues that have led some to leave, etc), and can be a useful indicator of career security long-term. These numbers do fluctuate regularly, however, and so it’s advisable to monitor them over time for a more consistent picture.
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