Exclusive: Deal or no deal?
HWL Ebsworth rescinded a job offer to a student the day after she signed the contract, with a war of words erupting as to why the offer was withdrawn.
The final year law student, from Sydney’s Macquarie University, wishes to remain anonymous. She approached Lawyers Weekly earlier this month after repeated attempts to have her signed contract honoured by HWL Ebsworth fell through.
The student, who is due to graduate next year, was offered a position by HWL Ebsworth in its Sydney workplace relations group for 2014, to commence in March.
A contract of employment was sent to the student on 25 June, with the signature of the firm’s managing partner, Juan Martinez (pictured), on that contract.
It is believed her salary was to be around $60,000 per annum.
The student signed the contract the next day, with a Sydney barrister as a witnessing signatory.
“Fantastic news, we are excited to have you on board!” wrote a human resources advisor from the firm in acknowledging receipt of the signed contract from the student on 26 June.
The next day, on 27 June, that same HR advisor called the student to withdraw the offer.
The student, who has a file note of that conversation, said the HR advisor told her a “monumental stuff up” had occurred, which meant that the offer of employment was withdrawn.
She claims she was further told that the firm’s finance department had torpedoed her prospects of employment at HWL. She said the HR advisor told her that she had not checked with the finance department to ascertain if they had the budget to hire a graduate in the Sydney workplace relations & safety group.
“I was devastated,” said the student when talking about her reaction to receiving the phone call informing her the offer had been withdrawn.
“I was in shock and burst into tears [when I hung up],” she added.
The night before, she had celebrated her ‘job’ at a dinner with friends and family.
“I was ecstatic and it was such a relief when the offer came through, as it is so hard to get a job in the graduate recruitment market at the moment.”
Lawyers Weekly has recently broken a number of stories relating to the depressed state of the graduate recruitment market.
“It is the worst time in living history to be a law graduate,” said recruiter Elvira Naiman when talking to Lawyers Weekly in August.
Lawyers Weekly had previously exclusively obtained information on the clerk-to-graduate ratio at the Melbourne offices of eight top and mid-tier firms. All of the firms hired less than half, and in some cases less than a quarter, of the clerks that were vying for a 2014 graduate position.
‘An innocent mistake’
In speaking to Lawyers Weekly, HWL Ebsworth managing partner Juan Martinez went on the front foot and denied the firm had acted unethically or illegally.
He said the firm was entitled to withdraw the job offer, despite the contract being signed, witnessed and then acknowledged by a HR advisor.
“It was an innocent mistake,” he said. “This is the first time I have had to manage an issue like this in 15 years as a managing partner.”
Martinez said the HR advisor had sent out the contract without the necessary approval from the interviewing partners.
The partners that interviewed the student were Sydney-based Michael Connolly and Steven Penning, who are in the firm’s workplace relations & safety group.
Martinez pointed to a "convergence of circumstances" for the usual approval process not being followed and the HR advisor mistakenly sending out the contract.
This included both Connolly and Penning being out of the office when the contract was sent to the student.
The student had three interviews at the firm prior to the contract being sent out. The student described both partners as being “lovely” in their dealings with her.
He said, she said
Martinez said he could understand why the student was upset and that it was a regrettable situation.
He admitted the firm had erred in making the offer to the student, but questioned her credibility and also disputed her version of events.
He said the offer to her was withdrawn because she “was not good enough” and that her claim that a lack of approval from the finance department was the reason the offer was withdrawn was not correct.
“She has made up this interpretation to create embarrassment but it is just foolish,” he said. “What possible impact can one graduate position have on our firm? Zero.”
Martinez said that the student’s position was false and that the firm would not cite financial reasons to withdraw the offer.
“She is not a good fit and she has proven herself to not be a good fit by the way she has conducted herself with this problem.”
In 2013 HWL Ebsworth offered 34 graduate-at-law positions in its five capital city offices, a figure that is unchanged for 2014.
The graduate-at-law position in the Sydney workplace relations & safety practice group remains unfilled.
Martinez only became aware of the offer to the student after it was withdrawn.
He said his signature on the contract was an electronic signature and that his name on the contract should not be cited as a reason to give the offer extra gravitas or importance.
“You can imagine that I don’t sign every offer that goes out to 800 people in this place.”
The HR advisor concerned has been counselled but not sacked, with Martinez accepting it was an “honest mistake” and that she was genuinely upset by its consequences.
When told by Lawyers Weekly that Martinez had questioned her version of events, the student stuck to her guns.
“If I was told by the HR advisor that the error was due to her ‘jumping the gun’ and that I was not good enough I would have been upset, but I wouldn’t have wanted to work there, because I wouldn’t have felt deserving,” she said.
“I also certainly wouldn’t have emailed Mr Connolly requesting that he look into the matter for me. At no point was I told the partners were of this opinion.”
She said that at no point did Connolly or anyone at the firm indicate the offer was withdrawn because she was not good enough.
Following the withdrawal of the offer, the student has had regular email dialogue with the firm’s HR department and Martinez.
She remains upset with the firm that after three months it had not clarified why her contract was withdrawn.
Complaints the student made to the NSW Law Society also failed to provide a resolution.
“The whole situation to be honest has been horrible,” she said. “I’ve been left so disillusioned with the legal industry and in total disbelief that a firm could have such little regard for people.”
Despite the student’s fears that she would not be able to land a graduate recruitment role once HWL Ebsworth withdrew its offer, she was recently offered a position with another firm.