The breakdown of the WA Law Society Guidelines for graduate recruitment has caused frustration and disappointment for both students and firms, a Lawyers Weekly investigation has shown.
A gradual erosion of participation in the guidelines, which are viewed by many as a "gentleman's agreement" amongst the top tier firms, reached critical mass in late July when Blake Dawson and Freehills exited the scheme.
Dudley Stow, president of the Law Society of Western Australia, said the breakdown of the guidelines was disappointing and had caused distress to students.
"They were bitterly disappointed that the arrangement they had thought had been agreed by all the firms party to it was broken, and of course once two firms pulled out ... when other firms made that decision as well, the whole thing broke down," Stow said.
Students were faced with a difficult decision, as many reported receiving priority offers from firms that expired before the official opening of offers from guideline participants.
Blake Dawson general manager Catherine Cipro said her firm had little choice but to abandon the guidelines because of the number of top-tier firms making priority offers to candidates.
"Whilst Blakes ultimately decided to make priority offers, it was the last large law firm to opt out of the guidelines," she told Lawyers Weekly.
"A number of applicants told us that they had already received offers from other law firms and many of these firms would not be keeping their offers open until 9 September 2009. Students told us firms were encouraging them to either accept or decline offers within a week or a shorter time frame - which put us under pressure to advise students of their prospects of a Blake Dawson offer."
According to Cipro, the situation reached a head on 23 July.
"[Until that date] we understood the remaining top tier firms, Allens, Mallesons and Freehills, were, like us, adhering to the Law Society Guidelines. At about 4:30pm on Thursday 23 July we received communication from Freehills that they had decided to opt out of the Guidelines this year in favour of a priority offer system. The next day, we received a similar notification from Allens and Mallesons. This means we would have been the only major firm adhering to the Guidelines."
A Freehills spokesperson confirmed the decision had been made, but said the firm was "by no means the first" to opt-out of the scheme.
Minter Ellison has opted out of the Guidelines for the past two to three years. Earlier this year, several other firms indicated they were opting out of the Law Society Guidelines in favour of a priority offer system to seasonal clerks.
The WA Law Society Guidelines have been in place for several years, and required applications to be submitted by students to firms by a set date (Friday 24 July 2009), with interviews to commence on a prescribed date (Monday 17 August 2009) and offers to be made on a particular morning from 9am and be held open for 3 hours (Wednesday 9 September).
Stow said the WA Law Society would do everything in its power to resurrect the agreement.
"It's a system the society believes, the universities believe in it, and we will work very hard to go back to it next year - but unfortunately it requires goodwill and undertakings to be observed for everybody and if they don't, then it becomes a free-for-all, which is what's happened and is most unfortunate."
Both Blake Dawson and Freehills have indicated their interest in signing a new agreement in time for next year's recruitment round.
"From the students' perspective, we are disappointed at the way events have unfolded this year with the graduate recruitment process," Cipro said.
"Whilst we were able to successfully fill our quota, we empathise with the students who were caught up in the uncertainty and confusion that emerged in this year's process. Our preference for the students is to see a return to the Guidelines next year."
- Laura MacIntyre