Cost cutting has been rampant across the legal sector, but summer clerkship recruitment is one area in which firms are holding strong. In return, prospective summer clerks are remaining quietly confident about their career prospects, Zoe Lyon reports
They've slashed discretionary expenditure, introduced salary freezes and flexible working initiatives (both voluntary and compulsory), and, in some cases, made redundancies, but one area in which firms are showing no signs of cutting back is summer clerkship recruitment.
The 2009/10 summer clerk intake was confirmed earlier in the year in most states, and the recruitment process is now in full swing in Sydney. Firms Lawyers Weekly spoke to were adamant that their summer clerkship programs have remained a top priority, despite the challenging economic climate.
At Mallesons Stephen Jaques, partner Trish Henry - who oversees the summer clerk program in Sydney - explains that the firm does expect to have a smaller summer clerk intake in Sydney this year, however she says the program will remain the primary means of recruiting graduates.
"We haven't finalised numbers yet ... but we would expect our numbers to be reduced slightly," she says. "But, as in past years, our summer clerkship program continues to be our main recruitment tool and where we want to get our graduates from. So it's the heart of our recruitment strategy for our graduates."
Other firms - such as Freehills, Middletons and Minter Ellison - don't plan to downsize their summer clerk intake this year, saying they view the program as crucial to the long-term growth and success of their firms.
Freehills' director, people and development, Gareth Bennett explains: "These [clerks] are our lifeblood, so it is essential that we maintain that flow of talent into the firm."
The summer clerkship co-ordinators at firms Lawyers Weekly approached said some candidates have expressed concerns this year regarding how the current economic conditions might affect their summer clerkships and longer-term career prospects.
Minter Ellison human resources consultant Felicity Marando says that she has been asked by students during interviews whether summer clerk numbers are likely to be reduced this year."I think there has been concern about the possibility of fewer clerkships being available than in previous years," she says. "But I suppose at Minter Ellison in Sydney we're at an advantage when those queries come up because there won't be any changes to our numbers this year - we usually bring on around 20 clerks and that's the case again this year."
Mallesons' Henry says she has fielded similar queries from students during on-site recruitment sessions at universities. "The question has come up, and we've been upfront and said that it may be that our numbers will be reduced slightly, but we confirm that it is our main recruitment tool for the firm."
Some students have also raised concerns about the prospect of summer clerkship positions not translating into permanent positions - fears possibly sparked by a number of UK firms recently deciding not to keep on all their trainees as permanent employees.
Freehills' Bennett explains that part of this year's recruitment process has involved managing such concerns. "They want to try and make sure their roles are going to be there for the future, and we've been at pains to point out that for us summer clerks and hence graduates are not just a nice-to-have - they're absolutely essential to the sustainability of the firm for the future," he says. Middletons human resources director Tracey McDonald says the firm also takes a longer-term view, and that it doesn't intend to reduce the number of summer clerkships positions translating into graduate roles.
"We did have some queries about what would happen with graduate opportunities. But we're forecasting out - these candidates are 2011 [graduate] candidates and we're all anticipating economic growth in that period, and we have a very firm commitment to our graduate intake."
Similarly at Mallesons, Henry confirms that the firm would - assuming performance levels and other criteria are met - ideally see all its summer clerks retained as graduates.
"There are obviously a lot of rumours that fly around, and they do every year," she says. "But our approach this year is similar to previous years. We would hope that all our summer clerks, so long as they perform and they're happy, would be taken on, and we have no intention of reducing the number of graduates taken on out of the clerkship program."
These concerns aside, Freehills' Bennett believes the summer clerk candidates have remained relatively positive, and are - for the most part - taking the economic conditions in their stride.
"They are bound to have had their confidence shaken because they perceive less opportunities in the market overall, and they'll have seen - as I'm sure all of us have seen - friends, colleagues and parents going through changes in their work situation," he says. "But I think there's still an underlying optimism and a faith in their own abilities, and that's an important characteristic. Realistic optimism is a good thing."
Minter's Marando agrees that candidates are remaining positive, but she believes the economic conditions have prompted them to consider - perhaps more thoughtfully than in previous years - the long-term direction of their career.
"I think, if anything, there is more of a focus on the importance of this process. There's more of an awareness that this really is the springboard to their career in commercial law ... whereas, in previous years, there was a 'world is my oyster' mentality," she says.
"But I don't see that there's a desperation [in terms of] 'I must get a clerkship or that's going to be it for me' - it's more about 'This is important, I'm taking this seriously, this is where I want to be and I'm committed to this process'."
In addition, the current economic climate appears to have had little influence over the practice areas candidates are expressing interest in.
Of the summer clerkship co-ordinators spoken to, only Minter Ellison's Marando says she has witnessed a spike in candidate interest in countercyclical areas such as insolvency. "Each year the prospective clerks express an interest in topical areas, and this year insolvency is certainly one of those, so there has been a bit of an increase in that particular area," she says.
In contrast, at Mallesons Henry says candidates' primary areas of interest have been M&A and banking and finance (which have slipped back from the limelight over the last year) as well as dispute resolution, which she says is consistent with previous years. She adds that there has been little specific interest in insolvency.
At Freehills, Bennett says the most popular practice areas for summer clerk candidates this year have been IP, litigation and environment and climate change, which is consistent with previous years.
He adds that the downturn doesn't appear to have had much of an effect on Freehills candidates' interest in areas that have grown or declined as a result of the downturn.
"In association with the GFC, we haven't seen a swing away from applications to corporate or M&A or away from banking. They're still quite popular," he says. "And while insolvency is certainly a growth area, and we do get a lot of interest in it, I haven't seen an upswing in terms of summer clerks saying 'This is the area I want to go into'."
McDonald says that Middletons' candidates' practice area interests have been broad this year, which she says is consistent with previous years. She also doesn't think candidates' practice area preferences have been affected by the downturn.
"It's really interesting [that] we haven't seen any change in their areas of interest, so the same areas that have been popular over the last five years are still the popular areas," she says. "I think [candidates] take a long-term view."
Firms, and staff, might still be feeling the pinch thanks to the downturn which caught the world off-guard. However, the good news is that firms are demonstrating a confidence in the future - both to existing staff and to summer clerk candidates - by prioritising investment in what will ultimately be the future of their firm.