‘Extended trial periods for workers’ proposal: a call for opinions

Recently, I watched an interview that the Financial Times carried out with The Confederation of British Industry’s new Director General, John Cridland. It was very interesting, and is worth watching if you have the time and inclination to do so.

Cridland  asserted that with the consumer being “chastened” and the government concerned with the public sector, the private sector had to take the lead in the recovery. He said that there were three things that business needed to do – invest, export and create jobs – and that in each area, there was a key role for the government to play.

When probed further about what the government needed to do in order to promote these, Cridland said of the job market that the government must “remove any barriers that get in the way of businesses, and particularly small businesses, employing people. There are key changes to employment law, like giving businesses a couple of years to judge whether they’ve got the right person, which will make a real difference to whether a business is prepared to take the risk of taking somebody on.”

I was intrigued by this statement. I’ve been learning about the EU employment regulations recently as part of my GDL (which was interesting in itself, as I’d previously covered them from a political perspective as part of my degree) and have seen the feelings they inspire from all quarters.

I have spoken to people who employ workers, who have said that a move in this direction would indeed be useful for them, as would a relaxation of other employment laws such as those covering maternity and its related areas.
I’ve spoken to some employers who accept that it can be difficult on occasion, but that an equal and fair society is worth the inconvenience and that competent hirers and managers should be untroubled by employment law.
I’ve spoken to employment lawyers who feel that despite regulation being weighted slightly in favour of workers, the business world can cope and needs to be regulated against to maintain fairness.

I agree that fairness is the ultimately desirable goal, and that the concept of a two-year trial period probably goes against that ideal. But is pragmatism required in times of struggle for business? If enterprises are being asked to lead the recovery, should they not be given every help to do this? On the other hand, consumer spending will also be a trigger for recovery. For consumers to spend, they’ll need to feel secure in their employment, and therefore long trial periods might not be the way to encourage that feeling.

It’s a fine line to be drawn, and it’s the CBI’s job to argue solidly in the interests of its members. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of people to whom this might affect, to see if they think it would make a practical difference to their work. I nearly didn’t publish this blogpost because it’s not a field where I can give opinions that are based on anything other than observation. I’m applying for Training Contracts at the moment which are two years in length and, in effect, give law firms the very flexibility that the CBI is asking for – the ability to test whether someone is worthy of a permanent role during the first two years of their service. But I decided to on the grounds that I doubt that many people have watched this interview, and I’m  sure there will be opinions around once people have seen it.

The government’s financial plans are taking a tremendous pounding in many quarters at the moment, and if you watch the Cridland interview you’ll see how careful he is not to say anything negative about his ally, the Conservative party. Socio-economic policy is probably the area over which the two ruling parties will have to compromise the most. I could not envisage a ruling party adopting this theory as a policy, even at the best of times; given that there’s a coalition in power, the CBI have two hopes of achieving their aim – and Bob Hope is no longer around.

New-Fangled Commerce – or how Apple may take the cash from consumers’ pockets for good

It’s January, so it must be time to count down to a new product from Apple of some type or description. At the moment, the hype is surrounding the iPhone 5, which is likely to become available around the middle of the year if precedent is anything to go by.

Bloomberg reports that amongst the features of the new smartphone, which will probably include 3G and 4G connectivity, there will also be Near-Field Communication. Near-Field Communication, or NFC, is technology that many of us are already familiar with. We may use it to access public transport or our local gym, and perhaps some of us also use it to pay for goods in small transactions.

The technology clearly already exists in the marketplace, and is slowly gaining user numbers, although transactions have been hampered thus far by a lack of retailers who have invested in installing the necessary terminals. This is about to change though. Slowly but surely, retailers and payment companies are moving towards this payment method. McDonald’s is to accept the “pay-by-wave” cards from Summer 2011, which is likely to mark the start of a new era of adoption of the technology, so long as it is not prohibitively expensive for smaller companies.

Placing NFC into mobile phones, as Apple, Samsung, Research In Motion, Nokia and Google are doing, could increase its use exponentially. If the system works as conceived, the mobile phone would simply contain the technology which would then be able to be used by any type of reader. Gone might be the days of carrying around change for a newspaper – just use your phone. Do you really need that wallet full of cards? No – your phone can get you onto the bus or into your office.

So long as the security concerns are dealt with adequately – no mean feat given that this technology will probably make mobile phones even more sought-after by those who seek to acquire them nefariously – the technology has the potential to revolutionise the way commerce is handled in everyday situations.

The major US cellphone providers have co-operated to form ISIS, a new mobile commerce company. If that is a success, the next generation of transactions will be almost unrecognisable, even from those we currently use. Cheques and credit cards that require signatures rather than PINs are already collectors’ items. It might not be too fanciful to think that credit cards themselves could join this list. Visa certainly thinks so; they quote a Forbes magazine article in which the author writes that “it’s possible for the phone itself to replace a card“. Tech Crunch also believe that the sky is the limit with this.

Prepare for your pockets and handbags to become lighter – your phone may now genuinely become the centre of your life.

Some FAQs answered for those considering a law conversion course

I recently received an email from someone I know who was thinking about converting his degree through the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), more commonly known as the law conversion course. He asked me some questions so that he could have as much information as possible on which to base his decision.

His questions were practical ones about the course, how I was finding it, and how I was funding it. They’re the sort of questions I wish I’d had answers to before I left university, and answers from a student on the course rather than from one of the course providers. I decided, having read and answered his questions, that to publish them might help others make a decision. My reply is extensive and, I’d like to think, thorough, but it won’t be comprehensive and my experiences will have differed from those of others, so please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and opinions if you have anything to add to the information.

The email I received read thus:

Hey Ashley,

I understand that you are currently taking the law conversion course. I’ve decided to look into it and see if it’s for me, and would just like to ask you a few questions about it, if you don’t mind?
Was it easy to get into with your degree?
Are you self-funding…and are most people on the course self-funding or are there lots of people already with law firms paying for them?
How difficult/intense etc is it, are you struggling or finding it a manageable challenge? Since we did similar subjects at the same uni I assume we’ve got a relatively similar skill set!
Are you in the process of applying for/have you got a Training Contract (TC)? From reading about it, this seems to be absolutely crucial yet also very difficult. How are you finding it and what would you do if you can’t get one? How easy do people seem to find it in general on your course, and do you need much previous law experience to help you get one?This is the one issue that really confuses me as I’m worried I wouldn’t be able to get a TC and hence waste a year!
Have you secured any work experience etc/ how difficult was that to achieve?

I know there are lots of questions, but any help will be really greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

A Prospective GDL Student

I gave the email due consideration, and thought about my experiences, both on the course itself and beforehand. I replied as follows:

Hi Prospective Student.

I’d be delighted to answer your questions.

1) The only true entry requirement is obviously that you hold a degree. Beyond that, if they have space available and you are able to afford the fees, you are likely to be accepted. By way of example, I know people who applied in March or April, well after the deadline for first round applications, to three law schools (which is as many as lawcabs.ac.uk allows you to apply to) and received offers from all three. The law schools were also still advertising places on the GDL well into September 2010 for the 2010/2011 Academic Year.

2) I am self-funding and so are many of my classmates. As I write, out of our class of 20, there are only 3 people who have secured funding already. I took a job straight from University, having thought that the training fees in law would be prohibitive for me, in order to work out what to do. It took me no time at all to realise that I didn’t want to do anything other than go into the legal profession, and so I used that year to earn the money for my GDL and apply for Training Contracts. There are ways to finance the courses – Nat West, for instance, do a specific “Professional Qualifications Loan” which some people here have taken up [11/02/2011 - I have just read that Nat West have withdrawn this scheme. For more details, click here] – and I will need to find a way to fund myself through the next stage if I do not manage to secure a TC this year. Whatever happens, though, the investment has been one worth making, as far as I am concerned. Some people said that it would be worth it back when I was worrying about it, but it seemed easy for them to say that, as they weren’t people who’d been through it. Taking the year to work gave me the perspective on my ambitions and the perspective on funding the course to be able to take the risk of funding it myself. I was surprised to find out how few people on the GDL have Training Contracts already.

3) There’s a lot of work for sure, but it’s manageable. I haven’t had any problems so far, although the volume increases between Xmas and the end of the course, with two pieces of coursework to do as well as the regular lectures and workshops (and revision for mocks). The trick is to keep on top of it. At uni I left most things until the last minute, even exam revision. With this, it’s impossible to do that; I think you’d quickly sink like a stone. So it’s just about being responsible and working consistently. Once you do that, it’s comparatively simple. Yes, our similar backgrounds are useful but law has so many disciplines in practice that it requires people from all backgrounds – the most common are social sciences, humanities, philosophy graduates, but there are two former musicians in my class as well. The course is open to holders of all kinds of degrees, so whilst your essay-writing skills may stand you in good stead, they’re not all that you need and they certainly won’t carry you through on their own!

4) I haven’t got a training contract yet, and am applying for them at the moment. In my opinion, the greatest importance placed on attaining a TC at the stage you’re at is in the funding. You obviously need to complete a 2-year TC if you want to qualify, but the immediate need is the money. If it’s possible to do the GDL and even maybe the LPC via another means of funding then I would do so. If you need to take a year or two to earn money to pay for it and apply for training contracts then that makes sense – I did it – but it helps to get on the path as soon as possible, in my opinion. The other important thing that a Training Contract gives you, though, is the security of knowing that you have somewhere to go after finishing your studies.

5) Firms like you to have experience because it shows that you have a commitment to law, but also because it shows that you know what to expect. [I wrote about this at length in my blogpost entitled "So, Candidate, why do you want to work at a City firm?"] More than just “any legal experience”, they want it to be relevant. They’re not looking for their trainees to know exactly what area they want to qualify into – and in many cases they prefer trainees not to know. But they’d like you to be sure that the type of law is what you want. For instance, if you’re applying to City commercial firms, having some work experience in a high-street family practice will only be useful up to a point. You can sell it on the basis of knowing you don’t want to work in that environment, but a big firm wants its candidates to be certain they want to work in the city world. It was explained to me recently that it costs roughly £250,000 to recruit each trainee at most of the big firms, so obviously for that investment they want to make sure, as far as they can, that the person is right for the job and will stay there for a while. The entire process is fairly arbitrary, I think, as what one firm wants, another firm may not. Also, it depends how the recruitment is done. Many systems are imperfect, especially in firms who give applications to busy lawyers to read.

6) Training contracts are, as I’m sure you know, recruited two years in advance when it comes to the big firms. They do this because that’s the amount of legal training that their students have to go through if they get them at the earliest stage. I know many people who have secured contracts with firms after they have started their training, and the years in between are not wasted, I can assure you! Sometimes the firms take their future trainees on as paralegals so they can gain experience and earn some money. Some take it as a gap year opportunity and go travelling, or undertake more study such as an MBA. Of course, there are also smaller firms who recruit for trainees from the pool of people who already have their LPC qualification, so even if you go throughout law school with no Training Contract, you may still be in a great position to apply to firms like that afterwards.

7) As I mentioned above, work experience is a real help when it comes to securing Training Contracts. In order to get the experience, though, sometimes you already need to have experience – it can be a bit of a vicious circle with Vacation Schemes in the City. My advice would be to write to law firms and to make as many contacts as you possibly can. Think of everyone who you know who might be able to give you some help or advice and ask them. Even if you don’t know anyone directly who can help, there are bound to be people around who can. Sometimes it’s useful to think laterally: for instance, most of us know people who have been divorced; ask someone for the contact details of their solicitor. Even if they can’t help you themselves, they may have contacts in the industry who are able to. Networking is absolutely vital. Recruiting firms don’t expect everyone to have extensive experience though, so don’t worry about filling a CV chock-full of it. Just enough to show that you have thought about the profession seriously will suffice.

I hope that this has been of help. If you have any more questions, you know where I am.

All the best,

Ash

Now, comprehensive though this may appear, it omits at least one major piece of advice that I wish I’d had – that of how to decide which provider to study with once you’ve made the decision to do the GDL. This is a difficult decision for many prospective students because of the dearth of information on the subject. The four major postgraduate legal education providers are BPP Law School, City Law SchoolKaplan Law School and The College of Law.

When looking to choose a university for your undergraduate degree, you can decide based on the surroundings, based on teaching league tables, on research, on course content, and many other factors. When the course content is identical, as it largely is with the GDL, the decision becomes more difficult. The majority of the information available comes from the providers themselves, rather than any independent source, and leaves a great deal to the imagination.

It’s difficult to make a wrong decision on this, and each of the major providers is regarded equally by most firms (some have agreements with a particular provider but studying elsewhere before securing a TC doesn’t preclude you from joining them in most cases). My advice would be to contact the providers and find out the full details of the teaching and any extra benefits: how many contact hours you would have, what materials would be made available online (are lectures recorded, for instance?), how big are the class sizes, what’s the careers service like, and so on. Then, once you have this information to hand, work out what is most beneficial for you. If you’re someone who can’t take notes easily in lectures, having recordings of them available online might be just what you need, for instance.

Once you’ve decided on a provider, you may find that they have more than one branch in the same city, as I found with the College of Law. Again, almost no information on which to base a decision over where to study exists, even less for deciding between the Moorgate and Bloomsbury College of Law centres than there was for deciding which provider to opt for. I chose the College because of their course structure, because I knew a larger number of people who had studied there than at any of the other providers, and because, if you do GDL and either the BPTC (the practical course for future barristers) or the LPC (the equivalent for future solicitors) with the College, you receive an LL.B at no extra cost and with no further exams, which is in contrast to other providers. I figured that if I didn’t get a training contract, I’d like to come out with an LL.B to show for my two years; if I secure one and the firm wants me to study for my LPC elsewhere, I’m happy to make that trade-off!

This was a personal decision, and the lack of information meant that it wasn’t built on the strongest of foundations, but I did as much research as I could and made my decision based on as much knowledge as I was able to acquire. I hope that through this post, some people will be able to be more certain of their options.

—————

As I said earlier, I am certain that I have missed some absolute gems of advice, and that people who have had different experiences to me will be able to provide valuable insights into other areas of the decision-making process. If you have anything to add, please do comment. Feel free also to comment in order to ask any questions.

An edited version of this blogpost was published on the AllAboutCareers.com website
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