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Amarchand adopts UK-style trainee rotation experiment following JSA, Khaitan; Trilegal aborted after three years; Why and how?

Musical chairs: In or out?
Musical chairs: In or out?

Amarchand is the fourth major Indian law firm to have made it (mostly) mandatory for fresher recruits to rotate between different departments for the first eighteen months. J Sagar Associates (JSA) and Khaitan & Co too swear by it; Trilegal was less enamoured. Is it the new standard or just a fad?

Amarchand Mangaldas has completed the first phase of its trial of rotating associates joining from college between departments every six months, following J Sagar Associates (JSA) and Khaitan & Co, which evolved a similar model from over two years ago.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all,” comments Khaitan Mumbai partner Rabindra Jhunjhunwala on the gaining popularity of the UK-style associate training model.

“When you talk about rotation you’re talking about launching young professionals’ careers,” he explains, while Amarchand Mumbai partner Vandana Shroff notes that “the rotation policy helps our young associates network across the firm. One doesn’t feel lost.”

“[The associates] are too young and they should get some inkling of other areas of law,” adds JSA Mumbai partner Dina Wadia, admitting that in terms of format the firm had closely mirrored the “UK magic circle training contract period model”.

Anand: Rotation not "good enough"
Anand: Rotation not "good enough"
However, Trilegal aborted the rotation experiment last year in April 2012 after almost three years of practicing it. Trilegal Delhi partner and co-founder Anand Prasad says that the experiment didn’t prove to be “good enough” for the firm.

Different strokes

Amarchand and Khaitan rotate associates between three seats for the first 18 months after they join, while JSA associates change four times during their first two years at the firm. When the system existed at Trilegal, associates were required to practice with three teams in their first year.

At Amarchand the seats must fall into the firm’s “three broad buckets”, as Mumbai partner Vandana Shroff puts it: litigation, corporate, and banking and finance.

At Khaitan litigation is the compulsory seat out of the three. JSA allots the seats according to requirements of existing teams, although Wadia adds that “we also want a corporate lawyer to do non-corporate work and get a gamut of experience instead of a narrow-focussed tunnel vision”.

Jhunjhunwala: Corporate not taxed
Jhunjhunwala: Corporate not taxed
Trilegal is constituted of what Prasad calls “soft teams” with boundaries between retainers’ scope of work not set in stone. “We are very flexible in terms of teams. There are no strictly regimented teams. In fact we like people to be doing more than one practice area,” he says. “Rotation presumes that you are stuck in one place [normally].” 

Jhunjhunwala observed that for the rotation system to work it was important that a law firm has clearly demarcated practice areas and dedicated teams serving each of those areas. “We don’t have a corporate partner giving tax advice.”

The rules of musical chairs

Amarchand makes it clear on campus that its rotational policy is mandatory across all offices and associates’ preferences for teams are only indicative, although there is scope for exception.

“Let’s say, out of an intake of 10, one is very sure that they want to do litigation. We try to adhere to that. We place them in the litigation practice area for two out of their three rotations and that’s where they will eventually get placed at the end of the program,” says Shroff

“We have seen very strong cases, which usually happen with [intellectual property] lawyers or litigation lawyers, who in their third or fourth year [of law school] make up their mind and one has to respect that ultimately,” she explained, adding that the rules were also flexible where some associates got used to certain mentors and proved to be “a perfect fit for that team”, and it wasn’t necessary in such situations for them to move to all three seats.

Wadia: Requests accommodated
Wadia: Requests accommodated
At JSA the policy is less flexible, explains Wadia, who heads up human resources (HR) on the firm’s executive committee, because there is always a tendency for certain associates and partners to gel better with some than others. “We have had that kind of issue in the past. We do accommodate partners’ requests and if an associate is working on some ongoing matter we do not ask them to just dump it and go, but they do have to move on.”

Jhunjhunwala said: “Whether partners want it or associates, you have to understand that it is a very formalised process. You have to do your three seats. [The] firm’s short-term needs do not influence the rotation schedules.”

At all the three ‘rotation’ firms, the team an associate joins at the end of the rotation is a decision that is subject to “market requirements”.

“A lot depends on the team size and what the market wants. If everyone wants to get into capital markets, that can’t obviously happen,” says Shroff.

Jhunjhunwala adds: “It’s a possibility that they don’t get their first choice. If 20 people want tax we don’t have enough work and space for 20 two year PQEs in the tax team.”

The prize

“Partners didn’t like the rotation business. At the end of that one year period the partners’ experience was that [the associate] is almost like a fresher,” said Prasad about Trilegal’s three-year but ultimately unsuccessful engagement with the system.

English models

In the UK trainee solicitors are usually required by the profession’s regulator to work in four departments for six-months each before they can qualify as lawyers.

This would have followed three years of an LLB undergraduate and one year of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) (or an additional year if the undergraduate was not law).

Salaries for Magic Circle and London-based US firms’ trainees usually begin at between £37,000 and £41,000 (Rs 33 lakh to Rs 37 lakh per year according to UK law student magazine Lawywer2B.

Jhunjhunwala admits that this is a concern. “I dare say that any of our associates who have done a rotation feel [they’re] still a fresher. If that happens then the whole purpose of rotation has been lost. We are investing a lot for their professional development.”

“We have taken this two year model on the basis of what was done in the UK magic circle firms,” says Wadia, but Prasad disagrees about the economic advantage of adopting this in India. “In India you don’t have trainees while the English system has trainees. Trainees [in the UK] get paid much lesser [than retainers]. Here we don’t have the comfort of paying much lesser also. At the end of the year it would not be very productive. Although they would’ve had multiple experiences but it would not be good enough.”

Wadia however, notes that during the first two years the firm doesn’t focus on how much revenue associates have made. “They should not be worrying themselves about that. We are doing a disservice to our young graduates if we don’t give them rounded experience. That is where [this model] came from.”

The bug bears

Almost all law firm HR policies are, infamously, double-edged swords, this no exception. As such, this one too could cut both ways.

Shroff: 'Rotating associates make better lawyers'
Shroff: 'Rotating associates make better lawyers'
“The disadvantage of this is that some people may feel that they are wasting 18 months of their life,” admits Shroff.

Jhunjhunwala adds that for “anyone who wants to specialise right after graduating from law school, the first thing as a mentor you need to tell them is that you can’t specialise from the first day”.

And for some associates, who consider an LLM after one year of joining a law firm a “rite of passage” according to Wadia, greater CV specialisation afforded by a non-rotating traineeship would be preferable.

However, Shroff claims that 18 months are “not going to make a difference in a long career”.

“On the contrary, exposure to multiple practice areas and focused training will make better lawyers out of our young associates and propel them on a faster career growth in the longer run.”

The race is on.

Photo by marya

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