You Will Be Assimilated

KPMG has launched a funded programme that will support talented school leavers through a degree at Durham University and then into qualification as a baby chartered accountants.  These undergraduates are to divide their time between university and KPMG’s practice.  KPMG says it wants these school leaver schemes to provide the majority of its annual trainee recruitment.  Catrin Griffiths, editor of The Lawyer magazine, argues this week that law firms should be doing the same.  I think she’s bonkers.  Here’s why.

Who the hell knows what they want to do at 18?  All I was interested in was beer, Van Halen (it was 1987, I’m much cooler now, 20 years too late) and Norwich City Football Club.  In fact, when I left university, the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.  Indeed, my university career constituted a record of galactic underachievement.  At the end of the first term of the second year, Prof Phil Williams, who was in many ways my mentor, left the university to take up the Chair of Politics at Chicago University.  Before he departed, he told me that he would be looking for my name on the list of those achieving first class honours.  “Right,” thought I, “I can spend the next 18 months living it up, in the process generally avoiding work wherever possible and still come out with a 2(1).”  Which I did, and ended up with a 2(ii).  Cue stock market crash, general global recession and no job.  Welcome to the real world, 1991

Of course, my indecision might also have had something to do with the fact that I came from a family of lawyers.  My father was a partner in a mid-sized law firm and went on to be a barrister.  My maternal grandfather was a High Court judge and was the Chief Justice of The Bahamas (where I was born).  My baby brother became a barrister.  I even married a barrister.  In fact, when I’m presenting, I sometimes introduce myself, being the only solicitor in the family, as – get this – the white sheep of the family.  Oh, I crack myself up.

Of course, everyone knows somebody that is the exception to the rule.  My wife watched an episode of Crown Court when she was 10 and from that moment she only ever wanted to be a barrister.  In fact, sometimes I think she’s only really happy when destroying witnesses in cross-examination or waxing lyrical to a jury.  She’s now one of the pre-eminent practitioners in her field in the region and was appointed two years ago as a Recorder.  To you non-lawyers, that’s a part-time Crown Court judge, not a beginner’s woodwind instrument, which would, of course, be ridiculous.

But as a rule of thumb, when an A-level studying work experience person (a “WEP”, as we like to call them) tells me that they want to be a solicitor more than anything else in the world, I give them the bent eye.  “Really?” I quip.  “When I was your age, I still wanted to be an astronaut”.  In fact, I never wanted to be an astronaut.  I’m terrified of heights.

I have found, in delivering seminars and such like at universities across the north of England, that by and large, trying to do anything useful with undergraduates is a waste of time and valuable one-liners.  The lecture hall is divided between dozing largely British undergraduates playing hangman on their iBerrys, and attentive largely Asian students sat across the front rows respectfully tapping every word I utter into their laptops.  Neither group interjects with anything useful.  The odd snore or snigger from the back is especially unhelpful.  I’m not sure whether either group comes out of the session particularly advantaged.

But would I want to change their attitudes?  No.  Because life is about a gradual dawning of opportunity and motivation.  And when you’re 18, you need to give that process time.  Being forced, whether by ambitious parents, short sighted careers advisers or pressure from an international financial megalith into a lifetime vocational commitment is a short cut to a mid-life crisis.

When making choices about recruitment, I will take the candidate with real world diverse experience over the tunnel vision squint of the person that went straight from school to university to work.   Subsidising school leavers through university, post-graduate qualification and training may work for KPMG, but accountancy is about numbers.  Law is about people.