The latest interview in our Women in Law – Female Founders series by Dana Denis-Smith is with London-based Susan Cooper, CEO and co-founder of Accutrainee. While this is not a tech company, Susan shares her experiences of addressing key business issues as a female founder in the legal sector and what it’s been like to build a startup.
Hi Susan, first things first. Please tell us your business story?
After I left Hogan Lovells, I initially set up a construction business. I then started an executive MBA at Cass Business School and it was there that I came across a blog on a student website. The blog was about Legal Process Outsourcing, but to my surprise a lot of the comments under it were about finding training contracts. It left me thinking there must be a better way to qualify and to help trainees (* see explanatory note below), and decided to set up Accutrainee to address this in 2010.
The way our model works is as follows: Accutrainee employs trainees and then seconds them to clients for periods of between 6-24 months, where they conduct their qualifying work experience. Accutrainee is there to make the entire process smooth – for both clients and trainees.
How would you describe your company’s growth in just three key figures?
- 80%: 2018 revenue growth was around 80% above 2017.
- 1: We are the first and, to my knowledge, the only company that does what we do.
- 100%: We’re incredibly proud that 100% of our trainees secure one or more Newly Qualified (NQ) offers once qualified.
What was your first challenge?
The first and biggest challenge was getting Solicitors Regulation Authority approval, as what I wanted to do simply hadn’t been done before.
That took time, but it was a great feeling once we finally had sign off. In the meantime, I had secured funding and we were ready to go. We had a slow start, but since we had our first few trainees qualify we’ve been going from strength to strength.
What are your thoughts on the state of the legal industry as a whole?
There is a lot of change for an industry that is known not to like to change!
With the advent of the new qualification route for solicitors (i.e. the new SQE model– ** see below), there is considerable uncertainty and concern around the ‘dumbing down’ of the profession and what the new route will bring. But ultimately, I’m confident there will be calm after the storm.
What I wanted to do simply hadn’t been done before.
How are you addressing some of the challenges facing the legal industry as a whole?
Talent management and ensuring we have the right number, type and quality of people we need is something that our flexible model is able to address. I have never understood the profession’s obsession with recruiting trainees two to three years in advance.
What would you say is the biggest risk for the UK legal sector, given the current climate?
It could potentially be the impact of the new solicitor’s qualification route. If it doesn’t work as intended, I fear it will create a two tier system, devalue the solicitor brand and set us back years on social mobility and diversity. That’s heavy stuff.
Describe your role and responsibilities in the business.
As the founder, I think there’s a tendency to have an eye on every aspect of the business, but I’m trying very hard to break that habit.
I am very fortunate to have an amazing team that does a brilliant job supporting me and all our trainees. As we’ve grown, we’re looking to expand our head office team further. My focus going forward will be far more on strategy and sales.
How has your previous experience aided your current job?
My legal training ensures a level of precision and professionalism that forms an integral part of our culture but it also undoubtedly gives me an ability to stay calm under pressure. Building houses and flats from scratch required high levels of project management and organisational skills which have been undoubtedly useful in running the business.
What has been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Every time one of our trainees qualifies it is incredibly rewarding. It’s so great to think we played a part in making that happen and I absolutely love it when they come back for a catch up and tell us about all the amazing things they’re doing.
I think a big challenge at first was getting people to stop and think about the benefits of what we offer and move them away from the, ‘but that’s how we’ve always done it’ mindset. Thankfully with the uptake of flexible and agile working that has become a lot easier.
What’s in store in 2019?
Wow, good question and who knows, that’s part of the fun of it!
The first half of the year has been fantastic and so I hope things continue in that way. We might be looking to top up the investment we received to date to introduce technology into the business. We will be expanding our team and are looking into a couple of exciting projects which we hope will accelerate that growth further.
Coffee or tea?
Without a doubt, coffee! A recent happy moment for me was getting a ping on my phone with the latest news headlines that a scientific study showed that we’re fine to drink 25 cups of coffee a day! I’m guessing the study was sponsored by Starbucks.
Susan trained and practised as a banking lawyer at Hogan Lovells International LLP. In 2012 she founded Accutrainee offering award winning flexible junior resourcing to the legal profession. Accutrainee recruits trainee solicitors and seconds them to in-house teams and law firms, creating a unique pathway to qualification for graduates whilst offering clients access to flexible, efficient, top quality junior resources consisting of trainees, paralegals and NQs.
Dana Denis-Smith, is an entrepreneur, ex-lawyer and journalist. She founded Obelisk to keep City lawyers, especially mothers, working flexibly, around their family or other personal commitments and to provide clients with an affordable and quality legal support solution onshore.
In 2014 she founded a unique history project – first100years – charting the journey of women in law through a video social history, @first100years.
[ Note * for readers outside of England & Wales: the junior lawyer system here (for now – before the new SQE system comes in) uses the ‘trainee’ model, whereby wannabe lawyers gain experience with a law firm or other legal organisation under a formal ‘contract’. Only after the completion of two years of this training contract can they become fully authorised lawyers, or solicitors in the English system, at which point they are called an ‘NQ’ or Newly Qualified.
If you don’t get a training contract your options are a lot more limited. It’s understood that the number of training contracts each year are about 5,500 across England & Wales, but that as many as 30,000 people are in a position to apply for one at the same time. That means only 18% get a training contract each year. And, of course, the number of such contracts available at the leading commercial law firms is an even smaller subset of the above. (AL) ]
[ Note **
Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SRA info)
The SRA will be introducing a new, independent centralised assessment for all would-be solicitors. The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will mean that everyone who becomes a solicitor will meet the same high standards in a consistent way. We aim to introduce this in autumn 2021.
What is the SQE?
A single, national licensing examination that all prospective solicitors will take before qualifying. From autumn 2021, to qualify you will need to:
- have a degree in any subject (or equivalent qualification or work experience)
- pass both stages of the SQE assessment – SQE 1 focuses on legal knowledge and SQE 2 on practical legal skills
- have 2 years’ qualifying work experience
- pass our character and suitability requirements.
SQE 1 (Functioning Legal Knowledge and Practical Legal Skills Assessments)
You will be tested on:
- substantive and procedural law and cover core subjects currently taught on LLB and LPC courses
- application of fundamental legal principles
- legal research and writing skills.
SQE 2 (Practical Legal Skills Assessments)
You will be tested on:
- client interviewing
- case and matter analysis
- legal research and written advice
- legal drafting.
The SQE will be introduced in autumn 2021 and initially there will be two exam sittings per year. The first sitting for SQE 1 is likely to be in November 2021.
You will only be able to take SQE 2 after passing SQE 1.
Sitting the SQE
The SQE will be available to sit in England and Wales, as well as some international locations (SQE 1 only).
SQE 1 includes three exams that are either multiple choice or written tests. You must sit all three together. This will available to take across a wide geographic area at Pearson VUE centres.
For SQE 2, you will do role plays, as well as written work. There will be a more limited choice of centres for this assessment. ]