Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

Melbourne, Sydney recruitment markets were ‘absolutely’ impacted by lockdowns

Post-pandemic, these recruiters reflected on how COVID-19 — and statewide lockdowns — affected two major Australian legal recruitment markets.

user iconLauren Croft 22 November 2022 Big Law
Melbourne, Sydney recruitment markets were ‘absolutely’ impacted by lockdowns
expand image

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and extended, government-mandated lockdowns, the legal recruitment market has been — and will continue to be — significantly impacted moving forward, as candidate expectations change and the war for talent is likely to continue into 2023.

Additionally, the Sydney and Melbourne recruitment markets experienced increased turmoil coming out of statewide lockdowns, with many legal candidates jumping ship to move either interstate, or, when travel restrictions eventually lifted, overseas.

As the legal profession — and the world — return to post-pandemic normalcy, Lawyers Weekly spoke to three legal recruiters for their take on how lockdowns may have impacted different markets and changed candidates’ priorities.


Empire Group partner Alison Crowther said that the legal candidate markets in both Melbourne and Sydney were “absolutely” impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Candidates really fell into three categories: those that would not consider a move during lockdown (it would be too risky and difficult), those that became passive job seekers out of boredom (over work or frustration), and those that had to find an alternative as their current employment wasn’t sustainable,” she explained.

“These candidates were happy to change jobs and take on the difficulties of remote onboarding and endless Teams meetings and introductions. Starting a new job remotely isn’t easy, but many did it.”

Empire also released its 2022 Legal Salary Guide earlier this year — which revealed that the salaries between each state are growing more and more similar post-pandemic.

But despite being through a fairly “candidate-short” period, the Melbourne and Sydney legal markets will likely see an uptake, according to Ms Crowther, who said that candidates are more likely to move now than they were pre-pandemic.

“People are now able to move cities, and candidates are open to relocating for career opportunities. Sydney and Melbourne are the more desirable destinations for career development,” she said.

“A move overseas is also back on the agenda for a broader number of candidates.”

Beacon Legal director Alex Gotch echoed a similar sentiment — and confirmed that he has also seen the Melbourne and Sydney markets in particular impacted by COVID-19.

“The most significant factor was that due to numerous lockdowns and especially without clarity as to when they would end, once the borders reopened, droves of lawyers left Australian shores to head overseas. This was particularly relevant in 2021 and the first half of 2022, once London and the US reopened and Australia was still experiencing restrictions,” he quipped.

“In 2021, we also saw more lawyers than we would expect relocating from Melbourne to NSW and Queensland, which was due to Victoria’s handling of the pandemic and the severity of the lockdowns which they faced.

“Australia is a market which is always susceptible to losing lawyers who are looking to experience life in bigger cities and earn more money, notably London and the US. Australia’s net immigration rate for lawyers is negative and far lower than most global markets, for this reason.”

In March 2021, Microsoft published research revealing that over 40 per cent of the global workforce was actively considering leaving their employers — in a trend that would become the Great Resignation, something that director of nrol, a Sydney-based boutique legal recruiter, Jesse Shah said was just another symptom of the pandemic.

“The COVID lockdowns over the past few years impacted candidates and firms significantly. There was a perfect storm of conditions that ignited huge changes, which we’re still feeling,” he said.

“The great reshuffle and resignation periods were symptomatic of the pandemic — workers have been looking for greater work/life balance and flexibility; employers have been looking for greater efficiencies, integrated technology and scaled, capable teams. There has been a spike in activity, particularly during 2022, and we are still seeing chronic candidate shortages across the legal sector.”

And whilst candidates have always, typically, moved for the right role, Mr Shah said that now, they need “more than that”.

“Today, candidates are hunting more judiciously. They are looking for an attractive offer — one that goes beyond just the role and salary, one that considers opportunities for career growth, flexible working conditions, diverse employment benefits and more. They are looking at the full package to determine their next move,” he explained.

“It’s certainly time for employers to adapt their strategy, embrace hybrid working and be progressive in delivering a ‘destination’ for their employees. Sometimes it’s as simple as updating your marketing efforts for a vacancy so that it is more role-specific, rather than a generic, copy and paste replacement.”

Post-pandemic, an attractive offer can mean different things for different candidates, with some favouring hybrid working more than others and lawyers who had previously moved further from home for their career looking to be closer to family; something Ms Crowther has seen predominantly in Perth, Brisbane or Adelaide.

“Most are returning home to these locations. I feel the pandemic made people look at the balance in their life, and if returning to a home state to be closer to family was on the cards, this became more desirable and a socially acceptable move.

“What I have seen is people looking to relocate to places such as the Gold and Sunshine Coast where they can reduce their mortgage, raise young children and work 100 per cent remotely. Staying employed with a Sydney-based firm but working remotely in private practice or in-house 100 per cent of the time in these locations became a much-envied situation. Why not? If no one is really going into the office, you can do your job from a sea-change location effectively,” she explained.

“An interesting recent observation is that I have noticed that a number of 100 per cent remote workers are now feeling a little isolated and demotivated working alone at home 100 per cent of the time. Maybe the shine is wearing off from totally remote work as it only suits a small percentage of people.”

Although movement in the market is encouraging, the profession still has a way to go before completely bouncing back.

“From the market coming to an abrupt halt overnight, it bounced back slowly but steadily. The pandemic contributed to the existing shortage of candidates; this was always looming, but the pandemic seemed to exacerbate the situation. The numbers that left law tipped the scales quickly. It drove the ‘candidate is in control’ market we are now seeing through shortage of candidates matched with an exploding market of opportunity and workflow,” Ms Crowther added.   

“It is still a candidate-driven market. Candidates know this and are open to taking advantage of the situation. Uplifts in salary are highly sought after as well as structured career paths and flexible working practices remain highly sought after.”

This candidate shortage will continue into 2023, added Mr Shah.

“The greatest challenge for legal firms to recruit and retain the best talent is to embrace the new future. Now is the time to step away from traditional strategies. Update your cultural practice and reinvigorate your marketing. Look for the areas of opportunity — or talk to the people who know where they are,” he said.

“While the lockdowns certainly presented challenges to many different businesses, it also presented opportunities. Many businesses have flourished, with a great spurring of activity in some sectors.”

However, lockdowns also “significantly changed the way lawyers think about work”, according to Mr Gotch, who emphasised that whilst salaries are still important, there are a number of other things lawyers are prioritising, such as flexible working, feeling valued, and team culture.

“The pandemic, and subsequent significant outward migration of Australian lawyers and reduced inward migration of foreign lawyers, caused a significant gap between supply and demand in the Australian legal recruitment market. Law firms were busy and therefore hiring at record rates. They were also losing volumes of talent to overseas roles. This ‘perfect storm’ significantly impacted legal recruitment, and the gap between supply and demand led to salary increases for job-seeking lawyers, more choice for candidates and law firms having to be more flexible when hiring,” he explained.

“We are expecting 2023 to be a year of consolidation in the legal recruitment market. With significant geopolitical events and two years of continuous hiring, law firms are now looking to consolidate their current staff base and adopt a more cautious approach to hiring. That said, there will always be opportunities for talented lawyers looking for a new role.”