‘Experienced and talented’ senior and mid-level lawyers ‘are extremely hard to find’
Whilst the recruitment of senior and mid-level lawyers has always been a challenge for firms, a global pandemic and the supposed Great Resignation have only made things tougher.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic and government-mandated lockdowns, the legal recruitment market has been — and will continue to be — significantly impacted moving forward, particularly in the metropolitan areas of Melbourne and Sydney.
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As previously reported by Lawyers Weekly, many legal candidates in these markets jumped ship coming out of statewide lockdowns to move either interstate or, when travel restrictions were eventually lifted, overseas.
This is a trend that Karlie Connellan, co-founder and joint managing director of BerConn Global — which specialises in international recruitment — said has meant that more mid-level lawyers are making global moves.
“This will have a knock-on effect [on] the local firm’s requirement to hire at the mid-level. Now that the borders are open, lawyers are moving to Australia; however, most firms have told us they have had to wait many months for those hires to commence work, visa application delays and relocation timelines,” she told Lawyers Weekly.
“There will always be a preference to hire from the local market where possible; naturally, this has seen some lawyers moving nationally.”
However, recruiters are reporting that firms in metropolitan cities across the country are also struggling to hire mid-level and senior lawyers right now — with these positions being among the most in-demand in the profession.
Legal People partner Sharon Henderson has seen a particularly “tight market” for practice areas such as commercial and property law, family, personal injury and insurance law — and said that candidates across all levels are “much more discerning when applying for roles”.
“Experienced and talented lawyers at the senior and mid-level, who want to relocate to another firm, are extremely hard to find. In the last 18 months, the very buoyant job market for experienced lawyers has made this a challenge. Having said that, it is not just the metropolitan cities, as the suburban and regional firms also face the same challenges,” she said.
“There are a number of factors contributing to the shortage of senior and mid-level lawyers. [Candidates] are asking lots of questions about company culture, values, flexible working arrangements and policies relating to leave before they even apply. This is leading to less people than usual applying for available roles. We have also lost some lawyers from the talent pool for private practice, as they have snapped up opportunities to move to in-house or government roles.”
This is “absolutely” a problem for firms moving into the new year, according to Burgess Paluch director Paul Burgess.
“It remains a lawyers’ market and will do so for some time, although there are early signs that this is shifting in favour of employers. At the senior end, there is less demand and better supply than at mid-level, but the market remains tight nonetheless,” he said.
“There remains significant demand for lawyers and low levels of supply. With fewer lawyers now coming through from COVID at the junior levels, with less being created then, there is actually a shortage from one to eight years post-qualification in most cities in Australia.”
Despite this, Ms Connellan said that from what she’s been seeing, firms are no longer looking to “hire speculatively”.
“It is always challenging to hire at the mid to senior level, with lawyers preferring to remain in their current role unless there is something on offer which is not available at their firm. Australia is not a destination that is as desirable as some others, such as London, for lawyers from abroad, and that, coupled with the continued delays in visa processing post-COVID, has posed a challenge for firms to hire foreign, qualified mid- to senior-level lawyers.
“There may be some residual knock-on effect from people leaving the industry post-COVID; however, we expect the key challenge is posed by lawyers moving overseas a little later due to COVID. Therefore the mid-level ‘brain drain’ is likely to have felt like a mass exodus in the last year in comparison to previous years, where perhaps lawyers would have left gradually and earlier in their careers,” she explained.
“In addition, we have not seen as many mid-level or senior returnees to Australia because those who chose to stay abroad during COVID inten[d] to stay on longer and actually experience being in the city they are residing in rather than locked inside WFH experience. At the senior level, it is always challenging to hire unless there is a substantially different proposition on the table.”
Ms Henderson echoed a similar sentiment, with the caveat that this is the “tightest candidate market” she has ever seen in her 20 years in legal recruitment.
“Changing market factors also add to the demand for legal services, for example, insurance claims relating to floods and fires or the increased demands on for family law owing to couples reassessing family life in the wake of the pandemic,” she said.
“We are still seeing a lot of lawyers moving away to regional areas for the lifestyle change. Many of them continue to work in a hybrid fashion to accomplish this — a couple of days from home and then two to three days in the office. We are also fielding many enquiries from lawyers who want to work remotely 100 per cent of the time; however, few firms are accommodating this, preferring their new recruits to contribute to their company culture, connection, and team engagement through some face time actually in the office.”
And moving into 2023, firms need to focus more on these types of initiatives in order to attract and retain staff — especially in relation to the coveted senior and mid-level lawyers.
“It will be interesting to see what the new year presents as the current trend of high demand for candidates is not sustainable forever. We have also seen an impact on the salaries that firms are now having to pay to secure talented staff, with new starters often receiving a good ‘bump up’ in salary when they move firms. We are just now starting to see a slight ease off of demand; this may be related to the election or current interest rates, or it could just be that the usual Christmas slowdown has begun,” Ms Henderson added.
“The best way for firms to deal with this ongoing recruitment challenge, particularly for senior and mid-level lawyers, is to focus and invest in their talent attraction proposition. They need to ensure that their organisation has a strong and compelling employer value proposition, a great reputation in the market for a positive and thriving company culture as well as offering their employees flexible working arrangements, based around their individual circumstances. Firms need to make themselves stand out from their competition and really promote themselves as a great place to work.”