The London Report: The higher it goes, the harder it falls

The outlook for the successful Australian lawyer is changing. The global market is awash with economic pressures and the fallout means that London - once a hotspot and rite of passage for…

Promoted by Lawyers Weekly 11 July 2008 Big Law
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The outlook for the successful Australian lawyer is changing. The global market is awash with economic pressures and the fallout means that London - once a hotspot and rite of passage for Australians to gain necessary experience in a global law firm - may be closing the doors so far that only the very best of talent can creep through.

Whether or not the change is permanent remains to be seen, but one thing is certain - in the meantime, Australians with only one to two years post-admission experience may now find the London opportunity a difficult one to come by.

Turbulent times

In the United Kingdom there are some hard facts worth noting. For one, the CBI predicts that about 200,000 jobs will be lost as a result of the slowing economy by 2009. Meanwhile, another study has raised concerns over the actual competitiveness of London as a business centre.

According to a KPMG London Business Survey, six out of 10 business leaders in London believe the city is under threat from not just the credit crunch, but also poorly handled tax reforms, chaotic transport and congestion problems. That figure is double that of similar research carried out a year ago.

These stats don't augur well for Australian lawyers seeking work. While a number of Magic Circle firms that Lawyers Weekly spoke to remain optimistic about the future and the opportunities still available for employment, local recruiters sending Australians overseas were not quite as subtle.

"The market is dead," says Edward Andrew, managing director at EA International. "Don't be fooled by the situation in London, because it's not pretty."

But that's not to say that London firms are no longer interested in coming to Australia to check out the local talent. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to Andrews, a recent spate of London visitors saw some mixed results: "Some did hire in significant numbers, particularly in finance," he says.

"One or two came out, though, and although they interviewed for the London office, there was no joy."

A reputation to maintain

So, why make the trip? Aside from recruiting for offices outside London itself, Andrews believes these firms are keen to maintain a reputation. "Most of the major players need to be out here consistently, otherwise when the market goes back to a bull market again, competition will be so intense that they will lose out."

When Louise Leecy, legal recruiter at First Counsel, visited a number of global firms in London this year to find vacancies, she discovered things had definitely slowed down and firms were maintaining caution on their approach to recruitment. The market was suddenly looking sour - a very different situation to that she'd seen over the past few years when a high demand for M&A activity fuelled a need for junior transactional lawyers.

"The firms were coming out here and taking our lawyers with as little as 18 months' experience," she says. "That demand was over and above the usual recruitment needs and it's dropped."

To say that the golden years of recruitment for junior lawyers in London have faded is an understatement. According to some recruiters, given the limited pool of opportunities available, London firms these days are only after the very best: three to four years' experience will be needed and it's likely that only lawyers from top-tier firms will be considered.

For corporate and finance lawyers, their CVs will need to be outstanding, while other lawyers may find some luck with litigation opportunities that are arising and the growth of project and construction work, which has remained steady.

Megan Drysdale, a recruiter at Mahlab, says the main attraction for London firms these days is quality. "The bar has been raised," she says. "You will most likely need to come from a top firm - your academic credentials will be impeccable, your training strong."

Sadly, Drysdale can't see many lawyers from mid-tier firms finding openings in the current London market. "I can't see these lawyers having the opportunities they had over the last two to three years," she says.

According to some Magic Circle firms, however, the notion the market is dead is not necessarily true. Annette Kurdian, a partner at Linklaters, says their clients are quieter now than recent years, but the work is still there. "Even though the City is quieter as a whole, there is still quite a bit going on and some areas remain extremely busy."

In fact, says Kurdian, the firm's commitment to graduate recruitment is stronger than it has been in years. "We are taking more students this year than we ever have before," she said.

Emma Lim, recruitment manager at Simmons & Simmons, says there's no doubt that the market is tougher now than last year for job seekers, but success can be reaped from those at the top of their game. "There are always opportunities for outstanding candidates and, in particular, those working in specialist areas such as funds."

Some cards to play

Meanwhile, Maurice Allen, a partner at Freshfields, is a little more pessimistic about the current state of recruitment. He says firms are no doubt being cautious as the fallout from the credit crunch takes hold, and firms are seeing less movement of their talent.

But to say the market is dead, he says, is an overstatement: "Even in difficult times Aussie lawyers have some cards to play," he says. "Tending to be more generalist, they are less prone to finding that what they do disappears."

While some practice areas are slowing, others are still experiencing growth. Allen maintains that the growth of work in structured finance and infrastructure areas has remained steady during the downturn, while restructuring and insolvency work is on the increase and presenting opportunities to recruits with the necessary skills.

There is also a predicted end in sight for the current state of the London market, but it's not going to happen soon. Allen says he can't see too many firms making the trip to Australia over the next year scouting recruits, and local recruiters are not getting too excited about seeing much change until at least September 2009.

A solution for Australian lawyers keen to get to London could simply be to wait it out.

Kurdian says: "If there's no obvious openings in the firm you really want to work for, you should weigh up carefully whether it is better to stay in Australia for a bit longer - getting good experience at a good firm until the right opportunity arises - rather than to compromise on the London firm and necessarily get the best experience."

It's a good point, and the current strength of the Australian dollar could also make waiting it out financially worthwhile. If it's a salary alone that an Australian lawyer is chasing, it may be simpler just to stay put.

Meanwhile, a lack of opportunities in London could have some unseen benefits. For some Australians still keen on the experience of a London firm, a changing pathway to a successful legal career is being forged through the rise of global offices.

The lights of London may be fading but the same lights from the same firms are looking bright as ever in emerging markets and growing business centres that may well provide some healthy steps for a successful career.

The money is good, the offices are busy, and the work just as alluring as what is (or perhaps was) available for Australian lawyers in London.

- Angela Priestley