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‘Aggressive’ BigLaw salaries causing headaches in-house

While the number of vacancies has risen, the supply of lawyers has not, said one senior recruiter.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 23 November 2021 Corporate Counsel
Paul Burgess
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In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Burgess Paluch Legal Recruitment director Paul Burgess (pictured) said that the feedback being received from Australian corporate clients at this juncture is that it is incredibly difficult to recruit in law departments, particularly when it comes to lawyers with three to seven years’ PQE.

Mr Burgess – who recently opined about the supposed looming Great Resignation in the legal profession – said that a combination of a “buoyant” M&A and commercial market, together with lower graduate intakes by BigLaw firms in recent years and a more satisfied workforce, has meant that “while the number of vacancies has risen, the supply of lawyers has not”.

“Overlayed upon this is an amount of caution felt by lawyers in Melbourne and Sydney in particular related to COVID-19. This is in sharp contrast to supply and demand at the GC level where demand remains steady and there is still a strong supply of applicants,” he explained.


Moreover, Mr Burgess went on, salaries in those law firms “are the most aggressive we have seen in a decade”.

“Some firms are conducting mid-year salary reviews and offering sign-on bonuses when hiring. Annual salaries roles much higher this past July than in previous years, with 10-22 per cent rises being the norm for salaried lawyers in law firms,” he said.

“Unfortunately for in-house lawyers, corporates seem slower to respond, and salaries, on the whole, remain prudent by comparison.”

Accordingly, Mr Burgess outlined, there is a widening gap between BigLaw firms and salaries in-house.

“In our experience, corporates can take time to adjust to a changing legal marketplace, whereas firms need to react quickly to fill their ranks and stem the tide of departures,” he mused.

“More agile businesses have also just started to increase their offers to lateral hires, and adjusting to meet the market, often in cases where they have had unfilled vacancies for months.”

When asked if – as a result of these factors – in-house teams will struggle to attract and retain top talent in 2022 and beyond, Mr Burgess responded that law departments have “traditionally expected” that they can go to market and be inundated with CVs of quality lawyers – a mindset they may have to discard.

“In the current market, there is a dearth of front-end commercial lawyers generally, especially in the three- to seven-year banding, and many roles to choose from. Lawyers with relevant experience report being flooded with head-hunting approaches, and they are quickly beginning to understand their value in the marketplace,” he posited.

“Accordingly, even the most appealing in-house roles are no longer an easy fill, with private practice lawyers eagerly awaiting their next pay rise, and also having the luxury of sitting and waiting, knowing full well there will be other options just around the corner.”

This said, hope remains for law departments hoping to be seen as employers of choice, Mr Burgess insisted.

“Staff retention will play a key role in limiting exposure to the current market. Paying well, offering flexible work practices and ensuring employees feel safe and valued. While money is important to most employees, recent surveys have shown that in the present market, feeling secure, valued and engaged is critical,” he submitted.

“Managing upwards and early to those who set the budgets for wages for lawyers and ensuring they are aware of what the market is doing, so that the business is budgeting appropriately moving forward will be key.”

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