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Are legal departments’ hiring processes slowing?

In a slower economic market, 2024 has brought noticeable shifts in hiring trends within legal departments and a more deliberate approach to securing the right talent. As such, legal recruiters have emphasised the importance of strategic career moves and continuous professional development for in-house candidates.

user iconLauren Croft 04 June 2024 Corporate Counsel
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Despite a candidate’s market in recent years resulting in inflated legal salaries and mid-level lawyers and senior associates in high demand, as hiring slows slightly in the market, there seems to be more of a shift towards an employer’s market – with recruiters predicting a higher bar of entry for legal positions.

For in-house legal candidates navigating these challenging times and a changing economic market, networking and upskilling are critical strategies to enhance employability and secure career-defining opportunities.

With firms notably placing higher strategic importance on employee retention leading up to FY2024–25 (where financial year raises will likely be lower than previous years), are corporate legal departments following suit – and slowing down their hiring processes?


In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Carlyle Kingswood Global director (legal and GRC, in-house) Phillip Hunter said that while he hasn’t observed a reduction in available roles in-house, there has been “a noticeable slowdown in the hiring process itself”.

“Clients are taking more time to secure the right candidate, a trend mirrored by candidates who are also not in a rush to make moves. This can be attributed to a desire for stability following significant job changes over the past 12-18 months. The years 2020 and 2021 saw individuals staying in roles (if they could), 2022 marked a return to office environments and people enjoying a sense of normality, and 2023 saw a considerable shift with many people changing roles,” he said.

“In 2024, we observe a trend of individuals seeking tenure and stability in their current positions, with a common response to our headhunting calls, ‘sounds like a great role, maybe next year’. No specific trends or sectors have been significantly affected by hiring cuts. The job market remains steady with slower hiring processes being the only notable change.”

G2 Legal Australia director Daniel Stirling agreed with this sentiment – and added that there are specific areas of growth within corporate legal departments, such as those demanding data protection skills.

“I haven’t observed a slowdown within corporate law departments overall, though the market is more variable across different industry sectors and experience levels when compared to two years ago when it was busy across all areas. I think this is reflective of the economy being inconsistent and varied supply and demand at different levels,” he said.

“I think that the areas which have maintained a high demand are those within industries experiencing success or large investment, such as construction, energy, renewables and tech. Other large employers of in-house counsel will also remain consistent, such as financial services. In addition, specific in-demand skills such as data/privacy and governance will continue to have requirements. Outside of those areas, it is more likely that opportunities are less consistent as positions arise due to replacement rather than new growth roles.”

In contrast, the team at u&u. Recruitment Partners said that private M&A and ECM lawyers have been impacted by the market slowdown.

“Economic fluctuations, both globally and domestically, impact corporate activity. Uncertainty in the economy often leads companies to delay mergers, acquisitions, and other corporate transactions, reducing the need for corporate legal services. With many private equity houses pausing investment in Australian shores (at least for the time being), we have spoken with a number of corporate lawyers who are active in the market and seeking new opportunities,” the team said.

“We are finding lawyers at the mid to senior level are struggling to define their next career move. This has seen an increase in the interest of lawyers to moving in-house and making the market in-house quite competitive.”

Advice for candidates moving forward

For in-house lawyers looking to make career moves, the u&u team recommended making moves “strategically” and not just leaving a role for the sake of it.

“Thoroughly research any new role and opportunity before making a change. While it’s beneficial to discuss experiences with peers regarding particular firms or recruitment processes, keep in mind that everyone’s experience is subjective and unique to their circumstances. What your peers encounter might not be the same for you, and you don’t want to jump from the frying pan into the deep fryer! Talk to a trusted recruiter with whom you have a good connection to understand the job market and get feedback on various teams and organisations that align with your career objectives,” they said.

“When engaging with a firm or organisation during a recruitment process, take your time. Have multiple meetings to ensure the move aligns with your overall career goals. If a role doesn’t work out, securing the next one might not be quick or easy. Some candidates find it takes over three to six months to land the right position, especially if they have resigned without having another job lined up.”

Despite a slower market and inconsistency in some sectors, opportunities “still exist” in-house, added Stirling.

“That may mean that it takes slightly longer to find a role, but many lawyers are finding great career defining moves at this time. My advice would be to network and continue to develop relationships with other in-house counsel or other relevant contacts,” he said.

“Speaking with a recruiter that specialises in in-house legal recruitment could help with your long-term planning and being made aware of off market roles. Learning new skills is also critical, whether that is through putting your hand up for new projects or through external learning.”

Being “genuine” in a job search, as well as committed to growing a network, can also assist candidates greatly moving forward.

“Legal candidates should be committed and genuine in their job search, maintaining honesty with recruitment agents and tailoring applications to specific roles. Thorough preparation for each application and meeting is crucial. Embracing technology and AI to enhance efficiency is increasingly valuable,” Hunter added.

“Networking at relevant conferences and events, and gaining exposure to various activities at work can enhance employability by adding new skills and capabilities. Broadening skills and gaining exposure to other areas is crucial as lawyers are now expected to be involved in much more than just legal matters.”

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