AS AUSTRALIAN law firms have come to accept the likelihood of losing their best and brightest talent to the UK for a couple of years, and made positive moves to encourage their return to the fold, the bar has been raised.
UK law firms now expect their international recruits to stay for longer periods, and three to five year stints are becoming the norm, according to the firms themselves and legal recruiters.
According to Marisa Barton of ESperitus, most firms would be wary of lawyers intending to stay for anything less than a two or three year period, mostly because of the cost implications.
Jonathon Marsden, of Marsden International Legal Search, puts it more bluntly. “Firms are being much more aggressive in terms of what they expect of their Australian lawyers coming in. They don’t want people to just come for a couple of years and leave again.”
And there are plenty of reasons for lawyers not to move on. “It is a busy time in London. Lawyers are excited by the quality of work, they are getting bonuses — it is a great incentive to stay,” Barton said.
As well, while lawyers tend to start their UK experience at a reasonably junior stage of their career, with some even going as graduates, it is being made clear to Australians that if they perform well, they will not be disadvantaged in the quest for partnership.
“Slaughter & May is saying 40 per cent of their lawyers now are from the overseas market and many firms are making Australians up into the partnership,” Barton said. Caroline Rawes, head of HR at Linklaters, said more Australian and New Zealand lawyers who have joined the firm as lateral hires are staying on and being elected to the partnership.
“That speaks volumes for the success of the people hired from Australia and also their commitment and enjoyment of the work and experience that they’re getting here,” she said.
“We have always been keen for people who came over here, enjoyed the work and performed well to stay for as long as we can encourage them to stay.” One of those partners, Annette Kurdian, joined the firm’s banking group in 2001 and was elected to the partnership two months ago.
She expected to stay for the usual two years, but found the level of work hard to give up. “I never came here for better pay. I wanted new experiences and a wide range of challenging work, which I have found,” she said.
But what of those who stay longer, without making it into the hallowed partnership ranks?
Marsden said it is quite feasible that lawyers could spend three or four years in a magic circle firm, and another two or three years in an offshore firm before making their way back to Australia. “If they really want to go back into private practice [in Australia] and make partnership, they can’t afford to be away for too many years, and come back at too senior a level.”
Lawyers need time to get back into the firm and build up a client base, and deal with all the politics of partnership, he said. However, lawyers that go to the UK with two years post-qualification experience could afford to be away for up to five years and still slot into a firm, where their international experience would stand them in good stead for partnership.
Taylor said Clifford Chance lawyers are “snapped up very quickly” when they return to Australia. “They get more responsibility here and work on bigger, and arguably more complex deals, and get excellent training, so it is only good for their career, and the firms who take them back.”
But Nancy Bailey, senior consultant with Taylor Root, says some returning lawyers have worked in Australia for only six months before looking for positions back in the UK, a move which she puts down to progression. “You can come back here at too senior a stage, so then you’ve got to prove yourself for another couple of years,” she said.
“They find that a lot of their friends are still in London, that they do miss the international quality of the work.” And some simply find that the UK has become home, she said.
Also, she has had senior lawyers come to her with stories of colleagues who have gone to London and been made partner relatively quickly, while they are still three or four years off. Australian recruits are not being treated as a stop gap, she says. The firms want them to stay.
However, ESperitus’s Barton said lawyers may add a couple of years to their wait for partnership by spending longer in the UK. But Australian firms value the experience lawyers gain in London, and there is often a huge need for the particular skills gained overseas. “It is a question of career planning really,” she said.
See this week’s supplement, The London Report