Talent exodus shakes firms into action

By Lawyers Weekly|03 March 2012

COMPETITION FOR talent was the top issue of the year, the managing partners of Australia’s top firms have said in a Lawyers Weekly end of year survey. Henry Davis York managing partner, Stephen…

COMPETITION FOR talent was the top issue of the year, the managing partners of Australia’s top firms have said in a Lawyers Weekly end of year survey.

Henry Davis York managing partner, Stephen Purcell, said that staff retention is one of his most pressing issues, claiming it was “phenomenally difficult”. Even though the firm has won a number of employment awards, it finds it difficult to retain talented staff. “I think it is the lure of London again, a lot of lawyers are going to London, and also the in-house lure is strong,” he said.

Pressed as to whether the top tiers are losing more lawyers to the mid tier and boutique firms than in the past, Purcell admitted: “We pick up good lawyers from the big firms, but we are certainly not immune from losing lawyers to London or in-house positions … A lot of young lawyers, generation Y, crave new experiences and an opportunity to go to London,” he said.


Acknowledging there was a “worldwide drought” of lawyers in the two to five year level, “true of London, New York and Sydney and elsewhere”, Baker & McKenzie managing partner Mark Chapple said the firm has found a way to deal with this difficult problem. The firm’s advantage, he said, is in its many offices across the globe.

Young lawyers with that level of experience increasingly want to work overseas, he said. “Fortunately for us, we have some ways of tackling that, which are unique to us, I think. We have an associate training program that enables us to arrange to send our lawyers to other Baker and McKenzie offices for up to two years. This means we don’t lose them to another organisation and we get them back. And we use the same program to get lawyers from other offices,” said Chapple.

This week, a senior litigation lawyer arrived in the Sydney Baker & McKenzie office from London. “We combat the flight overseas by attracting people to do the reverse, and there is a lot of enthusiasm to do that,” he said.

Henry Davis York’s Purcell said that while firms overseas have always been interested in Australian lawyers, this reached a peak 10 years ago. But for the past three or four years this has not been such an issue for many firms here, as things “got tight” in London in early 2000 and those firms lessened their recruiting of overseas lawyers. The last 12 months, however, has seen London firms “back with a vengeance” and Australian lawyers are now very desirable, he said.

In the past year Henry Davis York has lost a handful of lawyers to London, the firm said, but added that this is not an insignificant amount when you have about 180 lawyers. “You are just starting to get value out of them, you have trained them, and then they get snaffled off to London,” Purcell said.


“We’ve managed to get a couple of lawyers back in recent times, but usually only after they have been overseas for a few years. So it is quite difficult to get them back. We had a lawyer re-join our firm only about a month ago, who started off with us as a summer clerk, worked in London for a few years and has just come back. It’s a long journey, but some do come back.” The firm is now looking at running a campaign to recruit London lawyers in the new year.

While competition used to come from large law firms for firms like Deacons, additional “pulls” are now taking young talent in particular. Deacons chief executive, Don Boyd, said that the firm loses lawyers to companies, which are now actively seeking in-house lawyers. He said there is a larger market for talented in-house lawyers than there was in past.

Boyd added that the benefit of this type of move, however, is that “people who go from a firm to in-house are hopefully more likely to use the firm that they came from”.

Freehills chief managing partner, Gavin Bell, said that generational issues create part of the retention problem as well, noting that a lot of young lawyers have “different career aspirations”.

But firms have not become more conservative in their approach to work/life balance; rather, the lawyers coming into law want different things. “I think firms are changing, but for the better. I don’t think the nature of the firm has changed dramatically over the past year. I think it is perhaps a generational thing, a different view on how many careers you should have during a lifetime,” Bell said.

Many firms are now putting in place systems that they hope will retain staff and partners. Maddocks Lawyers, for example, has seen some positive results in its recent internal climate survey. Chief executive, David Laidlaw, said the most recent survey reported that 93 per cent of employees are proud to work at Maddocks, and 89 per cent said that they believe that the firm had a clear, open and fair culture. Again, the ranking for non-discrimination on gender or any other basis was in the high 80s.

But Laidlaw said the firm does have generational issues, noting that “people are looking for more from their careers than they did previously”, which he said poses particular challenges for organisations. “They are looking to get more of a better balance,” he said.

Arnold Bloch Leibler has developed a mentoring programme and has created a development committee as well as a career development committee to give its lawyers “increased opportunities to participate in the direction of the firm and their own careers within it”. The firm said it is also “streamlining administrative procedures, to improve work flow and make life easier for all members of the firm”.

Manager of the Melbourne legal team at Hamilton James & Bruce, James Pfahl, told Lawyers Weekly that “law firms are getting creative”. “They are looking at the national market but also overseas, and are replicating what the UK-based firms have been doing here for some time.”

Allens Arthur Robinson this year conducted a one month recruitment drive in London. This major recruitment and advertising campaign was aimed at drawing in both London lawyers, and Australian lawyers planning to return home. Allens staff partner Ross Drinnan said the one month stint in the UK was for the purpose of conducting a series of interviews. But the firm also saw it as an opportunity to keep in contact with its alumni. “We do our best to stay in touch with our people [in the hope that] when they decide to come back they will come and talk to us,” he said.

Mallesons Stephen Jaques was also on the lookout for UK lawyers and Australians returning home in a number of areas of law. This past year, the firm used Dolman Legal Search and Recruitment to run its recruitment campaign, and it was understood opportunities existed in a number of offices in Australia. “This is an opportunity to gain access to high quality, cross-border work in the Asia Pacific region with this award winning firm,” ran the recruitment brief earlier this year.

Top-tier firms need to run these campaigns, argued Pfahl. They also have some ‘best friend’ agreements with magic circle firms in the UK, in which Australians wanting to go overseas can find positions, and at the same time the Australian firms can keep an eye on those lawyers. “This way Australian firms can keep track of [those lawyers] rather than losing them altogether,” Pfahl said.

Nancy Bailey, a senior consultant at Taylor Root, said it varies according to practice areas, but some departments have lost up to a quarter of their lawyers. “They’ve been able to recruit to maintain their levels, but not to be able to cope with the demands of the market.”

Additional reporting by Shaun Drummond

Talent exodus shakes firms into action
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