London firms will always have an appetite for Australian lawyers, but the global financial crisis means plans for a stint working overseas might be best shelved for the time being, writes Sarah Sharples
Transactional work has decreased, the UK market has been flooded with domestic lawyers who have been made redundant and visa requirements have been tightened as a result of the economic downturn.
For Australian lawyers, all these factors make it difficult to follow the well trodden path of working in the UK and travelling Europe.
The main transactional areas such as corporate law and banking and finance are quiet, as are the traditional areas in which Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans are hired.
Jonathan Marsden, director of the London office of Marsden International, says most of his time as a recruiter is now spent helping people who been made redundant, working on CVs, advising on strategy and keeping confidence high.
"The Silver Circle [firms] are not looking. There are one or two exceptions. There is one Magic Circle firm and one Silver Circle firm that have kept vacancies alive because they want to continue to receive resumes and they are hoping to pick up someone - a superstar from a competitor - but they admit the threshold is very, very high and it's very difficult to get an interview with them," he says.
"The mid-market firms, they're not actively recruiting. Even if they have positions, they don't have to actively go out to the marketplace because there are so many lawyers that are actively looking and approaching those firms that the roles get filled very, very quickly. So you may not even hear of [the roles] ... people are obviously very flexible right now as to how they work - so they can go on a contract basis and do that, just to get a job."
In particular, newly qualified lawyers or junior lawyers with less than three years' experience will not be considered, says Edward Andrew, managing director of EA International.
"At the moment clients are looking for their senior lawyers, their partners and their senior associates to guide them through these very dramatic times ... The clients want senior-level advice and very strategic and very complex sophisticated advice, which your first or second years can't provide - they don't have the experience," he says.
"There is also not the volume of transactions at the moment which needs a lot of documentation and data and processing of information, which the junior lawyers tend to cut their teeth on. So the harsh reality is there is not the same type of work there for them to do, that there was before."
The UK Government has also made it harder to obtain a working visa, says Andrew, but the global firms are speaking out against it.
"It's much harder to prove out of necessity that a lawyer from Australia, Canada, South Africa, India ... or New Zealand has got the required skill-set which is better than those hundreds of lawyers who have been made redundant in England," he says.
"The law firms are basically, as far as we understand, lobbying the Government to say 'We are global businesses, our global businesses are staffed with international lawyers from around the world - that is the nature of our business. If you cut that off, the very nature of our business and our ability to work in the global markets is severely compromised'."
When times are again buoyant, the firms will be crying out for good lawyers, says Mimi Fong, managing director of Amicas Global. But, having spoken to UK clients recently, her impression is that a turnaround in recruitment is not likely until the second quarter of 2010.
"It remains a sensitive time still for many firms in London, some of whom are still feeling the effects of the consultation process they have been through with their staff. Therefore they cannot be seen to be actively hiring again too soon," she says.
"The bar remains very high ... Many firms are asking for regional or international experience, or, at the senior level, a business following as they look to build up strategically, which, unfortunately, removes any Australian lawyer who has not practised overseas before out of the equation immediately. Litigation and arbitration, and restructuring and insolvency, unsurprisingly, remain busy, as well as employment, IP [intellectual property] and real estate."
But will Australian lawyers be put off giving up a job in Australia to work in the UK, when many would already know of others who had returned after being made redundant?
Marsden says Australian lawyers are young, smart and ambitious and will recognise they can't get locally the "big ticket" or "big scale" transactions that are available in the UK or New York. He adds that Australians also have travel in their blood and want to go and experience new things.
"They may be a little cautious and they will ask the question: 'What happens if there is a massive economic downturn? Will I get laid off? My mate came back and he got laid off'. But I don't think it will stop them from making the move because you have to live life and you can't just live in a shell expecting the worst to happen.
"These people haven't got to where they've got to by living life like that. There will be a small percentage of people who will be put off, and, obviously, the local Australian firms will capitalise on that fear factor to try and keep people for a bit longer," he says.
"If [lawyers] ultimately see themselves as just doing two or three years in London and returning back to Australia and rejoining their old firm or continuing their career in the law or business, they can be very clever and ... come back when the market is still up in Australia and secure a good position ... rather than [waiting until] it's down - so they can actually move on their front foot rather than being put onto their back foot."
Andrew says the hard thing is predicting when the market will pick up, but cautions Australian lawyers not to despair.
"Australians were pretty much able to work in five jurisdictions around the world. Just before we went into the GFC, we were selling lawyers to 30 locations around the world. All of those jurisdictions still want to hire lawyers from here and there may be other, more diverse, jurisdictions which emerge as well.
"If Australian lawyers sit tight, the market will come back and they will continue to be able to work overseas," he says.