Following a dismal 2009 and a slow and steady 2010, the legal industry has kicked-off 2011 with renewed confidence and increased demand for lawyers, giving hope to those looking to get the job they want and advance their careers.
After enduring the mass redundancies of the global financial crisis and sitting tight throughout 2010, lawyers can now breathe a sigh of relief as employers look to snap up the best talent in response to improved market conditions.
But now that things are looking up, lawyers looking for a new start need to refocus on primping their resume, honing their interview technique and setting up a strategy to help them achieve their long-term career goals.
Know the market
Before launching into what can be a gruelling job search process, lawyers need to be aware of how the market is performing, where the demand lies and how their transferable skills can be applied to create further opportunities.
And they need to start preparing now because, according to the Hays Quarterly Report for January to March 2011, the first quarter of 2011 is expected to be busy.
"Candidate levels will rise in the first quarter of 2011," says Darren Buchanan, director of Hays. "As well as the traditional mentality of seeking a new role in a new year, more people are now far more confident in the market's ability to present them with a solid career-advancing opportunity."
But even with an increase in confidence amongst job-seekers, Buchanan points out that the demand for certain specialist skills will not necessarily be met, meaning the skills shortage will remain a challenge for firms.
"There's no doubt that we're very quickly returning to a state of candidate shortage and will continue in this direction as more organisations experience growth," he says.
According to the quarterly report, the private practice market has experienced sustained levels of high demand for lawyers across almost all practice areas as firms expand their teams to cope with an increasing workload. The report notes that in the latter part of 2010, firms continued to push forward with their growth plans and even those firms that were in consolidation mode have now started to expand.
With demand now close to that seen prior to the global financial crisis, most job seekers are sitting comfortably in an active, buoyant market.
According to legal recruiters, those working in the corporate and banking and finance areas have the best chance of securing a new role, with property lawyers, construction lawyers and litigation lawyers also in demand. With a substantial increase in transactional work, banking and financial services lawyers are now highly sought after, particularly by the top-tier and international firms.
"Many firms have identified the banking and financial sector as an area for strategic growth, so competition for work and the best talent is rife in this space," the report says.
Also performing well, and continuing a trend from previous years, is the energy and resources space. Demand for lawyers with expertise in this area is particularly high, both in private practice and in-house.
"The market there has been buoyant for a substantial period and doesn't look like tapering off at all," explains Doron Paluch, director of Burgess Paluch Legal Recruitment.
While certain practice areas are demanding more staff than others, recruitment consultants say there has been a steady increase across all levels and all practice areas in the Australian market.
"There is a broad array of areas of law in which we're seeing movement," Paluch says. "Now is a very good time to start looking."
For those contemplating a stint overseas, there have been some improvements in the UK market. However, those improvements have come at a much slower rate than those seen in Australia, leaving limited opportunities for Australian-qualified lawyers to secure themselves a spot.
But despite the sluggish recovery of the UK market, some recruiters say it can't hurt to start looking and start making inquiries.
"It you want a career in the UK, it's best to start looking," says Lisa Gazis, managing director of Mahlab Recruitment (NSW).
"Last year it was worth delaying the [job search] because there was nothing there but we are going to hopefully see improved markets. It's better to seize the opportunity if it's there and give it a go. I wouldn't be holding back."
If a move to the UK is not on the career agenda, J Legal's head of private practice, Dezz Mardigan, suggests lawyers consider the Middle East.
"There is lots of opportunity in the Middle East at this present time in oil, gas, energy and resources, but they're looking for someone with more top-tier firm experience," Mardigan says. "On the other hand, there are a couple of firms in Dubai that do welcome lawyers with four to six years PQE, but more in the finance [area]. For anyone wanting to go abroad [Dubai] would be my first pick."
Set up a strategy
Landing your dream job in the legal industry is all about strategy, according to legal recruiters.
Job-seekers need to be aware that although conditions have improved, law firms are still being very selective in the search for talent, so lawyers need to put a strategy in place when it comes to making the right move and shaping their career.
By thinking about the consequences - both positive and negative - of moving from one job to another, lawyers can ensure they get to where they want, in the short and long term.
"It's very important for [lawyers] to see that for each move they make within their career there should be an end goal. They should be quite strategic about how they view what they've done in the past, what their plans are in the future and how those can really mirror and add value to what the end goal is," says Hays regional director Carolyn Dickason.
However, while demand is building, Dickason reminds job-seekers that the market hasn't yet hit a peak.
"There is still a huge shortage of candidates in the market but it's [the] really high calibre [candidates] that most organisations - in-house or not - want," she says.
As firms look for unique skill-sets and experience in niche areas, lawyers need to tailor their resume to highlight their specialist skills, specific to each job they apply for.
"If [candidates] don't highlight their particular experience, they will end up with a very lengthy resume and the [employer] will not be able to identify the synergy between the experience that the candidate has obtained and the experience the client is looking for," Dickason explains.
"Clients in general are becoming aware that they need transferable skills but candidates also need to be aware that they need to highlight those transferable skills on their resume more clearly … and make it relevant."
Mardigan agrees and suggests lawyers have more than one version of their resume ready to go.
"I don't think one resume format is enough. A lot of lawyers have gained a lot of experience in different facets. My advice would be to have a couple of resumes because one resume does not fit all. It's not about fabricating [experience] but bringing to light areas that they want to become more specialised in," she says.
Another important issue that lawyers need to consider is why they are looking to move.
Lawyers need to have a clear point of view when it comes to their career, according to Gazis, including what they want in terms of day-to-day work and firm culture. By keeping a checklist, Gazis says lawyers won't lose sight of their end goals.
"Often lawyers say they're dissatisfied in their current role for certain reasons and as they go through the [job search] process, they tend to go off and end up taking exactly the same role. Somewhere along the track they lose sight of why they're looking and what they're hoping to achieve," Gazis says. "If they've got a checklist and know what they want - and what they don't want - they're less likely to make a mistake."
The money factor
When it comes to finding the right job, salary will always be an important aspect. But should it be the deciding factor when it comes to making a move?
While salary is a significant consideration, it should not be the sole motivation for changing roles. Lawyers need to think of the long term, rather than the short term gain of a pay increase.
"You may move to another firm and get an initial increase in salary, but that does not guarantee that you will be better off in the long term," says Paluch. "If you change jobs, you need to ensure that you are really still going to enjoy the work, the culture and the future prospects on offer in the new environment."
And if job seekers do receive a job offer with a more impressive salary, it's not advisable for lawyers go to their current employer expecting a counter-offer.
"It depends on your relationship with your current employer, but generally lawyers should not go to their current employer expecting a counter offer. If you receive an offer from another firm you should either accept or reject it on its merits," Paluch says.
"Salary should not be a motivating factor. There is a strong possibility that your current employer will not make you a counter-offer, in which case you have played your hand and you may have no choice but to leave."
But the good news for those hoping for a pay increase this year, without jumping ship, is that salaries are expected to rise.
"Salaries this year will improve," Gazis says. "A lot of firms and businesses will be performing better and I think that will flow through … Having said that I think the reviews will remain reasonably conservative. I don't think we're going to see anything massive but we will see increases and they will be respectable, solid increases."
If you're not quite ready to jump …
If you have no immediate plans to change jobs right now, there are a number of strategies lawyers can implement to prepare themselves for when the time comes to move on.
According to Mardigan, taking part in arrangements such as a secondment provides a valuable way for lawyers to gradually build their experience in a specialised area, wider than the firm, placing them in good stead for any upcoming job applications.
"Lawyers can go out and get more experience and still stay tied to their firm," she says. "[Secondments are] also a measure for retaining lawyers, so it's a win-win situation."
Concentrating on building up the resume is important, but lawyers should also utilise any networking opportunities thrown their way.
"Keeping your eyes open for networking events and things like that will definitely … help improve your [job] search," Dickason says.
And according to Mardigan, Australian lawyers could afford to put a lot more effort into networking. She says compared to the United States, which places a greater emphasis on networking events, Australian lawyers need to get more involved.
As a start, Mardigan says online networks such as LinkedIn can be particularly valuable for those looking to find new opportunities.
"LinkedIn is very inexpensive, it doesn't require a lot of time to create a profile and get out there and there are a tremendous amount of groups out there [to join]. It opens up this wonderful networking opportunity. It could be useful information about the industry, sharing information about the market, or it could be job related," she says.
"Try something new and exciting. Doing things as you used to do is not the way to go if you want to advance your career. You've got to get outside your norm."