A whistlestop tour of the legal market

October 10, 2013

To say the market is still evolving is an understatement.  Just when you think you have an idea as to how it all works, the trends change and people have to adapt.  If we had a pound for every real estate partner who said two years ago that they thought they would be heavily recruiting in 2013, we’d have, well, absolutely nothing!

We will provide a much more detailed assessment of the market in the new year, but here is a whistlestop tour of the current state of play.

The market is certainly much better than it was 2-3 years ago, although we are currently in the second cycle of the recessionary market where a lack of recruitment or retention of staff in transactional areas has resulted in extensive recruitment now transactional work levels are higher.  Firms cut staff or did not retain trainees from real estate (particularly), banking and corporate in 2008-2011 and now they are recruiting heavily.  The dearth of quality in these areas (due to a lack of qualifiers in recent years) has led top tier law firms to employ solicitors from small firms that a number of years ago would probably not have even been offered an interview!

In these areas, there is a mix of strategic and replacement hires – inevitably, where there are skill shortages, staff are being overworked causing them to consider moving and, thus, the cycle starts again.  Law firms are striving to find that perfect balance where staff are busy but happy and can see reinforcements are being made.  There has been more activity in transactional areas, particularly real estate development and private equity work, which has led to more growth recruitment.

Contentious areas are further on in the cycle, insofar as there was sustained recruitment in 2009-2011 in employment, commercial and finance litigation and insolvency, but those departments are, by and large, now quite well (or overly) stocked.  Thus, recruitment in those areas has dropped.  Indeed, as has been publicised, some firms have had to make redundancies in some of those areas.

The biggest trend of the past 12-18 months has been the very proactive restructuring of departments in the larger commercial law firms.  Certain firms restructured very publicly in the past 2 years with redundancy programmes affecting senior associates (and, inevitably, received a lot of criticism), but a lot of other firms did something similar, much more on the QT.  Firms have reduced the number of 7PQE+ lawyers (who were expensive and not positively adding to the turnover) and have increased the junior staff, more often than not looking to recruit at the NQ-4PQE mark.  Senior appointments are rarer now than a couple of years ago as clients continue to seek better value for money and law firms seek to get more value from their workforces.  The result has been to see certain departments adopt almost an inverted-T look about them with numerous junior solicitors supervised by a much smaller number of seniors and partners.

We can’t see this changing a great deal in the coming 12 months – as long as commercial departments have at least some resource at the mid-senior level to supervise junior fee-earners, their structures will suit the demands of the client in, still, uncertain times.

Some firms run apprenticeship schemes (leading to ILEX training), offering alternative ways in to the legal profession, and this is something which will probably catch on with more firms looking for more value for money.  With the decline in training contracts nationally and the significant costs incurred in going to university and law school (without the guarantee of a firm paying law school fees) perhaps the smart money will be on aspiring legal professionals giving University a miss and getting stuck into working at a law firm from the age of 18!  Only time will tell…

Finally, the Legal Services Act has brought about significant external investment in certain law firms, enabling them to really attack competitive markets and recruit some of the most successful names in the business.  Irwin Mitchell are unarguably the biggest name to have gone down this route, but many firms are in close pursuit.  As with anything revolutionary, there are always victims as Hacking Ashton found out recently.  Watch this space!


If you have been thinking about a move or would just like some general advice about options in the market, please feel free to contact Terry Cape or Chris Clarke on 0113 2385965.

CapeClarke is a leading niche legal recruitment consultancy operating across Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool and London. Please feel free to check out our priority legal vacancies by clicking here.  Please note these legal vacancies are only a small selection of those we have been instructed on, so please get in touch if you do not see a role which looks suitable.


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