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The damned recovery - recruitment challenges facing law firms in an improving market

Written by: Conor Dilworth, Pro-Recruitment Group
Published on: 20 Oct 2014

The recovery is here, all the economic indicators are pointing in the right direction. The vast majority of firms we surveyed reported a significant jump in utilisation, recoverability is looking much healthier too. There is a drive to staff up the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2007.

According to the Association of Professional Recruitment Companies, there was a 48% increase in vacancies in the legal market in September 2014 when compared to September 2013. From the Pro-Recruitment Group’s own data, this upsurge is heavily concentrated into the key engine rooms of most City firms: Corporate, Real Estate, Banking & Finance. 

London is the legal industry’s land of milk and honey once more. But there is a ghost at this particular feast. To be more precise, there are quite a few ghosts; hundreds, in fact. They are the ghosts of the hundreds of trainees not retained upon qualification between 2008 and 2013, the ghosts of those made redundant when the legal fee flow in London dramatically hit the buffers, the ghosts of those high calibre graduates that could only get training contracts at smaller firms between 2009 and 2012 such was the ferocity of competition in the face of all the big firms slashing their trainee numbers.

We have had five years where the talent conveyer belt was decimated by the struggling economy and now the battle for talent to service our once again active client bases is on. The key battleground is 2-5 PQE. The numbers of people qualifying into Real Estate and Corporate was minimal from 2009 to 2012, Banking and Finance had a stronger retention flow but with the huge numbers of Banking Lawyers moving in house at between 2 and 5 PQE the net result is the same: demand hugely outstripping supply. 

If we look at the vacancies at 2-5 PQE in Corporate, Real Estate and Banking & Finance over the last three months the average number of interview requests (firms keen to interview a candidate we submit to them) for a candidate who fits that brief is 7, the average number of suitable applicants’ CVs seen by a client is 1.5. Just at first interview stage, demand is 4.67 times supply. By offer stage, the few candidates that are in these hot areas are receiving at least three offers and this doesn’t include where they have withdrawn themselves from the process to concentrate on their preferred options.

So how do you make sure that yours isn’t the firm left out in the cold while your competitors staff up and have all of these shiny new Associates racking up the billable time while you’re left to flog yourself to death doing all of the work on your own?

Be Quicker

In the first half of this year the average interview process (CV submission to offer acceptance and resignation) was taking 38 working days. In these hot areas the average is now down to 19 working days. Some firms have managed to turn an entire process round in under 10 working days.

If you haven’t completed the first round interview within two weeks of receiving the CV, you’ve already lost. Speed also reassures the candidate of how busy the team is, how clear they are on their development plan and how sure they are that the candidate is the right fit for the firm.

Have the most effective interview process

There is always a difficult balance to strike in interviews between evaluation and enticement. An hour is not long enough to do both adequately. You need a clear understanding of your primary goals at each stage and every interviewer to understand their role.

The most successful recruitment process tend to be about a 50/50 split between selling the firm and evaluating the candidate’s skills at first interview stage and then the second interview is heavily weighted towards evaluation. To bookend the process with a further sell on the firm a drinks or more informal meet and greet with the wider team is not just a ‘nice to have’, it’s a must. If you don’t do it, the candidate will think you have something to hide.

Far too frequently we see the first interview process almost exactly mirrored by the second just with different partners asking the same questions.

Make the first interview geared to evaluating the candidate’s ethos, communication skills, personality, drive and intellect; do they fit in?

Make the second interview geared to evaluating the candidate’s critical analysis, legal thinking, approach to problems, technical knowledge, initiative and how they cope under pressure; are they fit for purpose?

The best way to facilitate this is to have one page interview forms to target the interviewers on evaluating the specific skills that the relevant stage of the process is designed to evaluate.

Testing 1,2,3…

It is down to the individual firm to decide whether written tests are part of their own assessment process. Candidates generally react with suspicion more often than not but there is no data to suggest that a testing phase makes a candidate less inclined to take a job when it is offered.

The context of the testing must be understood clearly by both parties. One piece of anecdotal evidence from a few years ago was that of a junior candidate from the Antipodes who ‘failed’ both the IQ and verbal reasoning tests at a UK Top 30 firm and was subsequently hired by a Magic Circle firm. Within a year the candidate had been promoted beyond their PQE and was being lauded as a ‘star of the future’, working on some of the largest transactions in the UK at the time.

IQ and verbal reasoning tests in this country tend to favour those who have been educated here. Critical thinking, psychometric and behavioural analysis tests are all useful tools provided the facilitators of these tests understand the objectives, the context and are fully trained in administering them. It is also important to explain to the candidate what it is designed to achieve even if that is ‘to check you are bright enough to work here’.


Testing 1. Understand what you are trying to achieve through testing and that you are using the right tests in the right way to achieve those goals

2. Make sure the test is administered by someone who has been trained in it

3. Explain the context and goals of the test comprehensively to the candidate.

What is the plan B?

With over 75% of firms not getting their preferred candidate, you need a plan B. How long are you willing to wait? If you are happy to wait for the right person, then so be it but bear in mind that the situation is likely to get worse over the next 3-4 years. Taking one of your own NQs might be the best solution. So what are the alternatives?

Look further afield

If the role is based in London, there is still a huge draw to London from regional legal hubs so lawyers from good firms in other UK cities are frequently on the market looking for London roles.

Some regional hubs are feeling the pinch more acutely than London. BLP’s new operation in Manchester will undoubtedly increase the competition in an already tight market for talent, Birmingham is a hugely competitive market with several key national and international firms as well as some impressive boutique firms. Bristol was already a hugely competitive market with several highly regarded firms but with both Simmons & Simmons and CMS opening up operations in Bristol, it now can stake a claim to be the UK’s second city for law professionals but is also the UK’s most competitive market for high calibre legal talent.  

London primarily but other key UK cities are still highly attractive to Antipodean, South African and lawyers from other European jurisdictions. In the case of Antipodeans and South Africans would your firm consider a two year contract for those on a working holiday visa or sponsorship for a Tier 2 visa?

We are seeing an increasing number of sponsored candidates being hired across the UK. Lawyers qualified at top Dublin firms particularly those in Banking & Finance, Funds and Corporate are always highly sought after in the UK. The talent flow from Dublin to London is not as strong as it was because the Irish economy is doing well and Dublin based lawyers looking to emigrate will look to the US or Middle East more now than to London.


Would you consider candidates who took a role up on qualification because it was all that was available and now with the market on the up want to move into the area that is there true passion? Or someone from an associated or overlapping area to yours? The wider the parameters of what you will consider are, the greater choice you will have. 

Returning from the Legal Wilderness

This may take a change in mind set or even policy but progress often does. Remember those hundreds of ghosts at the feast? They are now in industry, smaller firms, in non-legal roles. Are you and your partners willing to invest the time in the right person but not necessarily with the right experience or with an atypical career trajectory?

The accounting firms recruited huge numbers of candidates returning from industry from the early 2000s onwards and there are several examples of those candidates progressing to partnership. Many partners at accounting firms cite a better network and a greater commercial understanding as reasons why people returning from industry greatly enhance their teams. Why should it be any different from law firms yet people returning from industry are still regarded with suspicion and in some instances contempt.

One partner at a City firm described those returning from industry as ‘quitters’. It seems paradoxical that the same firm trumpets the volume of associates it sends on client secondment.

If you are willing to take people for different backgrounds there is a greater level of investment and intensity required in the induction process to get them up to speed but if you are evaluating that they are the right fit for the firm properly in the first place then it is worth it. Also, those who have dealt with adversity earlier in their career are often mentally stronger and more determined for it.

Conor Dilworth | Founder & Director | Pro-Recruitment Group

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