Talent starved: The state of the legal employment market
Legal jobs coming out of our ears! That appears to be the (slightly overstated for effect) view of some of New Zealand’s legal recruiters. Lawyers with 3-6 years’ post-qualifying experience (PQE) tend to go overseas or elsewhere, leaving a big gap in that experience level. And if you’re experienced in corporate and commercial practice, banking and finance, commercial property and some other disciplines, you’re likely to be in demand. LawTalk asked five specialist legal recruiters for their views on the legal employment market in May 2019.
How would you describe the current job market for lawyers compared to other occupations?
Niche: The job market continues to be very positive with a wide range of job opportunities available for lawyers at all levels.
Jarrod Moyle, Legal Personnel: There are plenty of jobs, and very few active candidates. A client described it as “talent starved”. A Seek report showed that in 2018, seven of the top 10 most difficult to fill jobs were all in legal.
Olivia Murphy, Robert Walters: The legal market in New Zealand is buoyant at the moment with steady demand for candidates, particularly those with 2-6 years’ PQE. The beginning of 2019 has seen demand particularly in private practice, however there is a steady demand for intermediate level solicitors across the public sector. There is still a lot of competition for graduate and entry level roles, but once candidates gain experience they will find demand for their skill set increase. With a large amount of 2-6 years’ PQE lawyers travelling overseas we still see a large gap in this area across New Zealand.
Elizabeth Butler, Momentum: There are plenty of opportunities and not many candidates. Legal has always been tight in terms of candidates; if anything it has become more of a challenge.
Kirsty Spears, McLeod Duminy: The job market remains strong for lawyers, but to be honest I am not sure how that compares to other occupations. With low rates of unemployment I would imagine the same applies to a number of sectors where specific experience and qualifications are needed.
What areas of practice are most sought-after in the lawyer employment field at present?
Jarrod Moyle, Legal Personnel: Corporate commercial, banking and finance, environmental and commercial property.
Olivia Murphy, Robert Walters: Speciality areas are still in high demand, the most critical areas of shortage are in front-end construction law, due to significant infrastructure developments nationwide. As the economy is remaining relatively solid we have significant demand for lawyers with commercial, banking and finance expertise.
Elizabeth Butler, Momentum: The most sought-after areas of law are commercial property, property and corporate.
Kirsty Spears, McLeod Duminy: Corporate commercial and commercial property continue to be in high demand, but we have also seen pockets of demand for litigation over the last 6-12 months. Specialist areas like employment and ITC have also been in demand, and we have seen a lot of interest in experienced resource management lawyers. In general, good lawyers with strong experience and a good professional pedigree are in demand across the board.
Niche: The raft of changes to industrial and employment law is resulting in significant demand for employment lawyers nationally, both in-house and in private practice. We are seeing a strong demand for banking and finance and corporate and commercial lawyers in Auckland and to a lesser degree in Wellington and Christchurch. Given the number of cranes on the Auckland skyline at present, and the government’s focus on housing and urban development, it is no surprise that there is a strong demand for property and construction lawyers in Auckland. In Wellington there is consistent demand for litigation lawyers. While the size of public sector teams seems to have stabilised, there is increased demand within the growing regulatory sector. Many small firms located throughout the country are keen to hire but they are finding that the new generation of lawyers are not attracted to private client work.
What levels of experience are most sought-after at present?
Olivia Murphy, Robert Walters: 2-6 years’ PQE, with any specialist experience. New Zealand lawyers are well respected overseas and the desire to travel is still strong. This leaves New Zealand skill short at this level. Kiwis can offer overseas law firms and clients a wider breadth of experience which is invaluable. This is due to their exposure to a wide variety of clients, transactions and work experience at an earlier stage of their career. Because of their desirability overseas, New Zealand lawyers have the potential to earn a higher salary, which means it can be harder to secure talent at that level in New Zealand.
Elizabeth Butler, Momentum: 3-6 years’ PQE.
Kirsty Spears, McLeod Duminy: I would definitely say 4-7ish, typically senior solicitor level at a lot of firms but, again, there is demand across a broader range and we have been placing people from about 2 years’ PQE through to partner over the last 12 months.
Niche: Intermediate lawyers 3-6 years’ PQE continue to be the most sought-after group for law firms across the country. Unfortunately for the firms trying to hire within this elusive PQE range, it is the group most likely to be on their “OE”. Three to six years is a crucial period in a young lawyer’s career. If they are happy in their current firm they will be knuckling down, consolidating their experience and eyeing the pathway to partnership. They will look to move if they feel they are being underpaid, underutilised or if they don’t like their boss. Values alignment is also an important push and pull factor. At 3-6 years’ PQE, many lawyers begin considering a move in-house; they might even be considering whether they want to remain in the legal profession at all.
It is a candidate driven market and they know it. In the last 12 months, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of candidates receiving (and accepting) counter offers. We have also seen offers being accepted and then dropped for a better offer; behaviour that would have been a rarity in years gone by. The savvy law firms have been working hard on their retention strategies which includes improving the firm culture, offering more flexible working options and a broader range of benefits. In the current market, employers are more likely to counter-offer when a staff member tries to leave because they know it will be incredibly hard to find a replacement.
Jarrod Moyle, Legal Personnel: 2-6 years’ PQE for solicitors.
Do you think the lawyer job market will improve, worsen or remain the same over the next year?
Elizabeth Butler, Momentum: The legal market has always proven to be a challenge. I don’t see that changing. Most lawyers with that 3-5 years’ PQE are keen to explore overseas opportunities – predominately London – which makes our market one of the toughest to recruit for.
Kirsty Spears, McLeod Duminy: It depends which side of the fence you are sitting on. The recent ALPMA survey we supported showed that 94% of firms thought that attracting good staff would be their number one HR issue in the coming year. Coupled with over 70% of firms wanting to grow their fee-earner numbers, this would suggest it will be good for job seekers and a struggle for firms.
Niche: We expect the market to remain candidate-short for the foreseeable future. What is the solution to the gap at the 3-6 years PQE level? Employers will need to think more creatively about their hiring and retention strategies. Other solutions might be hiring for transferable skills; sponsoring overseas lawyers to requalify; adjusting the traditional law firm model to be more ‘seniors’ heavy…
Jarrod Moyle, Legal Personnel: I think it will remain the same for the foreseeable future. There does not seem to be any letting up on the demand side, law firms are continuing to require experienced staff either for growth or to replace those who are leaving. On the supply side, there is still a steady flow of solicitors with 2 or 3 years’ experience heading overseas, predominately to London, on their OE and others opting for a career outside of law. We are seeing a few more mid-size law firms take on graduates which is a positive sign so it is not just the large firms training the next generation of lawyers. Small firms might also have to consider “growing their own” since they can no longer rely on recruiting an already trained solicitor with three years’ experience.
Olivia Murphy, Robert Walters: The increase in infrastructure projects around New Zealand will mean that commercial property lawyers will continue to be in demand. In addition, last year the Government announced a rolling programme of changes to employment law. This, along with other new legislative changes should mean the job market for lawyers will improve over the next year.
Last updated on the 7th June 2019