Legal Recruitment in Uncertain Times

Although there are welcome signs of new growth, the uncertain legal climate is having a serious impact on legal recruitment and resourcing for the future. With such volatility in the market, how can you stay ahead of the curve and attract the best legal minds to grow your business?

In their dotage, lawyers may look back fondly on the golden days of legal recruitment planning. Pre-GFC it was a matter of managing that relentless drive in profits by fuelling the incessant growth with the right people in the right jobs, mostly well in advance. Legal recruitment planning, like nostalgia, is not what it used to be.

“As the market has been so up and down, planning is now done on an ad-hoc basis,” says Andrew Johnson, national recruiter at top-tier firm Clayton Utz in Sydney. “It’s now very hard to know where the roles are going to be in the future.”

Annus horribilis

Depressed consumer and business confidence still lingering from the GFC and the nine-month lead-up to the election were all factors in last year’s annus horribilis for the legal industry.

“Since the GFC, firms are more wary… and probably take a more conservative view of their planning,” says Dominic Peacock, manager of legal at Dolman Legal Search & Recruitment. “Firms are more cautious about forecasting significant growth because of the unpredictability of the financial markets and the state of the economy.”

They are putting roles on hold and changing the specifications for advertised jobs, such as reducing the number of qualifying years required, asking recruitment agencies to send through CVs for dozens of candidates, taking months to choose a candidate, and withdrawing advertised roles, says Belinda Fisher, senior consultant professional services at Legal Personnel in Sydney.

Some are reducing staff through natural attrition. “Whereas in the past people would have been replaced, the hiring effectively stopped,” says Peacock.

Employers are loathe to sack staff

While firms are reluctant to hire or sack staff, they are increasingly moving staff across the firm’s practice areas to maximise their value and keep them occupied, ready to spring into action if and when the work comes in.

Although many would prefer to be employed, lawyers will often be working in areas in which they may not be specialised, and their workload may be very heavy if they’re carrying the work of staff that have left. Some leave because they can’t take the stress, but then they can face many months searching for another job.

“It’s an employer’s market,” says Fisher. She’s never seen such an oversupply of lawyers looking for work – and this is swollen by Australian lawyers whose overseas opportunities have also faded.

Trapping the unicorn

But for the all the oversupply, it’s the unicorn that everyone wants.

“It’s harder to find good people than ever before,” says Johnson. “If you’re good you’re going to be well looked after, but in the current climate you’re too scared to move.”

The entry of international firms into the market has not only put pressure on firms competing for work, but also boosted competition for the best talent. What firms have to avoid is being in a position where they find they suddenly need to hire loads of people, and other firms have beaten them to it.

“Planning will always be important,” says Peacock. “Some firms hire ahead of the curve – they see that happening, they see the trends and the patterns and they take advantage of the markets.”

Planning amid volatility

So how can you plan for future legal recruitment needs amid such volatility?

Create a more flexible workforce by sharing resources internally, suggests Johnson. “We’re looking across the firm and seeing who’s not being fully utilised and moving them across to a division that really needs someone… We’re making our lawyers more mobile to be where the needs are.”

Make sure you fully understand what it is you need in a role before you go to market to recruit for staff. “Spend time now rather than making costly mistakes later,” advises Fisher.

It’s also important to consider cultural fit, which encompasses personality, work style, ethics and values. If the candidate’s values aren’t aligned with the firm’s, they won’t go the extra mile. Firms need to know their new recruits will have a personal investment in the organisation, says Samantha Pearce, HR manager at Addisons.

“Irrespective of the technical competence candidates may have, if they don’t have a good cultural fit for your firm, it’s not going to work,” she says.

Take a multi-tiered approach to recruitment. Increasingly firms are adopting a mix of recruitment strategies. Ninety per cent of Clayton Utz’s appointments in 2013 were made through direct recruitment – referrals, alumni, internal movements and internal secondments.

Keep a talent pool of prospective candidates for future roles so that when the need arises and resources are available, you are ready to recruit. Johnson uses LinkedIn Recruiter and Taleo recruitment systems to identify talented lawyers. “I have a chat with potential candidates, keep their names on file and stay in contact so that when a role comes up I’ll get back in touch.”

The trick for any law firm is to be battle ready, strongly networked to detect any movements in the market and poised to pounce with a flexible workforce that can respond to dips and peaks as they appear.

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