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The Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown doesn’t appear to be impacting on the legal recruitment market, which continues to be volatile and highly competitive, according to Auckland professional recruitment agency Tyler Wren. “This is the busiest, most buoyant legal market I have ever seen and it is – along with many other skilled industries – extremely candidate short,” says Tyler Wren founder and partner Lisa Gray.

“During the last two lockdowns everyone in the interview process was frozen, no one wanted to Zoom interview and employers and employees wanted to wait as to the result of lockdown. At this point, we are not seeing that from employers – interviews have been switched to Zoom, candidates that have start dates over the next couple of weeks have been set up with VC inductions and although everyone is looking forward to getting back into the office things feel a lot calmer and smoother.”Gray says there might be an impact on the market depending on how long the lockdown continues, but her agency is simply not seeing it yet. She expects the demand for lawyers to continue to be strong across New Zealand and in all sectors.

Indicative legal salary guide – In association with the College of Law, Tyler Wren has just published a New Zealand Legal Salary Guide 2021/22 from its market information. This provides indicative salary bands for top tier and mid tier firms, specialist boutiques and general practices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and in the regions.

“Across the industry salaries are increasing and those firms not offering an attractive salary and package are simply not securing the staff that they need in their teams,” it says in a market overview. “Active job seekers are receiving multiple job offers and are able to negotiate both soft and hard benefits to match their personal requirements. Some firms are having open discussions with potential employees in terms of salary, hourly charge out rate, annual budget and daily billing hours to formulate the right balance per individual and new attraction techniques and package options are being adopted to entice the best talent.”

Market drivers – The market overview identifies a number of reasons for the high market demand for lawyers:

  • Individuals are heading back from their OEs
  • Australian firms are aggressively recruiting from New Zealand
  • Increased regulation has meant a greater demand for in-house lawyers within the commercial sector
  • The financial services and insurance sectors are hiring lawyers within the risk, compliance, regulatory and conduct space and are often offering highly attractive packages in terms of salary and flexibility
  • A lighter intake of graduates in 2019 across the legal services industry has created a knock-on effect for two-years PQE lawyers in 2021
  • A steady bleed of lawyers leaving the industry for mental wellness reasons

Tyler Wren says employers that are able to change and flex their approach to recruitment are securing excellent talent, with job seekers feeling more confident in their approach to negotiating salary and benefits.

“The knock-on effect of this is a more bought-in and motivated employee, who will add value in terms of productivity and culture to their new firms on a long term basis.”

Inter-firm competition

The competition for staff means firms are actively targeting the talent in their competitors. We are aware of some firms producing their own head hunt lists and going after people that will fit well within their teams,” says Gray.

“This is due to there just being such a shortage of lawyers in the industry, especially those with particular levels of expertise. The New Zealand law networks have always been tight and people simply have good relationships and reputations, hence why sometimes this shoulder-tapping exercise works.” She says the specialist areas of practice that are most in demand tend to keep changing.

“For Auckland in June, from our experience demand was very litigation-centric. July and August have been commercial and property. Outside of Auckland, we are being instructed to send ‘any good lawyer no matter what their specialism’ to particular firms as they have an appetite to recruit across the board in the regions.

As the majority of the roles that we manage are private practice, if anyone with respectable grades and over three years of experience wants to secure a new role, the chances of them doing that are very high.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Gray recently worked with a property lawyer with very high salary expectations.

“After securing interviews with a couple of firms in their area of choice, both rejected the candidate based on salary versus experience – so, although the market is extremely competitive for employers it has not lost its head in terms of making good commercial decisions.”

Candidate expectations in employers

Gray says candidates are looking for a tailored 360-degree package that fits them as an individual. “This requires the employer to be able to listen, understand and deliver on what someone wants. It actually makes the market quite simple as long as there is an open approach and not ‘one size fits all’. So, for the working parents in addition to all of the normal stuff they are likely to want flexibility, the ability to leave work at 3pm on some days and then log on in the evening to tie up work – which also means that a firm needs robust and reliable IT.

An ambitious four-year PQE top tier lawyer wants to know what they need to do to successfully navigate their way to partner, to ensure that they have great mentors and support, as well as maybe not too many associates or senior associates in the team that might create a roadblock to promotion.”

“I guess what I am trying to say is that it is not as simple as just considering a benefits shopping list and a salary when negotiating. Also, the way that the recruitment process and negotiation is managed has an impact on how a candidate views their potential new employer. Employers who are quick to make decisions and welcome open conversations on their offers and have the ability to tweak and flex what a candidate wants and show that a candidate is being listened to have an extremely positive impact on whether someone chooses to join a firm or not.”