An economy in the doldrums shaped the early careers of today’s associates – but they are now in an enviable position as law firms compete for talent. Eduardo Reyes reports.

The point at which a solicitor is four-to-six years’ post-qualified is crucial – for them and for anyone employing or trying to recruit them.

For a law firm, this is the point at which the significant investment made in a lawyer’s training starts to pay off – they understand a great deal, have experience with clients and need a good deal less supervision. They are also ‘affordable’, relative to the fees they can generate.

This is also the point at which key career decisions are made. Should they stay at the place that formed them professionally, or jump ship for improved prospects or a better work/life balance? For many this is also the period when personal life choices start to have a weightier influence on professional choices.

The current cohort of 4-6 year PQE lawyers is an interesting one, notes Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment’s associate director Jon-Paul Hanrahan: ‘They are a product of the economic downturn – a legacy of the under-investment that occurred during the dip,’ he notes. ‘Consequently, the demand for the highest performers, particularly in transactional practice areas, is outstripping supply.’

Competitive landscape

Jemimah Cook, HR director at Kingsley Napley, agrees: ‘It is a very competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented lawyers.’

In line with many practices, she confirms, Kingsley Napley is expanding and teams are growing, ‘so getting this right is key to achieving the firm’s aims’.

So how do lawyers gauge what is on offer – and are law firms getting that offer right? Prospects and rewards are easier to ascertain in some sectors than others. Nabeel Osman, a six-years’ PQE associate at international firm Bryan Cave, says: ‘A lawyer who has dedicated years of hard work building a reputation at their current place of work might be approaching a decisive point in their career and could therefore be difficult to recruit.’

Max Harris, chair of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division and an associate at a global law firm, notes that even in large commercial firms, information becomes harder to obtain at this crucial stage. ‘The route for a law student to get into the solicitors’ profession is relatively prescriptive,’ he notes. ‘Rather uniquely, City law firms tend to be very transparent about salaries, expectations and promotion prospects up to the three years’ PQE mark.’ But after this, he adds: ‘Expectations, the promotion route and salary expectations are not as clear-cut.’

This is a transition period, then. Lawyers may not be ready to leave behind all of the support they have had hitherto, but they have started to eye such things as partnership prospects. ‘We have found that lawyers are very focused on gaining useful experience which will enhance their careers,’ Cook says. ‘They want to feel supported and to be given more responsibility. They want to be involved in all areas, to have client contact, to feel stretched in their learning, and to be included in marketing.’

Hanrahan observes: ‘Lawyers in this category are looking for the move that is going to fuel personal and professional growth in the next five to 10 years. So a clear and defined career path is essential – the less traffic the better. A strong brand is also going to help develop gravitas and executive presence. And then of course there’s leadership. Slipstreaming a Legal 500-ranked or Chambers-rated partner is always going to help.’

Bryan Scant, like Harris a member of the JLD’s executive committee, urges firms to find a way to be clear on prospects: ‘The time around four years’ PQE is a defining period in a solicitor’s career, with partnership opportunities perhaps opening up – albeit these opportunities may not always be clear from the beginning. But when firms do have this conversation with applicants at the beginning, it can be incredibly beneficial.’

And lawyer candidates can look forward with a degree of confidence. The crude filter of academic qualifications that may have barred them from applying to some firms for a traineeship now fades somewhat – in part because of competition in the market, but also because this far in to their legal career, a hiring firm can take a better look at skills in the round.

‘It might be fair to say that for a while hirers were chasing rainbows,’ Hanrahan notes, ‘but decision-makers have now started to cast their net wider, discounting educational background and poor exam results in order to boost their team’s fee-earning capacity.’  

Valerie Toon, managing partner at regional law firm Mundays, lists the wider range of skills and interests she demands of candidates at this stage. ‘We look for people who have taken an interest in our business – who have read about what the firm is aiming to do in its market,’ she notes. ‘A good candidate will have read up on our firm’s story and thought about how they could contribute to the “collective endeavour”.’

At the crossroads

‘By this stage in my career I had a good understanding of what style of lawyer I wanted to be. It became increasingly important to be in a firm that would allow me to develop as an individual and to work in a way that was compatible with my values, particularly as I work in family law, where approaches to litigation and alternative dispute resolution methods vary markedly between practices. I also wanted to have a well-known name/brand behind me as a platform to enable me to develop my reputation in the market.’

Associate, Kingsley Napley

‘I felt my race at my last employers was run and it was time to move on to a fresh challenge. At that period in a career, the key consideration would be prospects at the candidate’s existing firm and if he or she felt that their career trajectory wasn’t what it should be, or in the alternative, the candidate had outgrown the type of work offered by their current firm and was capable of bigger and better things.

‘Another factor might be ‘quality of life’ motivation. Perhaps the candidate has worked for a large rapacious commercial firm, doing the all-nighters and working weekends – and is now ready, having established a reputation and experience base, to look to move on in an less pressured environment. This might be the case if the issue of starting a family is on the horizon.’

James Skinner, associate, Simpson Millar

‘A lawyer who has dedicated years of hard work building a reputation at their current place of work might be approaching a decisive point in their career and could therefore be difficult to recruit. However, where an exciting new opportunity for faster development in a particular area of interest is presented elsewhere, this can be very attractive.’

Nabeel Osman, associate, Bryan Cave

Something to offer

‘We seek candidates who truly understand what value there is in joining a regional firm – because there are many advantages of working in a smaller regional practice,’ she says. ‘These include enhanced exposure to a varied caseload, closer working relationships both internally and externally, and the opportunity to maximise the work/life balance.’

The JLD’s Harris points out that competition at this stage does not just come from other law firms. ‘Increasingly, junior lawyers at the four-years’ PQE mark are being approached about and are considering in-house roles,’ he notes. Expectations here may not always align with reality, he adds: ‘The belief is that in-house roles offer nine-to-five working hours, which is not always correct.’ But the competition is real, and firms may feel the need to respond.

‘Firms are increasingly competing with this perception of better working hours in-house, yet in private practice junior lawyers at the four-years’ PQE mark can be the most profitable and therefore hours can be demanding,’ Harris says.

Cook reflects on recent experiences of interviewing lawyers at this stage in their careers: ‘We are certainly asked more questions now at interview stage on career development opportunities – lawyers want to see a commitment from us and a clear path for career development at all levels through training and promotion schemes.

‘Obviously pay and benefits are important as lawyers are at the stage in their life where they are building savings or paying off student debts,’ Cook adds. ‘But there are definitely more things to be considered. We know that candidates are very careful in considering the culture of the firm and whether the environment will allow them to achieve the right balance. If the involvement in quality work and the business is there in a friendly and inclusive environment, then candidates will certainly be tempted to make a move.’

Bryan Cave’s London managing partner Carol Osborne also puts a heavy emphasis on ‘culture’ as candidates and law firms eye up what each has to offer. ‘From an applicant’s perspective, we know we have to distinguish ourselves from other firms. We cannot just have great people,’ she says. ‘We have to offer a unique approach to the practice of law, we must innovate in areas of client service and be ahead of the curve on the use of technology.

‘The perception gap is probably around the importance of partnership to the decision. Law firms want to hire people who will grow into partners over the long-term and candidates are often looking for the best way to accelerate their careers, which can often be a near-term objective.’

Matching up such perceptions can be of defining importance – for a lawyer whose career is at a tipping point, and for a law firm which knows that good lawyers in this category are a commercial imperative.

This is a time-consuming and thorough process for both firms and candidates – the importance, though, justifies such a commitment. As Toon concludes: ‘It’s easy for candidates to get caught out if they’ve only skimmed the surface of the firm’s story and haven’t bothered to get a complete picture.’

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor