The 'inflexibility factor' and its effect on law firm recruitment
A few months ago I wrote a piece in response to some of our law firm clients voicing their concerns about being able to recruit transactional lawyers (see article The difficulties of recruiting transactional lawyers). Somewhat optimistically I suggested that with attrition rates having been at extremely low levels (aside from redundancy) throughout 2009 and most of 2010, it was inevitable that the pressure would eventually build up and the number of good quality lawyers active on the recruitment market would start to rise at a reasonable rate. Whilst I still stand by the logic of this assumption (after all it is a cycle we have seen repeated during, and after, each downturn in the economy and there do seem to be more jobs offers making it to the table), anecdotal evidence from some clients suggests that they are still struggling to fill their vacant positions.
For a client, it’s an extremely frustrating position to be in: in today’s delicate, post-recession market if a firm is looking to recruit, it’s likely to be because of an immediate need as opposed to strategic forward planning. For us as recruiters it can sometimes be downright baffling. We have a lot of lawyers on our books who we would consider to be “good” and indeed “placeable” (after all we are a commercial business and wouldn’t want to spend our time working on matters inappropriate for our market). What constitutes a “good” candidate is of course subjective to say the least, but generally, the kind of candidates we like to work with are those that: haven’t moved around too much in their careers (at least not without credible explanation); are able to talk knowledgably and enthusiastically about their experience; have an academic record on a par with that which is expected by the UK commercial legal market; and have experience (whether gained in the UK or overseas, in-house or private practice or in a large or small firm) that is relevant to the types of positions that our clients are looking fill.
The missing link
So the clients have the jobs (tick) and the recruiters have the candidates (tick). What, therefore, is the missing link that sustains this supply-demand imbalance? Flexibility. Or lack of to be more precise. In the heady days of a booming market (oh the happy memories of 2005 to 2007), if a firm was looking for corporate lawyers (always in plural on the vacancy list), as long as a candidate could just about spell corporate there was a decent chance they’d be offered a position by more than one City law firm. Yes, in those days clients still complained about candidate shortages, but that was down to the sheer volume of vacancies in any given practice area across the City at the time. It would not be over exaggerating the point to say that we would have up to a couple of hundred vacancies in some areas (likely corporate or finance) at any given time.
The “inflexibility factor”
Today, it’s fair to say that the mind-set of decision makers has altered. Over the course of the last two years, many partners, in conjunction with their HR departments, have spent a lot of time looking at the relative quality and skills of their fee earners – there’s nothing like a redundancy consultation to focus the mind. The enduring legacy of such a process is that, even where gaps in the team emerge, partners are looking to bring on board individuals who are at least on a par, if not “better” quality than the current crop of fee-earners. The bar to entry is at an all-time high level – a Russell Group university is a must, magic circle training essential, yet direct exposure to clients and the experience of leading on a deal (even at a junior level) a given. It’s almost like asking for the moon on a stick. And if the CV ticks all the boxes and a candidate makes it through to first interview stage, the likeability factor plays a huge part in determining whether matters will progress further.
Whilst it’s easy to sympathise with the wish lists of partners at City law firms, this lack of flexibility is being recognised by many astute HR managers as one of the key obstacles in being able to fill on going vacancies. Of course there are candidates that score A++ on all the above criteria and do get offered the job, but it’s important to remember if they are wanted by one firm, the chances are they’ll be wanted by another and another and another.
As I finish writing this piece, my colleague has just come off a call with a well-known, well-respected, mid-sized City firm who have been looking for a general finance lawyer for just over a week. Apparently they are inundated with CVs. Good CVs in fact. This could indeed be a sign that my earlier prediction was correct – the candidate market is hotting up, the floodgates may be about to open. Of course it remains to be seen whether any of these are the CV of the “perfect” candidate or whether the “inflexibility factor” will see that same client calling us in desperation in a month’s time when the partners have refused to take anyone beyond the initial interview stage. Things will change, of that I have no doubt. I won’t hold my breath just yet though.
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