Challenges in legal recruitment: why firms need to up their game

How are law firms changing their approaches to recruitment with a chronic skills shortage in the market? James Batt, managing director of BCL Legal, explains why firms need to up their game to tackle the growing difficulties in recruiting and retaining talent.

What new approaches to recruitment are companies introducing to improve the ways in which they recruit? What is the driving force for these changes?

Recruitment is at the top of everyone’s agenda in a way it wasn’t a few years ago. It is the single biggest barrier to growth across all industries, not just the legal sector.

It is a candidate’s market right now. The market is very buoyant, but the big driving force in legal recruitment is a skills shortage. Between 2008 and 2012, most law firms cut their trainee intake. The level of transactions also fell at this time. This meant that fewer trainees qualified into non-contentious disciplines such as:

  • banking
  • corporate
  • property law

The upshot of this is that we now have a dearth of solicitors with two to five years’ post-qualified experience (PQE) in the job market which leaves teams out of balance. The problem is exacerbated by the fact there has been an increase in work.

What does all this mean for law firms? Are there any particular challenges law firms face with recruitment?

Because of the skills shortage in today’s candidate-led market, there is a huge issue with ‘buy-back’ from incumbent employers which means that the recruitment process has become very protracted. Once a candidate has accepted a job offer, it doesn't stop there. The candidate has a notice period to work out, during which they can be subjected to huge pressure from their outgoing employer to stay. We have seen some of our candidates offered incredible salary raises and promises of promotion and partnership to think again about moving on because the firm knows it will have real problems in backfilling the job.

The other problem with a staff shortage within firms is that many solicitors become overworked. This can result in lawyers burning out and looking for other opportunities elsewhere with a better work/life balance.

There is real pressure from both sides.

What innovative approaches to recruitment are being implemented in law firms to address some of these challenges/improve the recruitment process generally?

There is more investment in HR and graduate programmes, and we are seeing more HR manager type roles within law firms. I haven't seen a huge change in the use of technology in recruitment strategies – some firms are trialling things, but generally speaking, they are not being implemented across the board. Rather, law firms are trying to reduce the barriers to entry because there is such a shortage of talent.

Firms are looking at a wider range of experience and backgrounds to fill vacancies. Recruitment processes by necessity have had to become slicker to secure more emotional ‘buy-in’ from candidates once they have accepted an offer of employment to ensure they will be joining the firm at the end of their notice period.

Law firms have to be much more efficient in their recruitment processes too. A few years ago, a candidate might be faced with one or two suitable opportunities. Today, however, they could have eight to ten.

The dynamic has changed, which from a recruiter’s perspective makes things much more difficult. The recruiter makes the same fee on the candidate, but has to manage a much more complex process with potentially ten job offers on the table. There will be one happy client but the recruiter will need to manage the other nine potentially disgruntled clients that the candidate passed over. Also, there is the likely additional headache of buy-back attempts from their employer too.

Are there particular changes law firms could consider adopting to improve recruitment? Could certain changes be more or less suitable for specific types/size of firms?

Law firms need to ensure the solutions they want to implement for their recruitment projects are feasible. For example, our high volume document review business might need 20 foreign language speaking lawyers to work on a project. This would require a totally different solution to a client who wants a more bespoke, partner-led project. Firms must make sure that their recruitment solution fits their intended outcome—one hat certainly doesn't fit all.

Some firms still work under the assumption that the deal is done once a job offer has been accepted, not really understanding what is driving the candidate. It’s crucial, the candidate has a real emotional connection with the firm they are going into. The recruiter needs to ensure the candidate understands why they are moving to the client’s firm, because they will probably be doing very similar work for similar clients as in the job they are leaving. Are both client and recruiter sure the candidate is a good fit for the firm? Don't waste each other's time. And it doesn’t stop there – if the candidate has a three to six-month notice period, make sure there is regular contact with them until their first day in the office.

Law firms should also not overlook retaining talent in the first place. This comes back to the culture of the business:

  • how people are managed
  • career progression opportunities
  • extra hours it expects solicitors to put in

All these factors will become increasingly important, because there is no point in recruiting if firms aren't retaining the good people they’ve got.

Do you have any predictions for future developments?

Everything is going to be compounded, there will be:

  • a greater need for talent
  • less candidates in the market
  • a further skills shortage, and
  • more buy-back from employers

This all will lead to more complications in the recruitment process.

The challenge that will remain across all industries will be recruiting and retaining talent. There is such huge competition for people that recruitment and retention must continue to be the number one priorities for any law firm.

James Batt is the managing director of BCL Legal— one of the leading legal recruitment consultancies in the UK with a network of offices in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol. The firm deals with the placement of lawyers at all levels from paralegal to partner within the private practice and in-house sectors on both a permanent and temporary basis. www.bcllegal.com

Interviewed by Duncan Wood.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

First published on Lexis®PSL.

Filed Under: Legal Services

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