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According to Hays’ 2020 UK Salary & Recruiting Trends guide, 89% of legal employers had experienced some form of skills shortage in 2019. But this problem was essentially reversed as many firms entered survival mode during successive COVID-19 lockdowns, putting a freeze on hiring. As we emerge from the devastation of the pandemic, there have been some substantial changes to the legal sector, many of which may end up changing the law firm recruitment model forever.
Traditionally, the career trajectory of a prospective solicitor was fairly ubiquitous, often consisting of the following stages of progression through the ranks of a firm:
Solicitors who deviated from this route to set up their own legal practice were few and far between. Aside from becoming an in-house lawyer, the only real alternative to progress a legal career was to become a barrister.
But a few changes have been taking place in the legal sector over the past couple of decades, which have opened up new career options for prospective lawyers, specifically the rise of flexible working and new business structures.
Theoretically, aside from client meetings and court appearances, lawyers have been able to work remotely for many years, as long as they have access to decent online legal resources. The core work of lawyers involves communication, research, critical thinking and the ability to deal with complex and bureaucratic administration. Most of these tasks can be carried out from any location at any time, predisposing legal professionals to agile working. Most firms still use billable hours for purposes of client invoicing, although much of the work is results based and many firms have been introducing fixed fee arrangements - which further lends itself to agile working models.
Partly as a result of the ability and desire to work more flexibly, an increasingly popular choice, especially for senior lawyers, is to break away from their law firms and set up boutique practices or go it alone as sole practitioners. The dispersed firm model, which provides an umbrella solution for solicitors who wish to practice law independently as “legal consultants” but who don’t want to run a legal business has also taken off. Dispersed firms - such as Keystone Law and Setfords - are a bit like barristers’ chambers, and tend to handle secretarial, administration and marketing functions, as well as covering legal insurance.
The rise of flexible working, accompanied by new business models, has led to the proliferation of the aforementioned legal consultant. According to investment bank Arden, one third of lawyers could be working under the “legal consultant” banner in as little as 5 years time. Arden head of business services John Llewellyn-Lloyd believes that the pressures of the pandemic could see an acceleration in the legal consultant model: “With a significant unrealised market opportunity, an ever-increasing market share and an attractive and cost-effective recruitment proposition, it is easy to see why the consultancy model makes such a strong investment case for public and private investors.”
Law graduates have an increasing variety of career routes open to them, as a result of several different growth areas in the legal sector over recent years: the Big Four (EY, KPMG, PwC and Deloitte) which offer excellent workplace training programmes; US firms which have expanded to London with lucrative salaries; and Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs) which attract law graduates looking for an innovative approach.
These alternative career paths have shaken up the traditional law firm recruitment model. As a result of the SQE, law graduates can now take several different routes to qualification, without needing to complete a training contract in a traditional law firm. Perhaps as a reaction to the new competition, law firms are increasingly offering solicitor apprenticeship schemes - which provide an opportunity for trainee lawyers to earn while they learn.
One of the consequences of COVID-19 has been a transformation of remote working policies in law firms. A whole raft of City firms have decided to continue to allow some degree of agile working for staff beyond the pandemic. It has generally been recognised that lawyers are able to work just as effectively from home as the office, and the lockdowns prompted many firms to adopt cloud based technologies which help facilitate remote working.
Widespread remote working means that law firms are better placed to recruit from a much wider pool of candidates. Whereas traditionally applicants either had to be local to the firm or willing to relocate in order to take up an offer, post-pandemic job descriptions are far less likely to stipulate geographical requirements. However, the difficulty of training newly qualified or junior lawyers over the pandemic meant that more senior lawyers were most in demand during 2020.
The pandemic also affected demand for different areas of legal expertise. Conveyancing, private client, employment law and family lawyers had a lot of work in the early months of COVID-19. There was also an increased demand for litigation specialists during the months of lockdown.
It is likely that many firms will continue to recruit from a wider pool of candidates, particularly for more senior roles, without any geographical requirements. However, trainees and junior lawyers will generally be more drawn to firms which can provide an office environment, both to help with their initial training and also for the social side.
The method of recruiting lawyers may well change, with more firms taking to social media to attract new talent. One firm which launched during the pandemic, Keidan Harrison LLP, did not use recruitment agents at all: “All recruitment was undertaken organically without agents, making use of social media and with the firm particularly interested in inquisitive and entrepreneurial associates who had the nous to apply directly.”
Many prospective lawyers will also use other routes into the legal profession, eg via the Big Four or an ALSP. So traditional firms will need to ensure they are aware of the competition when it comes to legal recruitment, to avoid losing out on the top new talent.
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