How to survive: Qualification in a downturn

This is going to be a challenging year for newly qualified (NQ) lawyers. At university, law school and throughout your training contract you’ve known nothing but a boom market. The tough reality of what is ahead needs to sink in. For some, it appears reality has not yet dawned!

Many trainee solicitors approaching qualification still demonstrate a lack of awareness of the impact of the recession on their firm and the consequences it will have for them personally. It is clear that firms will be hard pressed to secure roles for their own trainees, let alone look to recruit external candidates.

But unlike previous recessions law firms are working hard to retain as many NQs as possible. Innovative approaches have emerged, offering you the opportunity to take some control of the situation and still progress your career. Here’s how:

The Tool-Kit

It’s not rocket science, just the application of common sense. You need to shift your perception about what the newly qualified round has to offer you this year: your goal is to ensure you maintain continuous employment as a qualified lawyer. To have a choice of seat may be a luxury you are not afforded.

1. Be pro-active. Acknowledge with your firm that these are testing times, that you recognise they have tough decisions to make and that you are keen to work with them.

2. TAKE THE JOB OFFERED! Don’t kid yourself that you are going to qualify into real estate this year. There are currently no qualified real estate jobs at any level at present and this is very unlikely to change. If you are lucky enough to be offered in any area, take it.

3. Do your research. Identify the departments that are busy and most likely to offer a NQ role. Ensure you are visible to the decision makers in that team.

4. Ensure the decision makers are aware that you are prepared to be flexible, and will consider qualifying into more than one field.

5. Offer to accept a role in an area that is not your first choice on the understanding that the firm agrees to transfer you to your ideal team when the market starts to turn.

6. Some teams are busy but concerned about long-term workflow and are consequently nervous about committing to a permanent NQ role. Offering to accept a fixed term contract both allows you to continue adding to your experience and affords you the opportunity to both keep visible and take advantage of any opportunities that may arise.

7. Be patient. Many firms have expressed the view that no decisions will be made on their September qualifiers until the financial year is closed – this means at least May.

8. By trying to force the pace of a decision you may well end up with no role.

9. Explore all external options in the market alongside talking to your own firm.

10. NQ salaries tend to be set, and if a firm has had to reduce NQ salaries because of a pay freeze accept it – above all else you must secure a permanent role to progress your career.

By following some or all of these simple steps you could raise your chances of securing a role – don’t forget, this year it’s not about choosing where you qualify, but about ensuring you have a permanent role on qualification.

Jonathan Kay, is a Consultant in the South East Private Practice Team of Chadwick Nott Legal Recruitment, and has been recruiting in London and the South East for 8 years, prior to which he was a barristers’ clerk for 10 years.