“Buoyant but challenging” is one recruiter’s verdict on the current state of the legal newly qualified (NQ) market.
James Franklin, manager of legal recruiter Robert Walters, says: “That is how I would describe the market overall.”
Paul Turner, director of legal recruitment at Garfield Robbins, adds: “Last year, the perception was that more NQs were kept on and for those that weren’t there were more NQ jobs available.
“This year, if anything, we’re perhaps seeing fewer NQ roles than we were a year ago and it looks as though we have lower retention rates than a year ago. We’re also seeing a little less demand than we were a year ago from those top firms [top 20-30].”
He adds: “Across the board firms are definitely taking the ‘the less certain about work flows we are, the more we’re going to be cautious to push out recruitment or have a longer process with an extra interview’ view.
“We’re seeing a bit of tacking going on. Firms are looking at what’s in front of them and making adjustments. I can certainly recall a time five years ago prior to the downturn when retention rates were almost 100 per cent. But I can also recall a time two or three years ago where retention rates were down at 50 or 60 per cent, with some firms far lower than that.”
Consensus among recruiters is that the two-year post-qualification market is the busiest. Jonathan Firth, managing director of Michael Page Legal, says: “In private practice in London, the two years-plus experience is the busiest market at present. A training contract will generally only provide a candidate with six months’ experience in any particular practice area and this could have been one of their earlier seats indicating that their knowledge might not be front of mind.
“Firms are much keener to focus on those who’ve been dealing with the subject area for a period post-qualification to show that they have a stronger grasp of the subject and will be able to hit the ground running.”
Franklin adds: “On a positive note, the private practice market is very buoyant, but at two years’ PQE up to six or seven years. The challenge is getting a job at NQ level.”
He advises: “If you’re offered a job internally, just take it.”
According to Franklin, the number of NQs looking for jobs externally rather than accepting an offer from the firm they trained with has fluctuated over the past five years. He elaborates: “Pre-Lehman there was generally an increase of people looking externally. That dipped in 2009/10, when anybody offered internally was not looking elsewhere.
“We’ve seen the market get better and so there’s more confidence. NQs may well receive an offer, bank that, and consider other firms. It has fluctuated but it’s not at the level it once was, though it is starting to slowly climb back up.”
The wisdom of deciding to seek work externally is dependent upon whether a trainee has been offered an NQ job by their training firm, recruiters agree.
Franklin says: “Another firm [to the firm a trainee has trained with] is potentially considering ‘if that law firm doesn’t feel they were good enough then what’s in it for us?’ Outside of the magic and silver circle, say the top 20 to 25, firms will still show an interest, but barriers to entry are significant.
“If you’re in a firm and you’ve completed a training contract and been offered and kept on then you’re in a very strong position. But unfortunately we’re seeing some firms’ retention rates drop, some by as much as 60 per cent. The lawyers that are then looking at the market are finding it difficult. Law firms don’t have many external vacancies.”
He levels: “We’re telling trainees who get a role internally to go with it even if it’s not their preferred practice area. Firms also want to see if people have been offered by their current firm and will base their decision on that.”
Firth reasons: “With the economic climate the way it has been, employers are far more open minded and are able to look beyond these sorts of circumstances. They too may have let go of strong trainees that were just not commercially viable to keep on.
“However, firms will always want to know why a candidate hasn’t secured a position with the firm they trained with. If the candidate has a logical explanation of their career path then they won’t be overlooked.”
Turner adds: “It’s a difficult market – there are far fewer NQ roles on the market because by and large firms have filled them from their own qualifiers… I don’t think [trainees without offers not being accepted by other firms] is necessarily because firms are using that as a differentiator.
“If you have somebody who is kept on or made an offer but for whatever reason they want to look at a particular practice area or type of firm, they seem to be in a stronger position and it may just be because competition is so tough you just have to be one of the top qualifiers to get an NQ role outside of your own firm.”
Recruiters are split as to whether NQs need to be more flexible. Franklin says: “A number of NQs in the last year have been very specific. We’re saying that they need to be more flexible. They might want to practise in a specific area of the law, but the market is dictating that they look elsewhere also.”
He stresses that for the top 20 to 30 firms “straight As at A level and a 2:1 from a redbrick university are now a minimum”, adding: “Some firms are now asking, do they have languages? Do they have a first? Some US firms are now even looking for two languages, although that is a very small proportion of firms.”
Turner disagrees. He says: “I’m not seeing as many NQs being too picky about their job search as in the past. I think the downturn and the economic uncertainty has changed mindsets. I think NQ thinking has changed quite significantly; they’re pragmatic and a lot more ready to look at other opportunities, which NQs five years ago may not have looked at.”
Firth differentiates between the approach that NQs must take with in-house and private practice roles. He says: “In private practice our advice to qualifiers is to be as flexible as possible. The more flexible they are the more likely they are to find employment.
“One particular practice area which is flooded with NQs is employment. Candidates who are solely considering employment opportunities in London, with no flexibility, have proved the most difficult to find roles for in recent times.”
The best approach to in-house, according to Firth, is “to show the employer that they (NQs) have a keen interest in their particular area. If it’s clear a candidate is not entirely enthused about a position then the client, who has the luxury of supply in the current market, can choose someone who is specifically focused on the area on offer.”
Franklin has some final advice for those NQs who either choose or are forced to look externally following the end of their training contract. He says that a candidate’s chance of success “depends on the individual and the firm they’re coming from”.
He adds: “If they’re coming from a smaller team and got a lot of client contact then that’s good. Similarly, if you’re from a very large firm and are one of the many NQs who hasn’t been able to get client contact or work with partners or senior associates and has had to do a lot of admin work then it might not be such a good picture. Sometimes working for large firms wont necessarily get you the best client contact.”
Aside from client and partner contact, Franklin believes that it boils down to individual circumstances. He says: “Lots of interviews are conducted on academics and technical issues but interpersonal skills come a very close second. Are they confident? Could a firm put them in front of a client and know that it would be ok? Are they outgoing and able to deal with difficult situations? When we’re seeing NQs hired they do fulfil those criteria.”