Your law firm needs you

Successful graduates are in great demand and pay scales in the top-recruiting sectors reflect this. So what would you rather be – an investment banker or a lawyer?

Job-hunting graduates have reason for cheer according to the latest survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).TheWinter Review from the AGRs Graduate Recruitment Survey 2004 held to be the definitive study of the recruitment policies of the associations members found that vacancies at AGR members are expected to rise by 14.5 per cent in 2005 compared with the numbersactuallyrecruitedby employers in 2004. If the members meet this claim, graduate places will leap by more than 2,000, from 14,480 in 2004 to 16,575 this time round.

The survey was conducted among 226 top blue-chip employers which take large numbers of graduates. Law firms were well represented, with magic circle firms such as Allen & Overy (A&O) and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer responding, as well as other notables, including DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Herbert Smith and Slaughter and May. International outfits Jones Day and Baker & McKenzie also contributed.

The financial and business sectors are driving the upward trend in available vacancies. Investment banks or fund managers expect to recruit 33.3 per cent more people than they did last year, while consulting or business services, accountancy or professional services and banking or financial all predict increases of more than 26 per cent. The increases planned by these particular sectors are all the more significant as they are the most prolific recruiters in 2004 they employed 43 per cent of the total graduate market. Unsurprisingly, given that many of these firms are ensconced in the Square Mile, more than half of the graduate vacancies for 2005 are expected to be in London and the South East.

AGR chief executive Carl Gilleard says the figures are good news all round, adding that they show that business confidence is high, as graduate recruitment does not provide an immediate return.

Its the second year that weve seen growth in double digits. Some of that is a degree of catching up; investment banking had a couple of lean years after 9/11 and theyre now bringing in fresh talent to make up for that, he comments.

Law firm graduate vacancies, on the other hand, are down slightly by 1.4 per cent. Gilleard says not to read too much into this finding as it is such a slight decrease. The legal sector should be viewed as stable rather than in decline, he claims.

This finding echoes an extensive Lawyer 2B survey of the 50 largest law firms, which found that retention rates of newly qualified solicitors stood at a respectable 79 per cent for 2004. Earlier research by the magazine of the 20 largest firms also revealed that intake had bottomed out at around 65 trainees a year and that cutting intakes was uncommon.

Given that law firms are recruiting no less than usual, whereas other City sectors graduate vacancies are rocketing, the picture is one of intensifying competition.

Linklaters graduate recruitment partner Olivia McKendrick says: We do view ourselves in competition with those other sectors. Were competing for the same law and non-law students. We know theyre being inundated. Sometimes I dont think they have to worry about what to eat or drink for months because theyre taken out by so many different recruiters.

McKendrick adds that the solicitors profession is also facing sterner competition from the bar, as chambers are starting to make a point of wooing students who are unsure about being self-employed by offering more attractive pupillage packages.

Although she recognises that, ultimately, students have to make up their own minds, McKendrick has some tactics up her sleeve to persuade them to eschew a life at Morgan Stanley and instead opt for law at Linklaters.

What I say is that you could go into investment banking, but you could go into something that gives you a range of options instead, she says. When speaking to waverers, she points out that becoming a solicitor at her firm allows you to work around the world in international offices.

And if private practice is not for you, then the option of becoming general counsel at a company is another possibility. If you want to go and work at Goldman Sachs after all you can, but you cant do it the other way. Going into law can be a pretty good door into other things, she says.

Money, of course, is always a key factor in attracting talent at all levels of a business. The AGR survey found that graduate salaries are expected to increase by 4.8 per cent in 2005, well above the cost of living hike (currently at 2.5 per cent).

Theres some quite impressive figures if we look at salaries, says the AGRs Gilleard. The 4.8 per cent is the highest percentage increase for five years.

The higher rates of pay have been driven primarily by the accountancy sector, which intends to make an average pay rise this year of 10 per cent. Accountancy is the largest recruiter, offering more than one in five of all graduate jobs.

The AGR attributes the overall pay increase to employers making attempts either to gain a competitive edge in the recruitment market or keep pace with the salaries offered by rival recruiters. It is no secret that top law firms offer some of the most competitive remuneration packages around, and this is borne out in the survey. Against an average salary across all the sectors of 22,000, law firms were revealed as offering 28,500. The only sector to better this was investment banking, which starts its graduates at a jaw-dropping 35,000. Pity those wanting to carve out a career in insurance this is the lowest paid sector, with graduates starting on a paltry 13,700.

Most of the top payers, though, including the legal sector, anticipate no change in their salaries, which will give the chasing pack a chance to catch up. However, Gilleard says he expects the high-paying sectors to bring in some salary hikes, as they have held back their rates for four years running.

Gilleard says law firms look at the survey very closely. He adds: They benchmark against each other, but theyre always looking at the other business sectors.

The extent to which money is an influence is questionable. Omotola Awofidipe, a second year politics student, wants to pursue a career in corporate law but is adamant that it is a love of the profession and not the pay that motivates her. Im looking for a wage I can live on, but for me its more about the skills I can use as a lawyer, she comments.

John Warrick, an A&O trainee, after considering investment banking and strategy consulting, opted for law. In the end I decided that I preferred the atmosphere of working in a law firm and that Id probably enjoy working in law more than another profession. If I didnt enjoy the job, I wouldnt do it, no matter how well it paid, he says.

The AGR found that the most common benefit offered to new starters is the opportunity to join the company pension scheme (87 per cent), followed by training for professional qualifications (81 per cent). The latter benefit is a huge pull for wannabe lawyers. If a firm is prepared to stump up the cash for the LPC and, if necessary, the GDL, plus a living allowance grant, this can be the difference between becoming a solicitor or abandoning the idea and opting for another profession. Warrick says not having his funding covered would have been a major obstacle to entering the legal world, while Awofidipe states that this is a crucial factor to realising her goal of becoming a lawyer.

Thirty-six per cent of those surveyed were planning to pay a starting bonus, also known as a golden handshake to their new graduate recruits, while 3 per cent pay out if the incoming graduate is awarded a first-class degree.

Perhaps these organisations are wasting their time and money. Awofidipe says she checks out the benefits offered by a firm but would only take them into account as a tie-breaking factor, while Warrick reckons it would be a bit foolish to let bonuses or inducements decide your career.

The overall picture of the survey is one of increased opportunities and better conditions for graduates as the battle for talent hots up.

Gilleard says: If youve got a good degree from a good university and you have the social and interpersonal skills to go with that, then youre going to be in demand.

However,hewarnsagainst complacency. At some stage youll have to go through a process to show youve got the motivation and interest to make a good lawyer or accountant, or whatever it is you want to be, he says. But therell always be another candidate whos as good as you are. The worlds probably your oyster but dont let it go to your head.