As specialist legal recruitment consultants we often get asked by our law firm clients to offer salary advice i.e who is paying what and for what level of experience?
Each year the task is getting harder due to the fact that a lot of firms have moved away from offering set salary bands of 2-3k for each level of PQE preferring instead to opt for a more merit based/responsibility levels led approach that says that PQE is often irrelevant and its more about what the person does every day. There are also more CILEX qualified lawyers now doing the jobs of qualified solicitors, in the absence of a PQE benchmark for CILEX lawyers what they are paid is more about what their responsibility levels are and not so much about how long they’ve been doing it. Add to the recipe legal aid v non legal aid firms, claimant v defendant firms, London west end v top 200, large regional heavyweight v niche boutique etc etc and it all becomes very difficult to compare firm’s pay rates and say what is market rate for a particular type of lawyer.
At BCL Legal each consultant operates in a niche vertical market so specialising in recruiting for particular types of lawyers. This proves very useful when talking to law firms about salary levels because pay differs from one area of law to another, regardless of PQE. I specialise in personal injury and clinical negligence, both defendant and claimant. The landscape of these markets has changed a lot over the past few years and this has had a big impact on salary levels. PQE is largely irrelevant, its all about what you actually do on a daily basis. This has caused a large pay gap between some firms (i.e PQE pay structure v merit based/what you do pay structure) but actually shrunk the gap between some regional and London firms that employ the same type of lawyer to handle the same or similar work. I was trying to explain to a 4 PQE claimant clinical negligence lawyer just yesterday what she could expect to paid in London, who I left rather shocked with the news that 1 or 2 of our target firms in London would pay only marginally more (sometimes less) than what she was paid right now in the North East of England but 1 or 2 others would pay 20% more. Gone are the days when a move to London automatically earns a 20-40% hike in pay for all areas of law. If I was talking to a real estate lawyer with the same level of PQE with a similar background in terms of current firm, academics etc then the pay rates would be very different.
Counter offers are becoming more prevalent now too with firms desperate not to lose key skills and experience. This can make a nonsense of pay rates because that gets largely ignored if heads of business decide they must do everything to keep somebody. Its creating a real sense of confusion as it demonstrates that quite often a law firm will pay what they can get away with rather than what people are actually worth. For example I have known of lawyers’ salaries being increased by 25% just to get them to stay with their current firm. That is huge! Why not pay that person that amount of money in the first place?
You could argue that the shift away from PQE led pay structures is good news, its less stuffy and more commercial in its thinking. But if you’re looking for a new job right now be mindful of what pay structure firms have or you may be left rather shocked. In essence, mind the gap.