BCL’s Southern private practice team discuss the market in the South of England in 2023 and share their predictions for the coming year

Soph Memhi, Associate, provides an overview of the South East market

From Soph Memhi

In 2023, the legal recruitment market in the South East was a mixed landscape influenced by economic factors. While the market didn't fully regain its pre-pandemic drive, certain sectors thrived. Opportunities within real estate and public procurement remained robust, among both regional and national firms, promising continued growth.

At the start of the summer a huge surge in demand for construction lawyers occurred, with firms such as Freeths LLP offering retraining opportunities to address the shortage in this niche area. The demand for construction lawyers is expected to continue, making it a focal point for speculative job applications in the coming year.

Fields of practice

Similar to construction, challenges arose in recruiting for another niche area: Agriculture and Estates. Firms such as Mills & Reeve, Birketts and others sought agricultural lawyers for their Cambridgeshire and Norwich offices.

The difficulties were simply the genuine shortage of agricultural lawyers, with the most junior real estate lawyers not wanting to specialise in such a niche area, so early on. This scarcity is likely to persist into 2024.

Employment and property litigation remained vibrant, mirroring the thriving real estate sector, with expectations of sustained growth in the New Year.

Banking and corporate slowdown

Transactional areas, in particular banking and corporate law, experienced a significantly quieter period across the board. Economic uncertainties or fluctuations could have impacted the corporate sector, leading companies to adopt a cautious approach towards expansion or new ventures, coupled with uncertainty surrounding global events and market volatility, subsequently affecting the demand for corporate legal services.

Looking ahead, we anticipate a resurgence in corporate and banking roles and, overall, there's an optimistic outlook for growth and increased activity across various legal sectors in 2024.

Kelly-Anne Willis, Senior Associate, provides an overview of the South West market

From Kelly-Anne Willis

The Bristol legal market has remained buoyant throughout 2023, admittedly not as busy as 2021 and 2022, but the city’s appeal to both junior and senior lawyers alike remains at an all-time high.

Despite firms still looking to grow, we did notice a significant reduction in hires, particularly in transactional areas such as real estate and corporate, with hires into commercial litigation teams also being significantly lower.

Growth has definitely been seen across other areas, including employment, property litigation and pensions. Firms ranging from boutique, to major national and international firms have pushed forward in these areas and this does not show any sign of slowing down as we move into 2024.

NQ vacancy drought

It is worth highlighting however, that NQ vacancies have been at an all-time low this year, with most firms in the city having significantly fewer NQ hires compared to previous years. It has been a tough year for NQs looking externally and we are hoping the number of vacancies increases as we head into the new year.

Salary wise, Bristol continues to surge forwards and has seen significant hikes from regional, national and international firms. NQ salaries are now at an all-time high in the city, and firms are continually reviewing their salary offerings to remain competitive and attract the best talent.

Office politics

With this being said, London is still a big pull for many lawyers, and with the flexible working options now available this can mean that Bristol based firms are losing out, especially at the more junior end. This is unlikely change; however, Bristol is a completely different offering that continues to have its own unique draw.

Office time has become something of a more contentious subject over the last six months. As some firms are keen to move to a more office way of working, others are opting for the ‘plan your own week’ type approach.

That being said, most firms now opt for three days in the office per week and two from home. There is a continued push on office time, particularly for juniors and those senior lawyers who are responsible for development and supervision. I think that moving forwards it will be more about the needs of the team, with the main focus on culture building.

Looking forward to 2024, I think we are going to see more of the same. The market is definitely on the up and we will continue to see more and more vacancies over the coming months. Firms across the board remain keen to grow and have a positive outlook moving into the year ahead.

Gishan Abeyratne, Associate Director, Andre Kacperski, Senior Associate, and Jack Hugill, Associate, provide an overview of the London market

From Gishan Abeyratne, Andre Kacperski and Jack Hugill

London continues to be a hub of activity, not allowing economic downturns and shifts away from active recruitment to displace the City’s reputation as the proverbial place to be for your legal career to flourish.

That is not to say that you won’t see great opportunity in other markets regionally, but the diversity of firms and roles we see in the London market is in many ways unparalleled. Couple this with London being a cultural centrepiece, brimming with legal talent from across the globe: it is truly a fast-paced, engaging, and challenging legal market for clients, candidates, and recruiters alike.

Focal points of growth

The more common practice areas such as employment, commercial litigation, and real estate continue to be focal points of growth for commercial firms throughout the capital, ranging from boutique West End practices, to major City and US firms occupying the square mile. These very same firms are also enjoying growth in areas such as tax, financial services regulation, private equity, and pensions to name but a few.

Although the corporate and banking markets haven’t been particularly eventful in 2023, there are clearly encouraging signs as we ebb towards 2024. Seeking recruitment and growth in more diverse practice areas allows for firms to further diversify their workforce and bolster their offerings to clients, domestic and overseas.

Post-pandemic resilience

There was some concern that the London bubble would burst post-pandemic. We have all seen the news: offices left more than half-empty with people primarily working from home and only a handful of staff making it into the office at any given time, for only two or three days a week.

Would this spell the end of the City buzz? While I cannot speak for all professional services, we can say with some confidence that the legal sector in London is very much present.

Some might say this is a bad thing, but the requirement to have people in the office doesn’t spell the end of hybrid working and certainly isn’t a black mark on the reputation of the industry. There is no shying away from the requirement to work longer hours, to meet demand, but there is also no substitute for juniors to learn by osmosis by being in the office, for teams to bond by being in the office, and for firms to truly showcase and embrace their culture and diversity by being together in the office.

When you pull all of this together, what does it mean? Well, in short, London is very much alive and well. The legal market is continuing to grow, with the offerings to attract talent from wide-ranging legal backgrounds, from regional practices to City-led firms and global players.

Connect with BCL’s South of England team

Gishan Abeyratne – Associate Director

Andre Kacperski – Senior Associate

Kelly-Anne Willis - Senior Associate

Soph Memhi - Associate

Jack Hugill - Associate