Georgina Inson - senior associate at BCL Legal – discusses the trends and her expectations in the legal market in the South West
The thriving and growing South West legal recruitment market replicates many of the other regional legal hubs across the UK in that recruitment for solicitors continues apace with commercial property, construction and commercial roles being the most prevalent. Whilst it was the larger law firms that were the first to start recruiting aggressively, we are now seeing a rise in the medium and smaller law firms looking to recruit, with both focusing on commercial property and residential conveyancing recruitment in the main.
The demand is mainly focused towards the two to four years' PQE bracket. However, many law firms are now beginning to look outside this bracket as the pressures of an increased workload take their toll and additional resources are desperately needed. NQ roles are out there but not in great numbers, which - I think - is due to the significant improvement in firms’ retention rates for their own NQs. The days of the NQ ‘season’ in the summer months (where NQ roles spiked ahead of the September qualifiers coming to the market) has tailed off to a certain degree. There is now more of an even split in the numbers of those qualifying in March and September. As a result, there is less of a ‘panic buying’ scenario in the summer months so as not to miss the NQ boat and more of an even distribution of NQ roles during the year. The really good news for NQs – however - is that where law firms have been struggling to recruit more experienced lawyers for their urgent to fill roles, good NQs - with relevant experience - are often slotting in.
With certain areas of recruitment now operating at pre-recession levels, as well as a limited supply of talent, some roles are subject to generous pay rises as firms compete to attract new (as well as retain) existing employees. To date, the greatest salary increases have been in areas suffering from the biggest skill shortages; namely commercial property and construction. With salaries in the Bristol legal market generally being the highest outside London, Bristol is doing well at attracting top legal talent from the City but at a high price.
Given that law firms are now more confident about the year ahead, and have plans to take on more fee earners, we expect to see the competition for skills and salary increases to take a greater hold over the next 12 months. Some employees have seized the opportunity to earn more and have already moved, but it is likely that others will follow suit over the next couple of quarters.
Specific areas of legal recruitment are going through different conditions at present and each one has its own driving factors....
Property & Construction
After getting a major ‘cold shouldering’ during the recession, property lawyers of all types are now highly sought after across the South West. Many of these talented lawyers turned away from the profession altogether after being made redundant during the economic downturn, so there is a huge skills shortage now that we are in an upturn. Having gone through difficult times, those lawyers that did hang on to their jobs have been understandably reluctant to move despite the potential to hike up their salaries. However, we are now seeing more movement of lawyers in this area as confidence grows.
Tim Heal, head of the real estate team at Ashfords, a national firm with its roots firmly based in the West Country, said: “In the last 12-18 months we have seen significant growth in work levels across the board. We are doing substantial amounts of work for renewable energy companies and also for developers looking to take advantage of the relaxation in permitted development rights under planning legislation e.g. conversion of offices to residential and farm buildings to commercial uses.”
This increase in development activity, both in commercial and house building, around parts of the South West has led to a big increase in recruitment in development roles as well as plot sales. As the housing market has warmed up, conveyancers for high street firms are in high demand as well. I should also mention that we have recently seen an influx of property portfolio management roles for larger firms dealing with clients in the retail and leisure sector. This – again – has been a knock on effect of the improving economy.
Meanwhile, the recovering economy has seen many construction lawyers transitioning from what was an acute prevalence in back-end work and litigation, to a definite upswing in front-end work and new projects. Additionally, the increase in government subsidiaries for renewable energy projects (in order to meet the EU target of sourcing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020) means that construction and energy lawyers are busy and in high demand.
It’s been positive to see that planning positions have enjoyed more space on the job boards as firms seek to recruit in order to cope with an increase in instructions on matters pertaining to planning. John Bosworth, head of the planning team at Ashfords, suggests this is as a result of the relaxation of planning policies and the attempts by the government to reduce red tape, which has resulted in a huge amount of activity by developers.
He said: “We have seen an increase in our work from both local authorities and housebuilders, who have noticeably stepped up their activities. This has meant that in the last three years we have taken on two more partners in the planning team plus an associate, a newly qualified (home grown) as well an extra paralegal.
He added: There has also been a substantial growth in planning applications for renewable energy schemes, especially wind and solar power which need careful handling due to the extreme reactions from local residents they often excite. Reductions in staffing levels in local government combined with increased workloads have also meant there is more work being farmed out to private practice and we are acting for local authorities throughout the country.”
Due to the changes in planning policies and the recovering economy, we expect to see the number of planning vacancies continue to come through across the South West in the medium to larger firms and niche planning practices.
Employment law has been one of the few areas where recruitment has been sluggish over the past 12 months. Malcolm Gregory, partner and head of the employment team at Withy King told me that employment tribunal claims have dropped off considerably which has impacted on some firms’ employment teams. He said: “ACAS’ early conciliation and the introduction of fees to issue a claim is behind the drop in numbers. At Withy King, we have made up for this by working on better quality employment tribunal litigation work as well as focusing on advisory work. Corporate support work has also increased as the number of corporate deals we are working on has risen. Our strategy has paid off for us as we are now taking on two NQs for our Bath and Swindon offices.”
Although there is no specific growth in this area, we are starting to see some more employment roles coming through. These are tending to be concentrated on the magic two to four years’ PQE level as firms are looking to recruit solicitors that can handle a caseload without too much training or supervision. The roles are generally aimed at employer focused advisory work as well as corporate support and respondent litigation rather than employee (claimant) work.
Commercial & Corporate
I’m pleased to report that the number of commercial roles that we are working on has remained high across a whole host of areas; public procurement and state aid lawyers are hot property for the larger law firms, as well as those with experience in projects, PFI/ PPP and infrastructure. Smaller firms are also seeking to recruit company/commercial lawyers to focus on both M &A work and general commercial contracts relating to areas such as outsourcing and distribution, IP, IT and data protection.
In terms of corporate jobs in the South West, the majority are for general M&A lawyers. However, some of the larger law firms are gunning for banking, asset and project finance lawyers over M&A lawyers.
Recruitment for litigation roles has been quiet of late in the South West, particularly in relation to general commercial litigation, IP and IT litigation. Professional indemnity, clinical negligence, personal injury and property litigation are the busiest areas of litigation as well as contentious construction. It won’t come as a surprise but the claimant personal injury market has shrunk massively as a result of the ban on referral fees which has caused a shake-up. The end result is fewer firms now offering PI services.
On the flip side, the defendant injury market has stayed pretty stable and we are seeing upturns in higher value motor, employers and public liability litigation work. These types of cases are usually billed on an hourly rate basis so offer good profit levels which drives confidence.
In summary, recruitment in the South West has picked up significantly over the last 12 months and I believe firms will continue with recruitment drives in key areas. Larger Bristol law firms in particular are recruiting aggressively and competition for top quality lawyers in a candidate short market is really heating up. However, the South West is fortunate in that it now attracts some of the best lawyers out there and the reasons are twofold:
Firstly, one can find a high quality of life here, with glorious scenery, beautiful housing stock, good schools, great connections and low unemployment; and secondly, we are lucky to have a large, thriving, and growing legal market, with some of the best firms in the country now having offices based here. The South West (and Bristol in particular) is no longer viewed as a backwater for law firms, but is now a major legal centre. All of this is proving a real draw and in my view, now is a great time of opportunity for lawyers and could well be a turning point for many careers.