FORUM

With major economic expansion continuing in Benelux, many firms face growing recruitment problems. Most admit to having difficulties and accept that more time and money is being spent on recruitment strategies.

The main dilemma is not attracting people, but attracting the right type. This is of particular concern to the US and UK firms that have recently moved into Benelux to discover starkly different working practices and tax regimes.

With competition continuing to grow, the problem seems set to intensify as more firms move in to Benelux to take advantage of economic growth and an increased demand for legal services in the region.

Alan Hamburger, managing partner of the Belgian office of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, is well aware of the difficulties for a new operation in Europe. He says: “Many lawyers aren't interested in working with US or UK firms; there's a different work ethic, and unless they're at partner level, they're not really benefiting.”

Hamburger believes that a more pressurised environment is needed to satisfy demanding international clients, and that this can bring about a different working day, which on average stretches beyond the nine-to-five ethos of the existing local firms.

“It's not a question of Belgian lawyers being lazy. Because of the tax system, lawyers won't get much more in their pocket for working longer. It's a Europe-wide issue,” he says.

The domestic lawyers that are applying to international firms are of the right calibre. “There's an abundance of lawyers,” says Hamburger. “The problem is, most don't have the experience.” He relies a lot on word of mouth – new staff are often referred by another lawyer or will be someone that Morgan Lewis has already worked with or against. “Recruiting now is the recycling of the same people in or out of similar firms,” he says.

As a reasonably small office, the six-strong team is not in a position to take on trainees. The office has a very senior team, though even Hamburger admits that they would have a difficult time in efficiently using younger associates with little experience of a pan-European approach.

He says: “There are a lot of graduates leaving law schools here and it can be difficult to get quality experience. I sympathise with young lawyers, but we're not in a position to take the risk and train from scratch.”

Ruth van Andel, however, takes a different view. She is the leading employment law partner in Clifford Chance's Amsterdam office and the partner responsible for the firm's recruitment in the region.

Her strategy is to attract young Dutch talent at an early stage. She says: “We always take on 20-30 trainees every year. Most lawyers working in Clifford Chance in Amsterdam are Dutch. Retention is a huge issue now – people used to join a firm for life, but this is no longer the case.”

She says that the amount of investment being put into recruitment is unprecedented. “The need for lawyers is increasing in The Netherlands, while the number finishing university is decreasing. This clearly creates tension in the market since it is a situation that we cannot influence.”

Allard Medzelaar, managing partner of Stibbe, disagrees that high tax rates are a disincentive to attracting partners. He says: “Tax is higher than the UK, though our top rate of 60 per cent was recently reduced to 52. It's a big difference, but you must also compare the cost of living in Holland.”

Like Clifford Chance, the firm depends heavily on organic growth and promoting from within – it hired 50 new associates last year and Medzelaar admits to putting a huge amount of effort into the process. He says: “It takes a lot more effort and cost than a few years ago. The supply is down and demand has increased – this means mathematically that it must be very difficult to get people.”

Salaries are also on the rise. Stibbe aims to be among the top paying firms for associates. It tries to compete with some of the figures being offered by foreign firms at partner level. “There are a number of foreign firms offering large packages in an attempt to get partners in to build up a presence here,” says Medzelaar. “It can't go on forever. We saw a few partners leave, but really, when taken as a whole, it was only on a very limited level.” n