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Ireland has enjoyed a very active legal recruitment market of late. There can be no doubt that certain firms have grown substantially over the past number of years in terms of fee-earner numbers, having attracted talent from home and abroad with increased salaries and an excellent quality of work. The issues addressed in this article concern the question of whether that growth is sustainable in view of the current economic slowdown and how recruitment strategies have changed to meet that challenge.
Experience suggests that, over the past year, employers have been inclined to adopt a reactive rather than an aggressively proactive approach to recruitment. The emphasis has been on retaining staff and filling vacancies as they arise, as opposed to boosting numbers. Many are adopting a wait-and-see policy, but few are passing up the opportunity to snap up talented and experienced candidates in certain practice areas, particularly in public-private partnerships, banking and financial services and taxation.
At newly qualified level, there has been a noticeable change over the past nine months. This year's qualifiers are not necessarily guaranteed their placement of choice upon qualification and not all newly qualifieds are being retained. This can probably be accounted for by the elevated intake of trainees in previous years and cost-trimming measures driven by the less favourable economic situation. In any event, the balance of power has tipped back in favour of the employer and newly qualified solicitors will need to work that bit harder to impress.
At a senior level, though, good opportunities remain. There is still a skills shortage in many key disciplines and those lawyers with good experience in top Dublin, London or US firms are much coveted. Some believe that it is easier to attract talented individuals now than in boom times and firms are poised to capitalise on potential dissatisfaction among gifted individuals or specialist teams.
Another indicator as to the strategy of firms in terms of retaining and recruiting staff will be the results of the forthcoming salary reviews. The reviews will probably not be as generous as in previous years, with modest increases being applied. However, it is important not to lose sight of how remuneration levels have risen since the mid-1990s. Newly qualifieds in the larger firms can now expect in excess of e40,000 (£24,500) per annum, and for those with two years experience, salaries can exceed e50,000 (£30,600).
Another recent trend has been the fall in recruitment of non-national lawyers from jurisdictions beyond the UK, the EU and the US. Australians and New Zealanders have impressed in the past at all levels in Dublin firms, but in keeping with more conservative recruitment strategies, home-grown talent is still preferred.
Firms are tending to insist upon successful completion of the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTT) and evidence of long-term commitment from candidates. The Irish Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment has recently imposed tighter restrictions on the granting of work permits for non-nationals. The process is now more cumbersome and lengthy, although the candidates do not appear to have experienced significant difficulty obtaining the necessary authorisation. The same reticence among firms does not apply to those candidates coming from the UK, the EU and certain US states. High-calibre lawyers from well-respected firms in these jurisdictions with good experience and international exposure remain highly sought-after.
Regarding in-house careers, there has been a tendency among some in-house lawyers to seek positions in more stable sectors, or indeed to revert to private practice. Nevertheless, most employers recognise that at times when risk, in all forms, is higher in the minds of senior management, the need for on-the-spot legal advice is much greater and there remains a demand for strong in-house counsel. With an estimated 10 per cent of solicitors admitted in the Republic of Ireland currently employed in-house, it is difficult to see that number decreasing significantly, even in times of uncertainty. Indeed, some in-house legal departments are now better placed to attract disgruntled lawyers from private practice.
By all accounts, the demand for legal services is picking up and, as the economy rallies, recruitment is also creeping up the employers' list of priorities. While there was a noticeable decrease in work levels and recruitment activity during the past nine months, Ireland is now witnessing a renewed optimism, albeit cautious, both in private practice and in-house.
Michael Benson is the director of Irish legal recruitment specialist Benson & Associates