Letter from Melbourne

The fantasy of chucking it all in and heading off for sunnier climes is a common one. And for many lawyers, practising in Australia for a few years, or sometimes even permanently, is a way of making that fantasy a reality.

But while working in Australia can have additional benefits there are also pitfalls that are not immediately obvious.

Certainly Australia and the UK have similar legal systems although there is a higher incidence of corporate statutory regulation in Australia. A lawyer with a strong corporate/commercial focus or a specialisation in superannuation, IP, taxation, IT, banking and finance, projects, construction or insurance will find their experience travels well.

But as the rules of procedure and evidence vary in Australia, litigation experience is not as readily transferable, nor is general property experience.

The past 12 months have also seen some interesting developments in the tax area. The impending implementation of the GST (the Australian equivalent of VAT) has led to a large demand for indirect tax lawyers and a noticeable increase in recruitment from the accountants.

This has partly been driven by client appreciation of the skills that a chartered training can provide and the shortage of tax lawyers in the market. Tax consultants from chartered firms are being attracted to law firms by the opportunity to do only consulting work.

Law firms are significantly smaller than in London. For example, a top-tier national firm will have between 150-250 partners with the majority of those based in Sydney or Melbourne. There are six top-tier practices with a presence in the two cities, and then a range of about 20 second-tier and boutique commercial firms.

The mechanics of getting a job in Australia can vary widely. Only lawyers with previous Australian experience or training will get a position in advance of arriving in the country.

Otherwise it may be advisable to take a short holiday and do the interview circuit or relocate and try to find work. Top-tier firms vary in their willingness to provide for relocation packages. Payment for airline tickets, shipping and accommodation in the first few weeks may or may not be provided by employers.

Top-tier firms are also providing opportunities to eventually move into a corporate role. It is now relatively commonplace for lawyers at larger firms to handle matters for a client in a number of states, particularly as more firms move to a true national structure.

The shortage of candidates at the two to five-year level has also affected the top-tier firms and in 1999 there was more willingness to look at candidates from a second-tier background. But, as in the UK, there remains an emphasis on good academic results and strong drafting experience for commercial roles.

The emphasis on lifestyle has been increasing over the past 12 months with a number of lawyers actively seeking part-time roles. And unlike the UK, those who wish to enter more flexible working arrangements do not necessarily have children.

Traditionally, part-time roles were set aside for lawyers with young children or existing employees. But Melbourne firms are beginning to appreciate the benefits of taking on lawyers on a three to four-day week basis. In particular, some top-tier firms are addressing a falling retention rate at the three to six-year level by being more flexible.

We have seen a number of lawyers who are burnt out from working six day weeks and are keen to regain some sense of work/life balance. For example, a corporate lawyer without children who has a strong academic background and top-tier experience recently chose to move to another leading practice because a four-day working week was being offered.

But the good news about working in Melbourne or Sydney is the combination of challenging work with a lifestyle not possible in the UK. The standard working day is 8am-6pm although people may well be required to work outside this time-frame. Working on weekends is not necessarily encouraged and a lifestyle/work balance is being actively advocated by firms. In both cities the beach is only a short distance from the centre of town and it is possible even after a full day’s work to go for a run along the beach or go for a swim on the way home.

Elizabeth Musgrave is manager of Michael Page Legal Recruitment in Melbourne.