Firms fail to learn with boom and bust recruitment

The summer is traditionally the time that work levels drop off and managing partners, along with everyone else, head to the beach. This year, however, The Lawyer reported on 7 August that, not only was there barely a falling off of work, there was also a chronic shortage of corporate assistants to service the unprecedented level of deals.

As exclusive research by The Lawyer revealed, many firms across the City had a large number of vacancies for corporate assistants that they were struggling to fill. And Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer London head of corporate Tim Jones put his finger on one of the main causes of the problem when he said there was a “very simple reason” for the shortage. “Four or five years ago firms reduced their recruiting,” he explained.

The situation highlighted one of the biggest management issues – whether to maintain ranks of under-utilised lawyers when work levels are low to prevent a shortage when the deals come back. It is a perennial problem and one that firms faced in the early years of this decade and the last.

As Glass Consultancy director Jonathan Glass put it: “At the moment almost every practice area will take on anyone with good experience, and of course when the slowdown kicks in they’ll cut back. It’s the old boom-and-bust story that the legal profession never learns from.”

Well, perhaps. This time around assistant-related issues such as job satisfaction, work-life balance and career progression are far higher up the agenda at most firms, and the issue appeared to have touched a nerve with at least some of the City’s senior partners.

SJ Berwin senior partner Jonathan Blake told The Lawyer he was “kicking himself” because the firm had not been recruiting during the downturn in 2002.

“The next time I hope we’ll be brave enough to say ‘stuff the profits’ and carry on recruiting,” he added.