Recruitment – offshore’s battle for talent

A dearth of experienced candidates has opened offshore firms’ eyes to the talent existing beyond the magic circle. But recruits must be ready for a culture shock

If you look at the CVs of many partners in offshore firms a pattern emerges – a top degree at a top university followed by a stint in a magic circle firm and then the move offshore.

But check out the profiles of younger lawyers, and the pattern is changing. Offshore firms are casting their net wider when looking for lateral hires and new recruits.

Of course, such a change takes time, and offshore firms admit that the magic and silver circles are still their first port of call.

“We still have a desire to ensure we maintain the quality of the people we recruit,” says Ogier HR head Sue Lincoln. “We’re still targeting the magic and silver circle firms.” 

Lincoln points out that many of the firm’s partners have this type of experience, making them perhaps predisposed towards recruiting lawyers with a similar background.

Offshore passport

Fact Box

Glass Consultancy’s Ed Strickland says the mindset has shifted.

“Offshore firms are much more open-minded now than when they started,” he says. “There was a snobbery that not only should you be coming out of the magic circle, but they preferred Slaughter and May – and it really should be Oxbridge and magic circle,” he says.

Strickland believes the recession has been the most important cause of this change in attitude. 

“It brought to the top of the food chain in a lot of firms those lawyers who were better at business development,” he notes.

In the hiring line

Offshore firms have been hiring fairly extensively in the past few years. The Lawyer’s annual offshore survey shows that lawyer numbers in the top 10 firms climbed consistently between 2007 and 2012, levelling off last year.

The total gain among the top 10 has been 211 qualified lawyers in the past six years – which, compared to the market onshore, may not seem like a lot, but for some firms represents headcount growth of 20 per cent or more. Harneys , which expanded particularly fast between 2011 and 2012, has doubled its qualified lawyer headcount since 2007.

Partner numbers have also grown in that period, through a combination of internal promotions and lateral hires, often from onshore firms although also – and increasingly – from other offshore players.

Recruiters say the market is showing signs of becoming even busier, as corporate activity onshore starts to return to something approaching normality.

“Last year was busy – there was a lot of movement,” observes JLegal senior consultant Philip Jennings. “We’re waiting for it to pick up even more.”

Strickland predicts that offshore firms will find themselves competing with City firms for the sort of talent they are looking for – and that because of the lack of transactional activity in the past few years, finding lawyers with the requisite experience might prove tricky for both onshore and offshore firms.

“Many lawyers don’t have these transactional miles on the clock that employers are looking for,” he adds.

A maturing market

Masjule
Masjule

Walkers ’ global executive HR director Inga Masjule notes that the firm has been fairly active in hiring in the past few years – although it has also been the source of raids by other firms – and says she has noticed the market has changed.

“Our market has matured quite a bit offshore,” Masjule says. “In the past we were primarily looking for lawyers coming from Commonwealth jurisdictions and with six to eight years’ PQE. These days I see much younger, much less experienced lawyers coming offshore.”

Masjule says this has been accompanied by a change in attitude.

“People these days are looking at an offshore move as a genuine career choice – they’re looking to make partner in an offshore firm.”

Offshore is often seen as a good place to work if you are looking for a break from the hustle of City life, although recruiters and HR directors are swift to note that while hours can be more predictable – with fewer frantic completion deadlines to hit and a greater proportion of routine work – that does not mean moving offshore means you can suddenly start working nine to five.

“Getting them here on to the island is critical,” says Lincoln. “Once they see that, that’s where the perception changes.”

The one big difference between onshore and offshore is the life outside work. Commutes are cut to 15-minute drives, instead of squashing on to a packed underground train or a bus, and there’s a chance of spending any leisure time you might get diving or sunbathing.

The offset to that is that life in a small community is very different from that in a big city.

“It’s quite tricky to come offshore because you have to want to live on a relatively small island,” Lincoln adds.

Lifestyle choice

That lifestyle continues to attract lawyers. And with firms casting their nets wider for candidates, more are able to get their foot in the offshore door.

Both Lincoln and Masjule say they are recruiting from regional UK firms as well as City players now.

“We’ve never been a firm that was particularly focused on the magic circle candidates,” explains Masjule. “We’re looking for talent. It’s important that the person who comes to us is able to operate in the cross-cultural environment we’re in.”

“We’re looking increasingly at the Scottish and Irish markets,” Lincoln adds. “In some of these firms the quality of what they do can be just as good as the quality of the silver circle-type firms. We’ve got the confidence that they see the quality of transactional work we’d like them to have seen.”

Jennings agrees that this is a pronounced trend right now. 

“With the market picking up we’re going to see more demand for good lawyers from national and regional firms,” he says.

Both Walkers and Ogier are looking particularly for lawyers in the funds, corporate and finance sectors right now, although Lincoln says finding dedicated funds lawyers is difficult. Ogier’s solution for this problem has tended to be hiring corporate or finance lawyers at a lower experience level and putting them in the funds group to be trained up.

Meanwhile, the development of local lawyers is also increasingly important for offshore firms. Walkers runs an articled clerk scheme in its home jurisdiction
of the Cayman Islands, while Ogier offers training contracts for English and Welsh solicitors in the Channel Islands, and articled clerkships in Cayman.

Ogier has also recently launched a fixed-term paralegal role, with the aim of using it as an extended interview process for potential trainees who might otherwise be overlooked for places at the firm due to their qualifications.

“We’ll hopefully be less reliant on bringing onshore lawyers on-island – we’re really focusing on training our own,” says Masjule, of Walkers’ clerkship scheme.

The clear message from the offshore market is that recruitment will continue, both in the Channel Islands and the Caribbean – and that for candidates with experience and the desire to build an offshore career, the door is open wider than ever.

Working offshore

Taxation

British Virgin Islands (BVI) 0 per cent income tax

Cayman 0 per cent tax

Guernsey and Jersey 20 per cent income tax. No higher rates, capital gains or inheritance taxes 

Qualification

BVI Qualifying for the BVI bar is easy. Any common law lawyer can be admitted with an affidavit from a BVI-qualified lawyer, through a brief ceremony in a BVI court. This is under review.

Cayman Lawyers qualified in equivalent Commonwealth jurisdictions with at least three years’ PQE and a work permit from a Cayman firm can qualify as a Cayman lawyer.

Guernsey To qualify as a Guernsey advocate a candidate – either an English solicitor or barrister – must complete six months’ pupillage at a Guernsey firm and pass the Guernsey Bar Exams. Candidates also have to hold an academic qualification in French and Norman law, usually from Caen University in France.

Jersey Solicitors and barristers qualified in England and Wales can work in Jersey without being qualified on the island. After three years it is possible to study for the Jersey Law Certificate and qualify as a Jersey solicitor or advocate.

Housing and work

BVI You must have a job before moving to the BVI and work permits have to be renewed annually. There is plenty of rental housing, but non-residents need a ‘Non-Belongers Land Holding Licence’ to buy a house. Only 25 people a year are able to become BVI ‘belongers’, or residents.

Cayman Work permits can be granted for up to nine years, at which time foreign nationals are able to apply for Cayman residency. A points system is used, but most applicants are successful. Renting and buying property is easy.

Guernsey Property laws are tightly controlled and housing stock is limited. ‘Local Market’ housing is restricted to Guernsey residents and most newcomers will live in ‘Open Market’ housing. Newcomers must have a Right to Work permit.

Jersey Strict housing laws, restricting the number of people who can buy, sell or lease property. Those moving to the island generally become ‘registered’ workers and can rent property.