M&A teams face threat from associate drought

London’s top City firms are struggling to cope with the M&A boom due to a drought in corporate assistants that has left them unable to adequately man deals.

According to exclusive research by The Lawyer, firms have hit a brick wall in trying to recruit corporate assistants with two to four years’ PQE.

Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) has 40 associate vacancies across all practice areas, Freshfields is in the market for 20 corporate associates and Linklaters admitted that it is struggling to fill two to four years’ PQE positions.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer London head of corporate Tim Jones said: “There’s a shortage for a very simple reason – because four or five years ago firms reduced their recruiting.”

Retention rates for newly qualified solicitors plummeted by as much as 40 per cent at the height of the last recession in 2003, according to The Lawyer’s sister title Lawyer 2B in its annual retention rate survey. SJ Berwin kept on just 61 per cent of its trainees that year, while Denton Wilde Sapte retained just 58 per cent.

A number of firms, including BLP, Herbert Smith and Linklaters are tackling the problem by recruiting from the Australian, New Zealand and South African legal markets as the war on talent hots up. Linklaters is planning a second hiring spree in Australia next month. But Joanne Street, a business manager at Hays, warned that Antipodean firms are facing a similar crisis.

Firms are now exploring the possibility of recruiting from India, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Gavin Sharpe, a director at legal recruiter Shilton Sharpe Quarry, said: “Without a doubt this is the most frantic the market’s ever been.”

Freshfields is even considering reviving its recruitment campaigns in Ireland and Scotland. Earlier this year Freshfields hired seven private equity associates from Australia and New Zealand. Slaughter and May corporate partner Andy Ryde said that, without access to Australians and New Zealanders, it would be difficult. “They’re life-savers,” he said.

Firms are also tackling the problem with retention tools such as bonuses and measures to improve work-life balances.