There's more to the South East than the City
23 April 2007
Recruitment at all levels in the South East (excluding London) is becoming increasingly candidate-driven and ever-more competitive, yet firms in the provinces are enticing potential candidates from the City by accentuating the differences in working life, and we are no longer just talking about quality of life.
It would be disingenuous to say that the recruitment environment in the South East is still not very challenging, because it is. There are two main factors that continue to present difficulties to large firms from the South East. The first of these is the continuing recruitment merry-go-round for newly qualified solicitors and the fact that top firms are keeping an ever-tighter grip on their trainees, with most retaining up to 90 per cent of their intake after qualification.
Second, growing disillusionment in recent years among qualified lawyers has forced the hands of City firms, which have reviewed benefits packages and are now giving serious consideration to alternative progression routes.
Selling the better quality of life outside the City has long been a key weapon in the region's recruitment armoury and it is certainly a truism that working hours are shorter and the working environment less frenetic than the pressure cooker that is the City.
Another major draw in attracting City talent is the increased levels of responsibility and autonomy on offer in regional firms. Whether you are an associate or solicitor, there is always an opportunity to shape your work and manage an entire project from start to finish - a rarity at many City firms due to the size of most matters and the sheer number of people involved.
Associates in the City often bemoan the lack of progression opportunities and many comment favourably on the meritocratic nature of the top firms in the South East. This environment equips recruits with the soft skills as well as the technical skills to further their careers at an earlier stage than if they remained in the City. Lawyers are offered an alternative to the rigidity and conventions that often govern promotion at City practices.
Heads of department in regional firms also benefit from these increased levels of autonomy. They feel empowered and buy into the entrepreneurial spirit of running their department, shaping its strategy, deciding on the type of work undertaken and getting the credit and satisfaction that comes from running a tight and successful ship. When people make partner at the South East's major firms they are, typically, not weighed down with intimidating billable hours targets and are allowed to focus on managing the department, delegating work to the most appropriate resource and formulating strategies to grow the business.
This approach has two main benefits:
•clear direction and leadership from the departmental principal; and
•solicitors and associates continue to gain the necessary experience that contributes to their professional development, which in turn enhances their own chances of progression.
For people looking to leave the City in the past, a cause of concern has been the quality of work available in the regions, but this is not the issue it once was. Yes, deals, transactions and instructions may be of smaller values, but as the Gatwick Diamond and the Thames Gateway continue to consolidate and develop their positions as major commercial centres outside London, we are finding that the quality of work on offer reflects this. The top firms in the South East can point to the fact that they are viewed as having City experience, but without City costs - an attractive proposition for many organisations.
The future is bright for the region as a whole and its law firms should be confident that this continued economic prosperity, allied to the unique benefits of working for a regional firm, will continue to act as a spur for City talent to move south.