Half of Aussie lawyers mull walkabouts as survey flags up dissatisfaction

More than half of ­Australia’s private practice lawyers are considering leaving their present firms.

Half of Aussie lawyers mull walkabouts as survey flags up dissatisfactionMore ;than ;half ;of ­Australia’s private practice lawyers are considering leaving their present firms.

Statistics from legal recruitment ;company Mahlab paint a damning picture of dissatisfaction at Australian law firms, ­showing that 52 per cent of private practice lawyers in Australia are thinking of leaving their present employers.

More than a quarter (28 per cent) are considering defecting to larger firms, while more than a fifth (23 per cent) are mulling moves to boutiques or smaller firms, in-house roles (21 per cent) or jobs overseas (21 per cent).

The figures also show that half of Australia’s private practice lawyers are dissatisfied with the outcome of their pay reviews, while more than half (57 per cent) are unhappy with their ­performance reviews.

“With the wide array of tempting options in Australia and overseas, it’s not surprising that Australian lawyers are on the move,” says Mahlab managing director Katherine Sampson. “However, they’re split over where their next move should be to. While many of the country’s lawyers want to move to a larger firm, almost equal numbers want to move in the opposite direction, to an in-house role or to a posting overseas.”

While quality of work, recognition and good team relations positively influence a lawyer’s enjoyment of their role, three out of five lawyers cited remuneration as the main reason for leaving their firms. This is despite just over a quarter (26 per cent) of respondents receiving bonuses, and
a third of firms having ­introduced ;structured bonus schemes whereby lawyers are rewarded based on the achievement of a combination of individual, team and firm budgets.

As well as widespread ­dissatisfaction over pay, just 16 per cent of respondents in private practice rated their firms’ commitment to work-life balance as ‘excellent’.

Those in private practice working part-time have dropped from 10 per cent last year to 8 per cent this year. Of those, half believe that working part-time has had a negative impact on their career progression.

Despite the widespread dissatisfaction with their present employers, however, the ;clear ;majority ;of ­Australian lawyers in ­private practice responded that they are ‘somewhat satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with being a lawyer per se.

Going west

The Mahlab survey is the most comprehensive study of the Australian legal ­profession and is supported by professional bodies the Australian ;Corporate Lawyers Association, the Australasian Professional Services Marketing Association, NSW Young Lawyers, Young Lawyers Victoria, the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland, Victorian Women ;Lawyers, ;the Women Law Association of NSW and the Legal KM Forum.

The research showed that almost half of the lawyers who want to move overseas want to move to the UK (48 per cent), and that almost a fifth (19 per cent) want to move to the US. This is despite the fact that the slowdowns in the UK and US did not impact on their local markets in 2007-08, while 2007-08 was a year of sustained recruitment ­activity in Australia.

The marked preference for work in the UK and US among those looking to move overseas is particularly striking given that the strong growth locally was fuelled by the strong Asian and ;newly ;emerging ­markets. Yet just one in 10 of those wanting to move overseas said they want to move to Asia, even though Asia is nearer to Australia than the UK or US, while only 9 per cent wanted to move to the Middle East, despite the major investment in strengthening their regional presences by the world’s biggest law firms.

Money talks

Private practice salary bands remained ;relatively ­constant, with an increase of 4.6 per cent nationally. Individual salaries rose by an average of 20.4 per cent nationally – an increase from 14 per cent in 2006-07 and 8 per cent in 2005-06.

However, salary bands in Brisbane and Perth increased significantly more than in Melbourne and ­Sydney, pushing the national salary band average increase to 4.6 per cent.

Despite ;bands ;only ­shifting slightly in Melbourne and Sydney, junior lawyers moving from one band to another can receive significant percentage increases on their previous salaries.

Partner earnings grew faster in 2007-08 than in the previous two years, rising by 11.1 per cent on average after rising by 7.1 per cent in 2006-07 and 7.5 per cent in 2005-06.

Partner ;mobility remained constant, and an increasing number of firms in the mid-tier are now seeking to maintain recruitment competitiveness by offering flexible working arrangements to partners
– ;including ;part-time ­working, job-sharing or the option of working from home.

As Sampson puts it: “Mid-tier firms continue to attract partners from the top tier who seek the opportunity to transfer a healthy client base to an environment which does not require every client to be a top 100 company, where partner income is still high and, hopefully, work-life balance is a little easier to achieve.”

The view from in-house

Among in-house lawyers salaries rose by an average of 5.7 per cent. Well over half of in-housers (65 per cent) received bonuses, contributing an average of almost a fifth (19 per cent) to a corporate lawyer’s annual ;remuneration ­package.

In-house ;lawyers received ;additional ­benefits, ranging from BlackBerrys, ;share plan options, vehicle car parking and additional superannuation.

The survey also revealed far greater satisfaction among in-house lawyers.

Nearly four out of five (79 per cent) said they are ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ satisfied in their current role, although ;the ;number ­satisfied with the outcome of their salary reviews has ­fallen sharply from 80 per cent last year to 56 per cent this year.

Despite this, nearly half of in-house lawyers (46 per cent) are contemplating leaving ;their ;current employers – in most cases for another corporate role that advances their careers.

“Most lawyers who’ve left their ;private ;practice ­colleagues for corporate ­pastures are reluctant to return,” says Sampson. “They relish the closer relationship to the company’s business and aspire to a more senior role within the corporate structure, maybe better paid and perhaps in a new industry, as their next move. Their proximity to the business can bring
hefty bonuses unavailable in ;­private ;practice, ­supplementing the overall modest ;increase ;in ­remuneration recorded this year.”

Faring slightly better than private practice, 15 per cent of lawyers working
in-house ;rated ;their ­organisations’ commitment to work-life balance as ‘excellent’, while 11 per cent of respondents work part-time compared with 8 per cent in private practice.

However, ;in-house lawyers are working longer hours, with the average working week consisting of 50 hours – up from 48 last year. More than a third (37 per cent) take work home, with an average of nine hours performed outside the office per week – up from seven hours last year.

In non-lawyer roles in the legal sector, salaries for ­marketing professionals increased by an average of 6.6 per cent nationally, while those in HR saw an average increase of 7 per cent. Salaries for knowledge ­management staff increased by 4 per cent.