Associates fall into line as redundancy fears cast shadow over legal market

The fear coursing through the legal market – revealed by the YouGovCentaur survey last week – has made associates a much more amenable bunch.

Associates fall into line as redundancy fears cast shadow over legal marketThe ;fear ;coursing through the legal market – revealed by the YouGovCentaur survey of almost 2,000 lawyers in The Lawyer last week (5 January) – has made associates a much more amenable bunch.

The survey revealed that only 15 per cent of associates feel secure in their jobs, but only three years ago there was an almost revolutionary atmosphere in law firms as associate power came to the fore.

Now, with only 9 per cent strongly confident that they could find another job if they were made redundant, associates are willing to do whatever it takes to stay employed.

Katherine Gibson (pictured), chair of the Junior Lawyers’ Division of the Law Society, says: “Everyone’s feeling hard hit by the credit crunch. Most of my members, who are newly-qualifieds to two years’ ;PQE, ;have ;no ­experience of a downturn. For them this is scary.”

The fears of her members have forced the organisation to ;launch ;a ;series ;of ­webinars ;(web-based ­seminars) to help associates deal with redundancy, job hunting, managing debt and retraining.

Forty-four per cent of associates said they would be happy to relocate to their firms’ overseas offices, a figure that rises to 62 per cent when the only other option offered is redundancy.

The YouGovCentaur ­survey paints a picture of a conservative bunch. Almost a third of associates would decline a transfer to emerging markets such as Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Russia and Africa are an even harder sell, with around 50 per cent saying they would not want to move to either location.

By way of a comparison, only 16 per cent objected to a move to Asia, 8 per cent did not want to move to the US and only 5 per cent said they did not want a transfer to mainland Western Europe.

Most firms with presences in the Middle East have been busy transferring armies of lawyers to the region during the past year. Clyde & Co, Denton Wilde Sapte, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Pinsent Masons are just some of the UK firms that have sent associates and partners there. In September last year Allen & Overy (A&O) alone sent six partners and four associates to its three Middle East offices.

A&O is one of the few firms to have offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Most international firms that have presences in the Middle East have an office in Dubai, which is the least unpopular of the Middle East locations. The YouGovCentaur survey reveals that an overwhelming 83 per cent of those who objected to a Middle East move were particularly averse to a move to Saudi.

A&O Middle East chief Simon Roderick said that the region had not been an “easy sell”, but given the state of the UK market the job of convincing ­people to move was made a whole lot easier. However, now that even the Dubai economy has ground to a halt, it is back to the hard sell.

As one of the posts on notes (10 December 2008): “Sure, a few months ago it looked like a good idea as emerging ­markets were slower to be affected by the crisis, but right now even the ­emerging market work is drying up for most major firms.”

Another alternative to redundancy is retraining. Fifty-nine per cent of ­associates said they would be happy to retrain to another practice area, a ­figure that rises to 68 per cent if the only alternative was redundancy.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that a fifth of associates would ;rather ;take ­redundancy than retrain to ­another practice area.

“Their firms must have damned good redundancy packages,” ;quips ;one ­managing partner.

Many City firms feel they have been forced by clients into overspecialisation. As Nabarro managing partner Nicky Paradise noted in The Lawyer last month (8 December): “This is one of ;those ;times ;when ­overspecialisation might not be such a great thing.”

And late last year when DLA Piper committed to retraining ;20 ;lawyers (including two partners) to its restructuring practice, joint CEO Nigel Knowles spoke about “broadening the skills base” of lawyers.

A&O ;senior ;partner David Morley has also espoused the benefits of adaptability for law firms generally, and for young lawyers specifically, stating that we may see “a return to more generalist prepping of young lawyers”.

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