Return to splendour

Australasian firms have got their work cut out to retain their talent, but if all else fails they’ll rely on the boomerang effect. By Robert Hanley

For young Australasian lawyers, their first trip working overseas is often seen as a basic plank of career development. From Hobart to Darwin, but especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, they flock to the sessions UK law firms hold in Australia, weighing up options and, for the lucky ones, considering multiple offers.

Many of those not already recruited beforehand simply resign, buy a ticket and fly out, knowing their few years’ experience in a decent firm in Australia or New Zealand will get them some sort of work at a good UK law firm.

In recent years, Australasian law firms have become used to having their young lawyers poached. Australia’s and New Zealand’s lawyers are well regarded by foreign employers for their strong work ethic, high tolerance for hard work and their solid education and training.

Advertisements by the big UK firms fill the pages of Australian legal magazines and the legal sections of the major Australian metropolitan newspapers. Their recruiting teams, with glossy brochures depicting life in London and offers of high salaries, and even higher bonuses, are prominent at major conferences and at events such as the numerous annual careers fairs.

The ranks of two to five-year PQE lawyers are being depleted. While most foreign firms prefer lawyers from top-tier Australian firms because they are more likely to have a specialised area of practice and are likely to be well trained, they are happy to draw them from firms across the country.

Most Australian firms will admit, and recruiters confirm, that the international brain drain is being felt most strongly in the corporate, banking and finance and construction markets.

The brain drain

Australia has never been a nation to sit back and simply accept the inevitable. While firms may be hurting over the loss of associate-level lawyers, they have taken up the challenge, not only by implementing programmes to make sure that the country’s talent remains at home, but also by launching recruitment drives of their own overseas aimed at luring Australian and New Zealand expatriates home.

Countless surveys tell us that Australia’s and New Zealand’s ‘Generation Y’ lawyers (those being targeted by the UK firms) want a better work-life balance, structured career development, jobs held open while they work overseas, clear career progression, more feedback and less drudge work. And they have a strong social conscience that needs to be satisfied.

In an attempt to keep our Generation Y lawyers happy and satisfied at home, most top-tier firms have implemented strong professional development programmes, including coaching and mentoring initiatives. Minter Ellison, for example, offers intensive in-house development programmes run in conjunction with key universities that cover not only technical legal skills, but also essential business skills.

Firms have become more serious about people development as they strive to keep their young lawyers engaged and loyal.

Generation Y lawyers want a structured career development and progression rather than having to wait around for years to find out the skills they need to make partner. Major Australian firms actively help them to develop their capabilities to reach full potential and advance their careers. Competency guides for all levels of staff, for example, explain exactly what skills are required as a graduate, a junior lawyer, a senior lawyer, a senior associate and a partner.

Australian firms with international offices are also offering young lawyers who want overseas experience secondments in their own offshore offices. Top-tier firms such as Allens Arthur Robinson, Mallesons Stephen Jaques and Minters, for example, have strong offices in Asia, while Mallesons and Minters are also in London.

To give young lawyers a ‘full’ career experience, many firms are providing them with the opportunity to work outside the law firm environment, sending their brightest and best on secondments for specific projects or for extended periods.

Those secondments can be across the street or across the country. The major firms routinely second young lawyers to offices around the country or to interstate clients for six or 12-month periods. And when a specific project needs a very large team, those firms draw appropriate lawyers from across the firm and put them where they are needed.

Opportunities to get involved in pro bono and not-for-profit programmes and corporate responsibility initiatives are also actively being used to keep young lawyers engaged.

The boomerang effect

Try as we might, though, it is hard for Australasian firms to match what London has to offer: high salaries with big bonuses, involvement in a steady stream of large cross-border transactions and only an hour’s flight to Continental Europe.

At the end of the day the market rules. Many lawyers (although not all) want to travel overseas for the opportunities, to be with friends and because it is what generations of Australians have done.

Perhaps accepting the inevitable, Australian firms are working hard to better organise staff departures in an effort to encourage lawyers to ‘boomerang’ back to the firm in due course.

Most firms are prepared to offer extended leaves of absence and even leave without pay, allowing young lawyers their taste of adventure secure in the knowledge that they have a job to come back to after their 12-24 months abroad.

Some Australian firms have set up reciprocal recruiting arrangements with UK firms that see partner firms advertising each others’ job vacancies internally and offering their lawyers videoconferencing facilities for London job interviews, all with the aim of eventually pulling their lawyers back into the fold.

Fighting back

The traffic is not all one way. Taking a leaf out of our competitors’ books, a number of Australian law firms are now conducting their own recruitment drives in London. Senior partners and HR managers from Australia are regularly on the ground in the UK to remind young – and not so young – expatriates how much more sensible the pace of life and work is in Australiasia, and how much better the weather is.

Savvy firms also know the importance of keeping in touch with alumni. They run regular functions for alumni working in London, keep lists of who goes where and keep in touch by sending newsletters from home. Subtly, they are reminding their ex-lawyers of what their friends and colleagues are doing and of the balanced and collegiate work atmosphere they have left behind.

After a few years in London, it is really not too hard to convince most young Aussie lawyers to come home, or even to get UK lawyers to give practising in Australia a go. For UK-based lawyers, the major attraction of working in Australia is the combination of good-quality work and a more balanced lifestyle. Transaction timetables are not as unrealistic in Australia as they can be in the UK and Australia offers a healthier and more sustainable way to work.

As for the young Aussies and Kiwis abroad, after a while many simply feel the pull of family and friends. They have had their time away, gained some good practical experience, often on global transactions, and know the opportunities waiting for them in Australia. Australian firms welcome back the best and brightest with open arms and reap the benefits of the experience they bring back with them. n
Robert Hanley is managing partner of Minter Ellison in London

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