Home and away

“Over the last four months, the issue of brain drain has become less critical for a number of reasons,” says Johnson. “It does still exist, absolutely. However, the volume of Australian and New Zealand lawyers going to the UK has decreased significantly as a direct result of the downturn in the UK and global economy.
“What we used to see was standing briefs from the UK's top 20 firms, looking for any good Australian and New Zealand lawyers from the top six to eight firms. Over the last three or four months, those briefs have become much tighter and now relate only to absolute superstars in the three to seven-year range, with very particular skill sets.
“The skill sets that are in highest demand continue to be capital markets and general banking and finance, as well as projects and energy. Beyond that, the briefs have tightened up that much that you'd have to be absolutely outstanding – from a top three firm, with first-class honours and the right mix of experience on your CV.”
The events of 11 September are also expected to stem the flow of associates out of Australia. Although the Australian government is supporting the US effort in Afghanistan, the country is perceived as a much safer base in the current environment, and recruiters say that this is not only persuading expatriates to return home, but is acting as a deterrent to those who were considering relocating abroad.
Of course, money remains a big motivator, and when it comes to the cash on offer there is no doubt that the foreign firms win out. For some time now, US lawyers have been writing dream-ticket pay cheques that leave most competitors standing.
In recent years, following the advent of US practices in London, the UK profession has upped the ante, and lawyers there can now command salaries which, if not quite on a par with those of New Yorkers, are still extremely lucrative. In addition, lawyers are lured to London by hefty benefits packages, many of which include a 5 per cent contribution to pension plans, 25 days of paid annual leave, gym membership, comprehensive medical and life insurance, relocation costs and free short-term accommodation upon arrival.
London lawyers with three years under their belt can now expect salaries of between £60,000 and £70,000 (A$170,500 and A$199,000), while New York firms will pay between $180,000 (£123,000/A$350,000) and $250,000 (£171,000/A$486,000) for the same candidates. Put these figures alongside the A$47,000 (£16,500)-A$105,000 (£36,000) earning capacity of Australian lawyers with the same qualifications, and it is not difficult to see why so many of the country's young professionals decide to take up posts abroad.
However, Deacons chief executive partner Don Boyd says that money is not the only attraction of working in a foreign jurisdiction. The glittering lights of the big cities, and the deals that take place within them, also provide great incentives for young lawyers looking to cut their teeth in the global arena.
Although Australia has historically housed a vibrant blue chip market, it is fair to say that a few extra zeros can usually be found on the balance sheets of deals done out of New York and London. Boyd says that although firms such as his remain cautious about the flow of associates leaving the country, statistics show that most return within a few years, and the wide-ranging experience they have gained makes them extremely marketable.
“In many respects, I think going to work overseas for a period is quite a good thing,” says Boyd. “Provided they've worked for one of the major law firms, they're exposed to some areas of work that are very hard to get experience of in Australia, such as capital markets. They are also exposed to new products and new trends, and the magnitude of deals that they get involved with, even as a bit player, skills them up pretty quickly.”
By doing time abroad in a major firm early on in their careers, associates are often able to gain a competitive advantage over other colleagues when applying for the crème de la crème jobs at home.
Despite a tightening up of the employment market in Australia, with fewer moves and even fewer hires predicted for the coming months, recruiters say that candidates with experience in major financial centres are keenly sought-after by top tier firms in Australia.
“Australians and New Zealanders come over to London because the money and career opportunities are fantastic, as is the opportunity to travel and to be in the centre of the globe,” says Anita Simmonds, managing consultant at Warnecke Consulting. “However, there comes a time in everybody's life when you need to decide where your future's going to be, and a lot of people want to go back to Australia because that's where they're from. It's their home, it's the lifestyle they want and it's the lifestyle they want their children to have.
“People who come back from London with UK experience are very, very highly sought-after. The experience they gain there is immensely marketable back in Australia. If you've done a few years in London, you're likely to go back into an Australian firm at a higher level than when you left, and often you can step up the partnership ladder a little quicker.”
If current trends continue, it seems that the flow of the Australian legal profession's brain drain may, at last, be stemmed.