Come-back kids

Australia seems, so far, to have escaped the worst of the current economic woes. This has prompted many Aussie lawyers based in the UK to consider a move back home.

Come-back kids With the markets in ­turmoil, ;banks ­collapsing around our ears and The Lawyer Legal Job Watch standing at nearly 800 redundancies, it could be time to pack up and go home.

Nowhere is the perception that the UK market is collapsing more prevalent than Down Under, where Australian firms are hoping that flights back to the motherland will be full of returning Aussies.

The negative picture that London is in trouble is juxtaposed against a backdrop of an Australian market that, property aside, has yet to suffer as badly as its UK counterpart. And Australian firms are more than willing to hold the safety net for lawyers wishing to return to their roots.

“There could be some disgruntled English lawyers going over to Australia and some returning Aussies given that pay is going to slow and bonuses are going to be smaller,” says Nigel Clark, a partner at Minter Ellison. “I’d be surprised if there wasn’t more traffic and we could steal some of our lawyers back.”

Clarke says his firm is still recruiting in its corporate groups, with Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, among others, still looking for lawyers.

“Firms aren’t going to dissuade lawyers in the transactional space from leaving. It’s a good time for us to be recruiting in this market,” he says. “To some extent we can pick and choose good people to bring back
to ­Australia.”

However, Clarke is expecting some new competition from mid-market Australian boutique firms looking to scoop Aussie lawyers with London experience.

Hal Bolitho, a partner at Mallesons Stephen Jaques – the only other Australian firm apart from Minter Ellison with a London office – says the number of Australian lawyers moving to London has slowed down over the past six months.

Mallesons runs a retention scheme with its Australian lawyers that allows them to leave for two years to work in the UK. Around 25 ‘leave of absence’ lawyers come back to Australia each year, but Bolitho is predicting that figure to increase due to ­current London market conditions.

“Traditionally we’d receive interest from Australian lawyers looking to go back and British lawyers wanting to move for the lifestyle change, but more and more we’re hearing from people who think they may get similar career stability or better in the ­Australian market.”

Bolitho says the strength of the Australian dollar could help smooth the transition, with returnees currently looking at AUS$2.5 to the pound.

“The money’s good and that’s why people come over, but in the long term they’re interested in where they can have a long career,” says Bolitho.

According to recruiters that specialise in Anglo-Australian moves, Australian firms smell potential in the current situation and are baiting unsettled lawyers, hoping to lure them back.

“We’ve been running a number of ­campaigns for Aussie law firms over the past year,” says a specialist recruiter at a top recruitment agency. “It’s interesting that the objectives for these campaigns has ­shifted in the past six months. What they’re ­effectively doing is a branding exercise to appeal to Australian returnees.”

Apart from fielding calls from desperate property lawyers looking for work back home, recruiters have received an increase in the number of calls from ­Australian lawyers considering leaving the UK.

If they do choose to go back, there is work available in the form of projects, project finance, energy and construction. Much like in the UK market, ongoing construction work that may yet ride out the economic storm is providing food and drink for many construction lawyers.

Another reason why Australian firms are keen to repatriate their lost talent is to plug a gap in the number of mid-tier associates. For years Australian firms have suffered from a lack of associates with between two and five years’ experience due to the large number of lawyers leaving the country straight from university to work in the UK. The hope is that lawyers of this experience bracket can be enticed back.

For those looking to make the long flight back home, lawyers with London ­experience are attractive to Aussie firms. Said firms are also not looking for returnees to bring client books over, with most firms already having established clients.

The nature of the Australian market means generalists are favoured over ­specialists, so opening up to new practice areas may be necessary. And there will ­probably be a gap in salary expectations. Salaries have been rising, but bonuses are less common compared with the UK market outside senior positions.

As for Aussie lawyers coming to London, Clarke says he has been approached by ­Australians fishing for referrals to come over, but the response from UK firms has been the oft-heard phrase: “We’re always interested in exceptional candidates, but at this stage we’re not recruiting.”