The internet is now the home of business. Even self-professed technophobe Tony Blair agrees. And, as the legal profession continues to consolidate globally, law firms are also looking at its potential.
Nearly all the law firms in the top 100 now have websites. These function mainly as marketing vehicles but firms are increasingly using their virtual shop windows in order to attract new talent.
A number of firms, such as Clifford Chance, Freshfields and Simmons & Simmons, already use their sites for recruitment purposes – posting job adverts, accepting e-mailed application forms or making background information on the firm available.
Richard Spencer, head of marketing at Michael Page Recruitment, believes the internet and globalisation are parallel developments.
He says: “The internet is helping globalisation rather than the other way around.”
The power of virtual recruitment is backed up by a survey carried out by Fletcher Research for Michael Page.
It shows that the internet is already proving of value to people looking for jobs. More than 61 per cent of respondents, aged between 22 and 34, say they would consider looking for jobs on the internet, with nearly 25 per cent saying they have already used the medium for this purpose.
More tellingly, 87 per cent believe the internet will become an even more important source of jobs.
It is mainly graduates who are leading this trend.
Sarah Price, graduate recruitment manager at Clifford Chance, says the age group highlighted in the survey is IT literate, making virtual recruitment most suitable for trainees.
Kevin Mooney, graduate recruitment partner at Simmons & Simmons, says the internet is particularly relevant to students, trying to gain information about the firm in preparation for interviews.
He explains: “Clearly, when they come for an interview you expect them to know something about the firm.”
A spokeswoman for Freshfields says: “The internet is a great opportunity to get key messages across to candidates, particularly new entrants to the profession.”
The other group using virtual recruitment more and more are lawyers looking for work outside their own country. The Freshfields spokeswoman says : “It is especially helpful when you advertise for recruits in Australia and New Zealand because it is difficult for them to get information because of time differences.”
Rebecca Ellis, recruitment manager at Hammond Suddards, says 5 per cent of CVs submitted to her arrive via the internet. She says: “The vast majority tends to come from foreign nationals looking to work in London, as well as the young lawyers, because they are more IT literate.
“It is the developing niche of the recruitment market.”
Freshfields is taking the internet a step further and planning to attract senior lawyers, not just IT-literate trainees, through its site.
The firm's spokeswoman explains: “We are just beginning to use it for more qualified lawyers and have just started on the employment, pensions and benefit department.”
Spencer also believes that senior lawyers, including partners, could soon be using the internet as their main source of job opportunities.
He says: “I would certainly see a time when this would be happening and I would think it would start within the next 12 months at the outside.”
George Mackintosh is managing director of Geoconference, a video conferencing company that offers consultancy services to firms wishing to increase their use of virtual technologies, including the internet.
He believes virtual recruitment will expand by necessity.
He says: “If the CEO of a client is using it, and the investment banker is, and the firm of accountants is, then the legal firm is going to have to have it.
“It is this financial services merry-go-round that is going to make the difference.”
Of course it may not be only the employers who make the best of the unlimited publishing space on the internet. With websites increasingly easy to produce, there is nothing to stop lawyers creating their own online CV, a practice common for professionals in other areas.
Freshfields is at pains to point out that its increasing concentration on the web is part of an integrated package and Clifford Chance's Price also doubts it will ever be the sole source of recruitment.
These developments pose a threat to the established recruitment agencies, although they remain bullish.
Spencer believes there is some work that recruitment agencies carry out that the web will not be able to replace. This includes head-hunting, which requires a certain degree of highly confidential negotiations, and placing candidates in niche jobs.
“The reasons that the law firms would use a recruitment agency are inconsistent with any of the developments in new media,” he says.
And Mooney is quick to point out there are parts of the recruitment process that cannot be replaced by the internet.
He says: “I can see that the initial process can be done through the internet but an essential part of the process of recruitment is face-to-face interviews. I do not think the internet will ever replace that.”
Spencer agrees that despite the cautious approach, in an increasingly global business, virtual recruitment is here to stay.
“The legal profession was very slow to adopt the internet in general terms but we are now seeing an industry that is changing dramatically,” he says.
Yvonne Smyth, senior consultant at ZMB is confident the majority of all applications, and not just training contracts, will be done via the web within the next five years.
According to Smyth, recruitment consultancies must adapt or die: “The CV crunchers are the ones that are probably going to die, especially if the only service you are giving a law firm is chucking CVs in the hope that one or two will stick.
“Recruitment agencies will need to become smarter, more efficient and more tailored in the service they are providing. They will need to think about providing other services such as running assessment centres, psychometric testing and contracting in to law firms.”