We must commit to young talent

It is no secret that good lawyers are hard to find. This is particularly true when you look at new and rapidly growing areas such as international projects, where there is a particular shortage of those with two to five years’ PQE.

The use of English legal frameworks around the world provides fantastic opportunities for UK law firms. To make the most of these, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) has recruited a number of partners internationally, but building teams to manage the volume of work these individuals generate is a major challenge.

With the lack of available talent in the UK market, BLP has looked to Australia and New Zealand for new recruits, as reported by The Lawyer (5 June).

This recruitment drive targeted young, talented commercial lawyers with two to five years’ PQE and attracted them with the chance to work on the type of large, complex transactions that the London legal market offers.

London’s status as an international financial centre provides a huge draw for ambitious overseas lawyers, and BLP’s recent recruitment drive resulted in the firm hiring 11 experienced lawyers.

But why are UK firms having to go to such lengths to find talented individuals?
The answer lies in the way the legal industry reacted during the downturn in 2000 and 2001. Many City firms cut down on their recruitment at newly qualified level and downsized their trainee programmes. Now, five years later, the effects of this are being felt. Salary hikes, additional recruitment costs and increased workloads are affecting every City law firm.

For growth areas such as international projects and those building new teams, the issues are particularly acute. However, the problem for the profession is, of course, of its own making.

Lessons to be learnt
Most obviously, cutting trainee places may seem like an easy option when the economy slows, but the effects will be felt years later when the market is more buoyant. The lead time for developing talent is often five or six years, so, as an industry, we need to take a long-term view.

The problems also highlight the need to invest more heavily in developing our people. BLP’s LPC+ course and other grass-roots investments are just a few of the initiatives being used to correct these problems.

The most able individuals are unlikely to be fooled by those who make promises of glittering careers during good times and then immediately cut back on training in a downturn. They want structured personal development at every stage of their careers, opportunities to develop wider business skills and alternative career paths if the current options are not attractive to them.

In short, they expect the firms they work for to take an interest in their futures, not just the billings they can generate.

So if we are to meet the aspirations of the most talented people, we are going to have to demonstrate a more consistent commitment to their futures, regardless of the short-term state of the economy.

This situation also highlights the strong commercial, as well as moral, argument for diversity. Looking to the other side of the world may seem like an unfamiliar example of diversity, but it is all about widening the pool of talent from which you recruit; and providing the open, friendly environment that enables new recruits from whatever background to thrive once they are here is critical to the process.

So as we look more widely for talent, we should also take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to avoid these issues recurring in the future.