In-House Legal Recruitment Trends – Summer 2021

6 Aug, 2021

In-House Legal Recruitment Trends – Summer 2021

Blog by Adam Zdravkovic

I grabbed a rare quiet moment in summer 2021 to try to make sense of what is happening in the in-house legal recruitment market in the North of England. It has been a particularly busy time over the last 6 months, and I’m pleased to report that demand for in-house lawyers remains strong.

My observations:

  1. Solicitors feel able to take a risk and move again. There was a sticky point earlier in the pandemic when candidates were rightly concerned about job security and felt generally uncertain about moving on, particularly when taking the risk of moving from private practice for the first time. This has changed – more candidates are reporting that they are interested in hearing about opportunities to change employer, and indeed hiring levels are up across a range of levels from Legal Counsel to Head of Legal. We are of course not out of the other side of the pandemic yet, and may not be for a long time, but this is no longer having the effect of holding back career moves.
  • Sole Counsel roles are on the rise at companies taking on their first in-house lawyers. A variety of organisations, particular in the tech and property sectors, are seeing the benefits of having internal help dedicated to their business rather than an overall reliance on a handful of external law firms. It can be much more cost-effective but more perhaps importantly allow the decision makers to access great quality legal advice “on tap”. These roles can be really interesting to work on, and often involve some really interesting fast moving/growing businesses with innovative ideas.
  • Flexible working is everywhere. This is one great thing that has come out of this awful time, perhaps accelerating firms towards more flexible working models 10 years early. It’s been amazing to see how organisations have adapted policies formally or informally and how employees have embraced working in this way. For employers searching for legal counsel, this really opens things up – suddenly a solicitor who lives miles away from a physical office location can be properly considered for a hybrid-type legal job between home and office, or even completely remotely in some cases. Case in point, I’m now based in Scotland and work mainly from home, with visits to Manchester and the North of England as required.
  • Law firms and in-house teams need to invest and make more junior commercial lawyers. It’s always a shame at uncertain points in the economy to see the big law firms (with huge cash reserves) lose their courage and stop investing as much into dishing out training contracts. We’re still feeling the impact of law firms not investing as much into NQs after 2010, and some have clawed this back yet again. This then creates a knock-on effect where there are not enough good quality junior commercial lawyers available for the in-house legal jobs that suddenly flooded the market at the start of 2021. There was a clog in the system in 2020 due to roles being put on hold, or budgets being clawed back, or jobs being cancelled entirely – often leaving the incumbent counsel to do two jobs rather than one – and now there are plenty to go round. Forward thinking GCs and Head of Legal in mid-sized teams are seeing the light and creating training contracts that they can keep in-house, which has loads of benefits for employee and team longevity of course.
  • In-house legal teams within international law firms are growing. For clarity, I mean actual in-house lawyers advising the law firms as they would in a role in commerce and industry – and these teams can incorporate commercial legal counsel, data protection specialists, compliance, and regulatory solicitors. These roles are increasingly popular and the teams at some large law firms can be 10-strong in some cases.
  • Recruitment itself is strangely smooth and slick.  It still feels weird to offer a candidate a role at an organisation where they have never actually met their manager or team mates in person, or seen the HQ/office. Lots of candidates are able to move past this, but some can’t – and some more flexibility with interview processes has been welcomed recently – where candidates can have carefully managed in-person interviews and more informal meetings. On the whole though, it has been impressive to see how organisations have embraced virtual interviews and this can increase the speed to hire massively – in one notable case recently moving through a 3 stage interview process in about 1.5 weeks (unheard of pre-pandemic!)

Predicting ahead, from the volume of in-house legal roles that we have worked on over the first part of 2021, and the number of interesting and varied opportunities in the market right now, it is safe to say that there will remain many opportunities for in-house lawyers and those looking to take their first step in-house this year. There are bound to be some choppy times ahead with the economy and fall out from Brexit, however the in-house legal market in Manchester and the North is resilient and solicitors will have some really strong and exciting opportunities presented to them.

I think there is a bit of an issue lurking now and more around the corner about in-house salaries and packages for a few reasons. With London and South of England based companies feeling able to hunt for candidates in this region for the first time for completely remote workers (although lots of candidates are put off by this at-distance employer relationship) they can sometimes pay far more than competing employers in the North. Law firms are also feeling the pressure to hold on to good people, and attract others to them, and are paying more (sometimes way above sensible market rates) – this could make it harder for in-house companies to attract strong private practice candidates towards them, or indeed create more of a salary discrepancy than already exists between the dark and the light side. In-house teams may no longer be able to enjoy the benefits of being able to attract solicitors who want greater flexibility with work/home balance – as law firms have caught up in this respect. On a positive note though, in-house solicitor salaries and benefits appear to be increasing steadily and this has got to be a good thing.

If you have any comments or would like to chat any element of this through, please contact me! Thank you for reading.

Adam Zdravkovic, Associate Director – In-House at Think Legal