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2021: The COVID repeat loop does not apply to the legal sector

 

While the UK holds its collective breath to see whether Christmas and New Year plans will be cancelled in a cruel twist of 2020 déjà vu fate due to the Omicron variant, the legal sector by contrast seems to have taken its booster jab and built up its immunity to such an extent in 2021 that it now appears the only way is up in 2022.  

 

Huge job vacancy numbers, fierce competition for top legal talent, rapidly increasing salaries, new creative remote working models, increased emphasis on staff well-being and a growing commitment to improving diversity, inclusion, equality, and environmental records have all been hallmarks of the legal market over 2021.

 

With experienced consultants specialising in law firm, in-house, paralegal, professional support, knowledge management, contract and interim legal recruitment across the South West, South East, Midlands, North, London and offshore legal markets, Chadwick Nott has been well positioned to watch the legal recruitment landscape shift from one of caution in 2020 to accelerated expansion in 2021.

 

 

REGIONAL LAW FIRM RESURGENCE

 

From Exeter to Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Oxford, Reading and Milton Keynes, there has been a recognition from law firms in 2021 that salaries and packages must be more competitive against not only local competitors but also higher-paying London firms that now have more access to regional talent due to more flexible remote working models. 

 

As a result, we have seen NQ rates at the top regional law firms increase significantly (in some cases by as much as 20%) to reach as high as £68,000 and we expect more regional firms to follow suit in 2022. Offshore firms based in Jersey and Guernsey have also matched this salary trend, moving to a new top-end NQ salary level of £70,000 with the added benefit of only 20% income tax.

 

Regional firms are also now offering much more remote flexibility for lawyers to allow someone who is based in Birmingham, for example, to be part of a Bristol practice group with only an occasional requirement to be in the office for key team and client meetings. These types of initiatives are being well-received by those with family and lifestyle commitments who, after two years now of working remotely, no longer consider the traditional daily 45-minute plus commute (with additional traffic time) as an acceptable or necessary inconvenience.

 

 

LONDON LAW FIRMS LIGHT UP THE SALARY TABLES

 

London has stolen the headlines in 2021 with aggressive salary increases heralding in a new era of £100,000 NQ salaries for Magic Circle firm solicitors increasing to an eye-watering £155,000 for NQs joining the highest paying US law firms in the City.

 

Aside from the obvious cash draw, London law firms have also been conscious not to ignore the wider demands of prospective employees who may consider regional firms to offer a better quality of work/life balance. The new post-COVID generation of lawyers are weighing up a firm’s flexible working policies; their training and career development systems under remote working conditions; the quality of work on offer; a firm’s record with gender equality, diversity, and inclusion; their environmental initiatives and how well-being and mental health will be protected. Law firms are already addressing these non-financial considerations, but we expect those efforts to increase over 2022 nationally.

 

 

THE BLURRING OF LAW FIRM MODEL LINES

 

The rise of profit-sharing firms has been a success story over the last two years with major players like Gunnercooke, Bexley Beaumont and Keystone making great strides over 2021. It will be interesting to see how traditional law firm models will compete with the flexibility and potential for significant financial reward from these alternative firm structures in 2022. As remote working becomes more commonplace and base salaries continue to rise within traditional law firm models, the significant differences between both options may start to become more blurred.

 

 

PSL & KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT A GROWING PART OF LAW FIRM STRATEGY

 

The market for non-fee earning legal roles has also enjoyed a bump in 2021, with senior strategic PSL and knowledge management hires across the major national and international law firms commanding impressive £120,000 plus salaries.

 

Law firms have recognised the increasing importance of creating a knowledge management platform that utilises the growing efficiencies derived from evolving legal technology and innovation systems, not only for their internal PSLs and fee-earners, but also for their clients. New COVID remote working patterns have also heightened the demand for stronger PSL systems as they are now relied on more heavily to compensate for the reduced amount of face-to-face learning time junior lawyers receive from their senior associates and partners.

 

 

PARALEGAL VOLUMES AT RECORD HIGHS

 

After a quiet 2020, paralegal vacancies particularly across the regional markets erupted in 2021, creating intense competition for paralegals with expertise in the busiest practice areas such as insurance, commercial property, and residential conveyancing. With the increase in demand over the year, there has been a coinciding increase in salaries being offered with some as much as 10% above current packages. As we reach the end of December, the number of national paralegal vacancies remain extremely high without showing any signs of reducing, setting the stage for 2022 to continue in the same fashion.

 

 

IN-HOUSE TEAMS BULK UP

 

With the growing number of regulatory, compliance, IT, commercial and employment-related issues for organisations to navigate since COVID, legal in-house teams have seen their workloads broaden, creating extra demand for more internal legal resource. Coupled with this, we have seen an increasing number of private equity-backed SMEs expanding their corporate activity in 2021 which has led to an increase in first-hire legal counsel positions, offering exciting progression opportunities and deal exposure for those with in-house aspirations.

 

As with law firms, corporate in-house opportunities are changing office attendance expectations to provide more remote working flexibility and financially, companies are offering increasingly attractive remuneration packages to compete with private practice pay rates.

 

 

INTERIM CONTRACT SOLUTIONS SERVICING SPIKES IN DEMAND

 

The contract and interim lawyer market remained a crucial part of the legal landscape and continued to grow in 2021, servicing short term spikes in demand across the country to cover holidays, sickness, and maternity leave staff shortages as well as major document review projects undertaken by law firms and legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies. Our regional and London interim teams received some of their highest numbers of job instructions in 2021, with many of these assignments being for shorter time periods, thanks to the growing efficiencies created by AI in the legal document review space.

 

Much like the permanent legal market, there has been a general shortage of contract lawyer resource for interim positions in 2021 but more specifically for contracting, these shortages have been compounded by the fact there have been fewer foreign qualified lawyers able to relocate to the UK during COVID and changes to the IR35 legislation in April 2021 also caused some lawyers to opt out of the contracting market. A new acceptance of remote working by many clients has been a welcome change though, and as a recruitment company with a nationwide presence, Chadwick Nott has been able to tap into a much broader lawyer pool to service our clients’ requirements.

 

We expect this acute period of demand for contractors to continue into 2022, thereby putting inevitable upward pressure on contracting pay rates to rebalance the market.

 

 

CONCLUSION: WHY HISTORY WILL NOT REPEAT IN 2022

 

The bounce back and resilience shown by the legal sector in 2021 in terms of recruitment activity and workloads indicates the only way is up in 2022, but the material difference providing us with unwavering confidence that the legal sector will not experience a shut down like it did in early 2020 is the fact that law firms and companies have rolled out effective remote working systems.

 

Law firms, traditionally known for their long office hours and presenteeism culture have generally been slow to embrace remote working. Over the last two years however, COVID working conditions have forced the change and most have now learned to continue their practices remotely, taking advantage of video communication technology. Firms are successfully onboarding NQs and new starters using hybrid working models and, equally importantly, lawyers starting new positions have become much more accepting of the fact they will not necessarily be in the office full time with their colleagues as they learn the ropes.

 

With these sensible changes to working practice now so well-established, regardless of whether Christmas is cancelled again due to COVID history repeating itself, the legal sector in 2022 seems destined to continue its upward trajectory undeterred.

 

 

For more information on your specific practice area and upcoming market trends, please get in touch with one of our consultants by visiting www.chadwicknott.co.uk 

 

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