“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” - so said Samuel Johnson to his friend and biographer James Boswell in 1777. The full quote is actually "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Fast forward nearly 250 years and with London property prices experiencing their biggest fall in a decade and rural property rising by 14.2% a year, has London started to lose its lustre? Has the traditional workplace had its day and what does it mean for the legal profession?
Clearly, the enforced homeworking brought about by Covid and successive lockdowns has made a lot of us think about the rhythms of our working week and law firms are inevitably responding to a workforce that now expects to move forward with a blended mix of home and office work. But what that will look like only time will tell.
On the one hand, we have Deloitte saying they will embrace ultra-flexible working with staff able to decide “when, where and how they work”, while only last week Morgan Stanley CEO, James Gorman, said “make no mistake about it. We do our work inside Morgan Stanley offices, and that’s where we teach, that’s where our interns learn, that’s how we develop people.”
Within the legal market, it is clear that law firms have acknowledged that home-working has its benefits and are embracing it…to a point. Hogan Lovells is one of the latest firms to confirm that they are “fully supportive of hybrid working”, but expect their staff to return to the office for a minimum of 60 per cent of the working week, while Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner have said they expect staff in the office for “the majority of the time”.
Elsewhere we’ve seen Dentons turn its Watford and Aberdeen offices into virtual offices while also creating “Arc”, a virtual real estate team, while other multi-office firms are naturally looking at ways to service work from lower cost centres.
Add to that the accelerated growth of the challenger “fee-sharing model” - law firms who are attracting home working partners in increasing numbers lured by the opportunity to earn more while also controlling their work/life balance - and you can understand why people are thinking that professional fulfilment can readily be achieved without the daily commute into London.
Certainly these trends have not been lost on my Chadwick Nott colleagues - Sarah Wood, who has been extolling the virtues of Stroud (recently named the Sunday Times best place to live); Jon Needham, who recently wrote about why now is a great time to move to the Midlands; and Chris Jenkinson, who has rightly been banging the “fee-sharing model” drum. But for me, London still remains the place to cut your teeth for any lawyer with aspirations to reach the top of their profession, and I still think the best place to learn is in an office environment.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for home-working. I’ve worked remotely for 4 years, having relocated to Edinburgh from London in the summer of 2017, so I totally understand the appeal and appreciate the difference it has made to our family life. But I’ve been in recruitment for almost 25 years and can probably be classed as an “old hand”.
Over the last few weeks I’ve also spoken to a number of partners who have said their productivity has gone through the roof while working from home so I know it works, but I do think James O’Gorman has a point; the office is the best place to learn and this seems to be a view shared by many junior and mid-level lawyers I’ve spoken to. Some may have what The Guardian has referred to as FORTO – or the ‘Fear of Returning to the Office’, but many have felt isolated since the first lockdown and are keen to get back in.
With the recruitment market bouncing back with gusto and salary increases making headlines almost on a daily basis, now is a great time to be thinking about a move to London.
Boris Johnson has suggested that “London is - after Athens and Rome - the third most influential city in history” and it’s hard to disagree. It benefits from a major time-zone advantage, is one of the most important legal and financial centres in the world, and is the place to be for any ambitious lawyer wanting to learn from the best and have access to the best deals and disputes around.
The Global Talent Survey, compiled by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Totaljobs in the UK, and The Network, crowned London the most desirable city in the world to work in for the eighth year in a row.
It may be expensive - a recent Horizon Daily Newsletter in The Lawyer even pointed out that “in 2005, Clifford Chance paid its NQs £50,000 [while] the average house in London was worth £231,263 [meaning] the average house was 4.6 times the Clifford Chance NQ salary. By February 2021, the average house price had risen 210 per cent to £496,269 while the pay for CC juniors doubled to £100,000. This means current magic circle NQs would have to pay 4.9 times their salary for an average property”. But when Johnson (Samuel not Boris) said “there is in London all that life can afford”, he wasn’t talking about property prices, he was talking about the history, the architecture, the culture, the multi-culture, the universities, the arts, the restaurants, the bars, the pubs, the clubs, the sport, the parks and the creative energy.
Samuel Johnson suggested that “you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London”. I’d disagree but I would encourage any bright and ambitious lawyers to come to London, work hard, live a little, learn a lot and then choose the direction you want to take your career.
Private practice aside, there’s the rapidly expanding in-house market, the emergence of heavyweight Alternative Legal Service Providers or ‘ALSPs’ such as The Big Four accountancy practices or contract and staffing services like Axiom and LOD, as well as a plethora of high quality legal and multi-disciplinary partnership (MDP) boutiques.
You could even move to Stroud or the Midlands. I’ve heard Birmingham even has a Harvey Nicks J
Iain Millard is a private practice legal recruiter with nearly 20 years’ experience in the Chadwick Nott London team.
Phone: 0203 096 4547