2020 started in a very positive manner, with most clients being optimistic about the year ahead. The in-house market for lawyers on both a permanent and an interim basis had a fair number of opportunities available. The market was building in a positive manner with an increasing number of interviews taking place until late February 2020. By then, Italy was sadly recording a high number of COVID-19 cases and the UK was starting to register increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in a variety of locations, often picked up on skiing holidays and other overseas travel. Still, we continued our daily commutes for another 2 weeks until the defining announcement by our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on Monday 16th March. That was the last day that I saw all my colleagues in a normal working environment and the Waterloo–City line packed with commuters. Zoom, WhatsApp and Skype are the only methods of team contact left available to us now.
A final trip into an eerily quiet City and almost deserted office on Friday 20th March to collect my desk-top, is to-date my last trip to the office. 4 weeks on and there is no end in sight to home working and any resumption of ‘normality’ still appears some time away.
The end of March saw 85% of roles placed on hold and hiring freezes being the order of the day in most companies whilst numerous charities and industries began asking for help from the government. Winners and losers will always come out of such a crisis and unfortunately there is no bottomless pit of money. Even Richard Branson wants a bailout for his airline. On Radio 4, Paul Johnson stated that the deficit could well rise from £60 billion to £260 billion – a level not seen in peace time. It makes 2009 look very tame indeed. Tough choices lie ahead that will profoundly affect all of us in the years to come. Tax rises or cuts – or more likely a combination of the two – beckons in the 2020s. Austerity?
The lack of transactions resulted in a steep decline in the demand for lawyers. Many senior mandates at the final stages throughout the country have stalled during the COVID-19 crisis as CEOs reconsider cash-flow, profit margin and cost-saving strategies. For the live roles that have remained, most have needed the selected individual to hit the ground running on day one with computers couriered to home addresses, and as a result the classic first time move from law firm into in-house has also been more rare.
Until this crisis ends, the demand for in-house lawyers will be sporadic, but even in this environment there are still opportunities. Several lawyers have been kept very busy batting away ‘Force Majeure’ clauses and one candidate I am currently working with has four financial services sector interviews offering both permanent and 9-12 fixed-term contract options. Senior interim placements are also being extended with the deferred abolition of IR35 being very welcomed by senior interim lawyers. And while several clients have placed recruitment on hold during the lockdown, I still have several diary notes to discuss these potential new mandates coming live again in June 2020.
The next 3 weeks should hopefully see a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases, and with it the potential for some increased economic activity such as garden centres and building sites re-opening. Gradually, we can then hope to see other areas of the economy start to open, albeit, with strong restrictions. On a personal note, I want to see primary schools re-open as I have 3 daughters, who whilst enjoying home-schooling are missing their friends and group learning in a classroom. Zoom can only do so much!
Markets will always recover and the in-house market for lawyers is no different – it is just when and how long it will take. Economists are always cautious about predicting when uplifts will happen. If we see a gradual re-opening of the economy in June/July 2020, I can see significant hiring return in September. As soon as more transactions take place, the need to hire will quickly gather pace. More transactions mean more economic activity and hence increased lawyer demand on several fronts. Some hiring may resume in limited amounts in June and July too, so long as summer holidays are not too much of a distraction. Hopefully, we can all take a summer holiday in whatever restricted format is imposed on us…the politicians have never had so much control in that department!
Brian’s experience has principally been gained in London and the Home Counties; whilst mandates have additionally been executed for roles based in Luxembourg, Dubai, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland. Before working in recruitment, he worked as a graduate trainee at one of Britain’s largest private companies.
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