Deciding which practice area you want to qualify into is usually determined by a number of different factors. Market conditions are often fairly low down on the list of priorities for most trainees, yet the practice area you do end up working in on qualification is often determined by this very factor. This applies whether you are hoping to remain with your training firm, or if you are considering the external NQ market.
This blog outlines what we are seeing so far in 2019 in the NQ market and how this might affect you if you are either yet to secure an NQ role or are hoping to look at external roles (even if you have an internal offer).
Commercial transactional areas such as corporate, banking, commercial, construction and projects seem to be universally busy nationwide, although our London team have reported being somewhat quieter this year for commercial, finance and banking roles. There are however a number of offshore banking and finance options. We expect recruitment in these commercial areas to remain strong into the latter half of 2019. So far, the market in these areas seems to be very vacancy driven and led by firms having a specific gap in their teams. Having said this, we are still seeing some appetite to recruit speculatively in these areas at NQ level.
Real estate in noticeably quieter than it was in 2018 particularly in London, but there are still a good number of options in the regions.
There are some specialist areas which are busy but purely because the talent pool in these areas is so small. For these practice areas firms will often look to consider you on your merits even if there is no signed off vacancy in the team. This includes areas such as corporate tax, pensions, employee incentives, energy and perhaps to a lesser extent, areas like clinical negligence, Court of Protection and contentious probate.
There are some practice areas where we have seen clear regional variations. Family, employment and private client are generally quieter across the board, but we have seen pockets of activity in these areas at a junior level—particularly in the South East and South West regions—and an increase in the number of NQ roles available compared to 2018.
Litigation is always a popular area for NQs, but unfortunately we have seen very few general commercial litigation and civil litigation roles so far this year. However, there has been a steady demand in most niche areas of litigation, especially in areas such as property litigation and professional indemnity / insurance litigation. Professional indemnity remains very busy in the South West in particular.
The obvious exception to this is claimant personal injury which is quiet across the board for all of our teams and has been now for a number of years. We only get a few roles in this practice area (NQ or more senior these days) and this is worth bearing in mind when considering your long-term career options.
Predictably London leads the way with NQ salaries with US firms now paying their NQs up to £143,000. We have recently seen magic circle firm Freshfields raise their NQ salaries to £100,000 and it remains to be seen whether the others will follow suit. Choosing a West-End / top national firm in London often with an improved work-life balance means an NQ salary generally of between £65,000 and £85,000.
Of all the UK regions, the South West and the South East just outside London have some of the highest NQ salaries. Bristol is especially well known with a number of top firms paying NQs up to £50,000. There are a handful of exceptions (mainly niche specialist law firms) that pay even higher. As a guideline low to mid £40,000’s is the norm in the major cities in the Midlands and the North.
We are often seeing a premium paid for NQs in the top commercial areas and also for the very specialist teams.
Whilst it still important to choose a practice area that you enjoy, it is also worth keeping yourself up to date with the external NQ market and the demand for certain roles. The market is certainly less predictable this year than it was in 2018 and is no doubt being influenced by a number of external economic factors such as, you guessed it, the never ending Brexit debate. So far this has meant that the market has been largely vacancy driven.
For most of our regional teams, we are seeing a later NQ season this year compared to previous years with fewer external September 2019 NQ roles being released during the early part of 2019. We expect to see the bulk of our September NQ roles released from the end of May onward, once internal processes have been completed and the bank holidays are out of the way. We generally see new roles released right up to September / October and beyond.
However, the situation in the North appears to be the polar opposite to this where my colleagues are seeing a very early NQ season so far this year. Many firms are taking the view that they can fill some of their mid-level roles with strong external NQs rather than waiting for the perfect mid-level candidate, and some firms are even keen for September / October NQs to start earlier by transferring training contracts.
Retention rates are at the forefront of most firms’ minds and we have seen many of the larger firms putting extra effort into retaining their own trainee intakes. Some firms have even taken a chance and offered NQs a role in their chosen practice area despite there not being a business need to recruit. But more often than not, firms are offering trainees roles in other departments or in other offices (in the UK and offshore) in an effort to improve their retention rates. Whilst it is often tempting to go for the easy option and stay with the firm you trained with, it is still important to assess whether it is right for you to stay. NQ qualification is a perfect time to assess whether the firm, culture, team, clients, and work on offer are a good fit for you and your future longer term career plans.
Finally a note to those of you who have either qualified in the last year or two or have already accepted an internal NQ offer. If you feel your role is not right for you, your circumstances have changed or even if you think you’ve picked the wrong team, it could be worth considering external NQ roles. Please don’t feel it’s either too late to do anything about it or that you need to stay in your current role for a certain period of time before considering a move. This is time of year where the maximum number of opportunities are available and you should make the most of it. Life is too short to waste time in a role that you are not enjoying.
Cathryn is a very experienced legal recruiter and has been advising NQs alongside more senior lawyers for more than 12 years. She works on our South West & South Wales team out of our Bristol office.
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