The east is back

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“Last month, the beady-eyed folk who notice the comings and goings in the legal market observed something unusual on the website of King & Wood Mallesons. A job advertisement. For a senior associate. In M&A, no less.

“Such a sight would have been nothing unusual during pre-GFC times, but we’re reliably informed that in the current environment it is akin to the first blossom after a cold winter – a tentative return to the recruitment market from a top tier firm after a conspicuous period on the sidelines. Other firms are also reported to be hiring in the corporate/M&A space. Still, no one’s getting too excited just yet.

“M&A and corporate were areas quite badly cut during the GFC, so with the market improving, that’s why the recruitment market is quite busy in that space,” explained Steve Cole, managing director of Signature Consulting.

The contrast between the current market and pre-2009 is obvious.

“There’s a big difference to being out in the market and happy to take on one or two people, whereas in the past firms would add five or six people to the team in a short space of time. It is different – now it’s a lot more considered and planned,” comments Mahlab managing director Lisa Gazis.

Notwithstanding those cautionary comments, recruiters are reporting a general improvement in the employment market for lawyers.

“There’s more confidence in the market; I think, from a revenue point of view, there’s definitely been an improvement, slowly but surely – not a huge ramp up but we’ve been pleased with how the last six to nine months have been,” said Cole.

Gazis agrees. “It’s definitely improving, there are more jobs, both permanent and contract, private practice and in-house, however we are coming off a low base. I hate the word caution but there is a bit of caution out there. We are seeing a few opportunities; not necessarily massive salaries are being offered but people are able to move and are getting conservative increases to make those moves.”

Burgess Paluch director Doron Paluch is another to offer a cautious diagnosis of “slow but sure” improvement. However, he offers a new twist: he believes that Sydney has now overtaken Perth as the nation’s most active market.

“In Sydney we are seeing the top and second tier firms hiring in areas that haven’t been busy for years,” he said. “This is good news as it seems to confirm a long awaited recovery in the market. When law firms are busy as they are in Sydney in areas like corporate, project and structured finance and construction, this should be a sign of an economy getting back on track.”

As Sydney slowly rises off a low base, Perth is moving in the opposite direction, albeit off a higher base.

“I would describe Perth as a bit all over the place,” said Paluch. “There are some pockets of activity; some firms seem to be flying in some areas but other similar firms might be quiet in those same areas. Perth … is a jurisdiction which is trying to work itself out post mining boom. But we should keep in mind that Perth has been coming down from a great height. A few years ago Perth was on an extraordinary high.”
Gazis agrees that Perth has moved on from the boom days when WA lawyers were eyeing the prospect of higher salaries than their Sydney counterparts.

“A more subdued mining industry in Perth has meant lesser jobs and a slower job market,” she said. “The greater business optimism since the federal election in October 2013 and steady improved market activity on the eastern seaboard, particularly in the Sydney market, has meant that the Sydney market – as well as Melbourne – has experienced an increase in job opportunities for lawyers in both private practice and in house.”

However, this is not a case of one boom replacing another. In fact, it would be overly generous to describe the Sydney and Melbourne markets as any kind of boom at all.

“It is still not a buoyant or booming market,” concedes Gazis. “Certainly, many staffing freezes have lifted, there are fewer redundancies and more roles are being offered on a contract and permanent basis. These are all very positive signs for lawyers working in these centres and there does not appear to be any reason that these markets will not continue to grow as the economy further strengthens.”

Paluch is lukewarm on Melbourne and Brisbane. “Melbourne and Brisbane are okay,” he said. “The markets are not great but there is positive movement. To be frank my assessment is that the general feeling in Melbourne and Brisbane is that things are continuing to slowly improve – that sentiment has maintained throughout most of this year so we are seeing a slow but sure improvement across the board. There are inconsistencies between firms – I don’t think there’s a great deal of consistency in what the law firms are looking for in those two cities. Sydney is carrying the torch at the moment.”

And while boutique firms are yet to make their impact felt in the recruitment stakes, Cole predicts that these firms will be the market’s next generation of movers and shakers.

“I think boutiques will play a huge part in the legal market – there are a lot of them just starting up but they will have a positive effect. We’re keen to work with them,” he said.

A trend to watch into the future.
 
This article was written by Renu Prasad and appeared in Australasian Lawyer’s latest magazine edition 1.3. Subscribe for more articles and detailed legal features.

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