2019: The year the firms are listening

By Felicity McManus


 

If I had to wrap up the market in a few sentences this year, I would say that the talent are far more discerning in their approach to roles and the firms are just starting to begin to respond. The top 20% of commercial legal talent are generally of the opinion that the firms have much further to go to modernize and positively affect the numbers currently turning away from private practice. However, I have to say reflecting on the year, I have had an unprecedented number of client meetings around changing the work environment and negotiating flexibility at the outset of a lawyer joining a firm. No longer is flexibility only tied to parental status. This has been the most notable development in the industry this year but it is yet to be utilised to its full benefit for candidates. 

As a general pattern, this shift seems to be in many cases driven from the top, more prevalent with firms that have Australia boards or independent directorships. 2018 also saw the attraction and appointment of high level human resource executives from within the legal sector and without; new appointments at a country wide level set to focus on new ways to structure a person’s individual engagement with a firm. Now this is a new thing for us as well. 

Offering flexibility and setting post-commencement criteria like built in study leave, year two changes to working hours or job share arrangements had been more advisory in years gone by. We would inform candidates using firm cultural information and policies however always with the caveat that you needed to build trust in your first year and be a good lawyer by over performing on your budget to then get what you need in year two. Not anymore.

The wider shift in societal atmosphere has bought us genuine change it seems, a launch pad for lawyers to start to look at the way they structure their lives. We are able to negotiate from the time of introduction of the candidate. Sure it is not possible in every case but the terms of engagement have changed. Firms want to hear what the individual candidate is seeking in terms of structuring their work. 

There has been commentary around the potential demise of the billable hour but most lawyers know fixed fee arrangements with major clients won’t reduce their working hours. However that same top 20% of talent I mentioned earlier cannot deny that they get the most stimulation and satisfaction from executing complex matters within great offices with likeminded achieving lawyers than they do in compliance and bureaucracy heavy in-house roles. There must be a better way; the hours and way a lawyer must engage with their job as the overbearing feature of their lives is no longer the only way forward.

My advice over the Christmas break is think about what you truly want out of your next five years. If you are focused on a securing a key promotion then do the hours, just know that internal promotion continues to stagnate in heavy set teams and you may need to consider an open market conversion to bring it forward. But otherwise if you are at point in your career when you are considering is this all there is? How do I get more time for other pursuits, not down time; living time! This question no longer has to be answered through exiting the law. Negotiate; the market is ready for you.