Associates Abandon Ship: London law firms struggle to fill vacancies

January 28, 2022

2 min read

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What's going on here?

London law firms are currently facing a shortage of talent for associate-level positions as demand for legal services and lawyer turnover increases.

What does this mean?

UK law firms advertised more than 2,300 jobs for associate-level positions between January and November last year, data from BCL Legal and Vancysoft indicate. This is a 131% increase on 2020 and a 37% rise on 2019. Matthew Porter, a director at BCL, attributed this problem to a lack of talent in the legal market, suggesting that firms were “struggling to fill their vacancies because they are competing for the same people”.

In response to the inability to hire permanent associates, there has been an uptick in temporary positions. Daniel Harris, an associate director at recruiter Robert Walters, explained that “there was a huge increase in the need for [temporary] lawyers last year driven by the inability to hire [permanent] candidates quickly”. This is partly due to an uptick of work throughout the pandemic as demonstrated by Clifford Chance bolstering its private equity department in order to keep up with the increase in demand. Despite record levels of hiring in the past year, firms are still struggling to fill vacancies.

What's the big picture effect?

This story is particularly significant as it highlights the knock-on effects of the pandemic on the legal industry. Indeed, London firms have benefitted from companies seeking restructuring and a boom in mergers and acquisitions. Data from Refinitiv highlights that global dealmaking surged past $5.8tn for 2021. Inevitably, this increase in workload coupled with pandemic-induced isolation caused significant attrition within the industry.

Exhaustion is starting to take a toll on the industry. A survey conducted by LawCare – a mental health charity in the sector – recorded that almost 70% of the 1,700 lawyers interviewed had experienced ill health, either clinically or self-diagnosed in 2021. According to the study, the highest burnout scores were for those aged between 26 and 35. Long working hours have also been highlighted through a recent Legal Cheek survey. The survey revealed that Kirkland & Ellis associates, on average, were clocking off at 11:28pm compared to 9:14pm a year ago. Similarly, associates at Ropes & Gray were reported to be finishing around 11pm. Despite welfare schemes, many associates are still unable to cope with mounting levels of stress.

The primary response from most firms remains to be steep pay rises and lucrative bonuses. However, Natasha Harrison, a managing partner at Boeis Schiller, argues that these “rates of pay are unsustainable”. Increased pay does not simply eradicate burnout. There certainly appears to be a shift in perspective for junior lawyers as work-life balance is increasingly becoming a priority and the sacrifices on their personal lives make a career in law unappealing. Ultimately, as this sentiment develops, the onus will be on law firms to boost retention rates through innovation rather than higher figures.

Report written by William Sutcliffe

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