The fact that the recruitment landscape has undergone significant changes in the last 18 months will not be a new revelation for those seeking work in the legal sector. The impact of the pandemic on hiring trends in 2020 was impossible to ignore, resulting in many candidates having to make major changes to their career plans.
As the repercussions of the pandemic continues to play out, its effect on legal sector recruitment can still be felt. However, many factors have changed since last year, meaning that those seeking work are now experiencing a vastly different recruitment marketplace compared to 2020, or even compared to the pre-pandemic conditions seen in 2019.
Here, we will examine some of the key trends that are driving legal recruitment towards a more candidate-centric marketplace, and the reasons why employers and candidates alike must pay attention to them.
The exceptional challenges of legal recruitment in 2020
It is understandable that many individuals are still feeling cautious about venturing back out into the jobs market after the unprecedented challenges they faced in 2020. When the first national lockdown was imposed in the UK in March 2020, it is fair to say that legal recruitment essentially ground to a halt, with only a small handful of exceptions.
For much of last year, the only hires being made were those that were absolutely crucial to the running of that business, and that needed to be made to keep the organisation going. Due to the uncertain business conditions, firms put their growth strategies on hold and opted against making any new specialist hires, such was the lack of appetite for any degree of commercial risk.
Not only did this result in the disappearance of viable roles for jobseekers, but it also meant that candidates who had already been recruited and offered a new role often saw those offers being withdrawn or having their start dates pushed back by up to six months. In many cases, these individuals had already resigned from their previous positions ahead of a planned April 2020 start date, only to be left out of work and in a state of limbo.
These fragile hiring conditions also had a negative impact on people who had recently taken on a new role, due to changes in employment law that meant anyone who had been in a role for more than two years could not be made redundant without a pay-out. Although the move was designed to help safeguard worker rights, this had the unfortunate side effect of incentivising companies looking to make cutbacks to focus on making redundancies among their newest employees.
As the year went on, the lockdown conditions continued to pose considerable challenges for newly qualified solicitors (NQs) in particular. As a rule, new starters are generally required to be physically present in the office to receive essential training - something that became impossible due to the lockdown-imposed shift to home working. As such, NQs who were unable to work without supervision found themselves unable to secure any placements.
Recruitment appetites return with a vengeance in 2021
Although the pandemic is not yet over, candidates looking for legal sector work in 2021 will find that hiring conditions have rapidly transformed, surging from an historic low last year to a point where the number of available vacancies has now surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
As lockdown restrictions have lifted and life in the UK has gradually returned to normal, business conditions have picked back up again, resulting in a self-sustaining surge in legal hiring. As one firm resumes their recruitment activities and takes on a new staff member, this often creates a vacancy elsewhere, leading to a domino effect; additionally, many firms are motivated to resume hiring when they see their competitors doing the same, in order to avoid falling behind.
As such, in the past few months, recruitment agencies such as Sellick Partnership have observed a substantial boom in this sector, with growing backlogs of roles and the number of vacancies outstripping the availability of candidates. Some specialisms are seeing particularly strong demand, including property law, where firms are seeing an unusually large amount of business due to the stamp duty holiday; in some cases, in-demand applicants are getting interviews with four or more prospective employers, with top firms competing with each other for the very best talent.
This has created unexpected opportunities and benefits for candidates who had been left in the lurch by the events of 2020. For example, many trainee solicitors ended up being furloughed last year, delaying their qualification dates from September 2020 to March 2021. Although this may have been a source of uncertainty and stress at the time, it has ended up as a blessing in disguise in some cases, as it means that many of these are now gaining their qualifications and entering a much healthier jobs market than the one they would have faced last year.
The lesson for businesses and candidates
For legal firms, the current market conditions represent something of a mixed blessing. The sector’s bounceback from the pandemic has been encouraging, and businesses will be relieved by how quickly they have been able to return to the active pursuit of growth; however, the intensely competitive recruitment market means they will need to work hard to provide strong professional and financial incentives for new starters in order to access the very best talent.
For candidates, meanwhile, these current trends mark a significant turnaround from last year’s difficulties. Whereas last year it was challenging for even the most skilled applicants to find new work, they are now able to take their pick of attractive roles, creating a truly candidate-driven market.
Both employers and candidates who are looking to re-enter the recruitment marketplace will therefore need to take these prevailing trends into account in order to make the most of the available opportunities, while overcoming any challenges they may face.
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