From skills shortages and high demand for professionals of all kinds, the sudden prospect of a deep recession or even depression has fundamentally shifted the landscape practically overnight. For legal professionals, the exact extent of the fallout is as yet unclear, but candidates should be aware that demand for their skills is already falling.
That’s according to Kirsty Spears, director at legal recruitment firm McLeod Duminy. “After years of skills shortages and high demand across all disciplines and most levels of lawyers, the dynamic has changed. It is generous to describe present circumstances as a flat market, with widespread anticipation of a coming recession,” she says.
Like other workers, legal professionals either looking to start their careers as recent graduates, or those looking to change jobs, are faced with new challenges. “It is yet to be seen whether we will face significant redundancies, but enquiries from New Zealand lawyers based overseas suggest a number will choose to come home and further drive up competition for jobs, at the same time as fewer opportunities being available,” says Spears.
She points out that the effects will be uneven, as in some areas – such as employment, insolvency & restructuring, family, and other civil disputes – the impacts of recession could well result in increased demand for legal services. “It would be easy to say lawyers should turn their focus to these areas of law, but past experience tells us that changing focus can be difficult, and firms have resisted previous calls to multi-skill their lawyers to make them more recession proof and have instead pushed further towards specialisation. In any case anticipating where demand will be in such a unique circumstance is far from a perfect science.”
That unpredictability is borne out by recent news of major law firms repaying wage subsidies after anticipated revenue declines hadn’t materialised. “Of course, the real impacts of the lockdown will only be fully felt over the course of the coming months and even years as current projects come to a close, and we get a better understanding of the stimulus measures the government intend to put in place,” Spears adds.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Recalling the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the international reverberations of the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks, Spears notes those market changes were even more sudden than the impact of Covid-19. “We recruited through those events and while looking for a new job was a different proposition and much harder, it isn’t impossible. Most importantly, a mindset change is required, and you should keep an eye on the future with a clear career plan. It could be more difficult to recover from a misstep now.”
Spears advises candidates to be open-minded, fully explore any opportunity which presents itself, and be prepared for compromise. “Understand that opportunities are likely to be few and far between; perhaps it isn’t the ideal position, but if you choose not to pursue it there should be a good reason not to apply, it should be a proactive decision.”
She says time and care should be taken. “Engage fully with the recruitment process so you’re in an informed position when considering a potential opportunity. You never know what you might find out through the process which could go beyond initial expectations, such as discovering an inspirational partner, or working with new clients from whom you could learn. It is important to keep an eye on your ultimate goals and make sure any role you accept still takes you in that direction. You may have to look at stepping stones for your career, rather than the leap forward you may have previously sought.”
Another area where expectations will need adjustment is salary and remuneration. The common wisdom that a change of role bring a salary increase has remained true for many years, but is unlikely to continue. “Focus instead on potential, work/life balance and other things that have value for you outside remuneration. These factors are bargaining chips to come to mutually satisfactory arrangements with employers.”
Finally, Spears says it is important to stay connected to work and the profession. “If possible, avoid a big gap on your CV. If you have to take a compromise job, make sure you know where it is taking you and see it as the first step in working your way forward. Get good people and trusted advisers to assist in your search. Keep an open mind and be open to their advice”.