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Horror stories a job turn-off for high-quality law candidates

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In this tight labour market, high-quality law candidates can afford to be choosy, with many looking beyond salary to the hearsay of what friends, contacts and reputation may have to say about a potential employer.

It’s now not unusual for candidates to be guided by what they have heard about a firm, and whether they believe the senior partners of a potential employer would make good mentors.

With the unemployment rate in New Zealand sitting at 3.3 per cent, it is tough to find quality staff across all sectors. The situation is exacerbated for legal firms because as the world slowly reopens after Covid-19, young lawyers are dusting off their wings and preparing to chase higher salaries and an OE.

Young and intermediate lawyers are becoming especially difficult to attract in this economic reality.

Candidates have more options than ever. It is an employee’s market, and that will probably remain true into 2023 and perhaps beyond. Most Kiwi law firms can’t match the salaries offered by overseas firms--which are regularly ten to 40 per cent higher.

To keep up with candidate expectations, legal firms need to offer more than the simple metric of salaries. Although salary remains the number one driver, the answer is reputation and mentorship.

There are phenomenal lawyers working in New Zealand who have quality experience, and it’s important that their firms encourage these older hands to be part of recruitment as sweeteners to capture the most ambitious talent that is keen to learn.

The first question young candidates ask after receiving a list of possible firms is: who is the Partner I will work with? They want to know about the team and the reputation of the firm.

New Zealand is a small place, and everyone talks to each other. If a legal firm forces young candidates to sink or swim and offers little access to mentorship, it’s easier than ever for that negative information to spread around social networks.

Lawyers have always relied on reputation to attract clients, but now they are relying on reputation to attract good talent.

People want to work with people they like. For the younger generation, work is no longer just about work. They want work to be more authentic and aligned to their lifestyles, career progression dreams, shared values, purpose and mission.

But the reputation angle cuts both ways. Quality law firms are intensely interested in a candidate’s grade performance. Failure to achieve A’s or at least B+’s can follow a person around for years, well into their careers. The legal profession is inherently risk-averse, and

students should keep this in mind.

For law firms keen on attracting the best legal talent, it’s important to consider the top three things young lawyers look for:

1. Reputation

Although the “work from home” model is now embedded in many law firms, this is complicating the ability of young lawyers to receive one-on-one mentorship. If candidates hear on the legal grapevine that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze at a firm, they are unlikely

to join.

Lack of access to mentorship is a big driver for young people choosing to leave firms. Some Partners have a reputation for being excellent mentors, while others don’t. When a candidate hears about a sour reputation of a particular firm or a particular partner, it puts them off.

2. Flexibility and culture

Idealism is a young person’s game, but that doesn’t mean firms should dismiss their affinity with sustainable and ethical practices. These issues really do excite young lawyers who are searching for jobs that allow them to do their best with their time.

Young lawyers also want more flexibility in their working relationships. Firms that figure out how to accommodate this idealism and can adapt to the new workstyles will succeed in attracting – and retaining – high-quality talent.

3. Salary and package

While the ability to pay a competitive salary, along with comprehensive packages, will vary between firms, it is important that firms always monitor the pulse of salary averages for young lawyers – both the average offered in New Zealand and overseas.

In the past, a core motivation for young lawyers was money and prestige. While this is still high on their list, what impresses them now is an opportunity for growth and development. But that doesn’t mean they should be paid less. That’s a great way to lose them to rivals or wave goodbye to them on an aeroplane.