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Beware of complacency: Talent in the legal industry

For a long time the UK has held the international crown in dispute resolution. But, in the face of competition from other jurisdictions, perceived fragmentation, and the current political climate, is the UK's prestigious position in the legal services market under threat?

We recently asked a group of key influencers in the legal industry: Is the UK doing enough to attract and retain the best talent against our global competitors, and train people with the right skill sets for the future?

Challenging perceptions

Perceptions of the state of the legal industry, particularly with regards to immigration and its implications for recruitment, were front of mind. Last year, 25,000 fewer students enrolled in UK university law programmes1, but whether this had a direct impact on recruitment was contentious. After all, London is still the top choice for international students studying law2. Brexit may have an impact, however, as Peter Gamson, head of our professional practices team, points out, “I am seeing and hearing of reduced EU interest in working in UK law firms mainly, as I understand it, because the referendum outcome and all that has followed gives the impression that the UK isn’t going to be a welcoming place for EU citizens to forge a career. That said, counties outside of the EU also present a significant talent pool for recruitment so there is an opportunity there to be explored.”

Recruitment and retention is not a challenge unique to the UK. Singapore, for example, is among many other countries also feeling the pressure. To combat this issue, the Singapore International Arbitration Centre is investing in young talent through its YSIAC initiatives and the Lawyers Abroad programmes. Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC, Head of Atkin Chambers, stressed the importance of London as an ambassador for UK legal services abroad. Philippa Hill, Disputes Partner at Grant Thornton, commented that the UK shouldn’t be shy about engaging ambassadors and actively promoting its advantages as a place to practice in international law.

The perceived impacts on immigration of Brexit were generally mixed, but what is clear is that perceptions need to be changed and the UK needs to take an active lead in selling its legal industry abroad and at home, to attract and retain talent.

Fragmentation and uncertainty

The UK is regarded as the centre for dispute resolution and English law is used in 40% of all global corporate arbitrations3. And, yet, the market is now facing an era of fragmentation and uncertainty, which could have an effect on recruitment and retention.

One perceived threat to the UK legal industry is the emergence and expansion of other legal centres. International arbitration centres have been set up in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, including Singapore, Paris, Dubai, Frankfurt, Dublin and Tokyo/Osaka. These centres are threatening to attract business and talent away from the UK. Dubai, for instance, now has one of the highest concentrations of British expat lawyers4. At the same time, Bar Council statistics show that UK barristers who work for clients based abroad has increased 64% from 2006-2016, so there is growth in international arbitration here in the UK.

“London offers expertise in experience and is resilient to changes and competition,” says Doerries. The challenge now is to confront the perceptions and realities around fragmentation and threats from abroad and focus on what makes London the primary choice for both students and employees.

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Invest now for the industry's future

Diversity and flexibility within the legal services sector were also flagged as potential areas for improvement. While some of our legal influencers felt the industry is doing enough, others thought more needed to be done to ensure a diverse workforce for the future of the UK's legal industry. Flexibility, especially with regards to maternity leave, was seen as an issue that has been sidelined in light of other challenges.

Recently, the Lord Chief Justice, the Right Honourable The Lord Burnett of Maldon, stressed the need for diversity in the judiciary at the Treasurer’s Lecture 2019. Solicitors are also seeking a better work-life balance.

While there are firms in Europe making some strides in addressing work-life balance concerns, such as adopting a four-day week, London-based firms could do more. This will, however, require a shift in the traditional work ethic mindset.

There are indications that things are changing. Hodge Jones & Allen, for instance, became the first law firm in the UK to be completely employee-owned. While not all law firms will want to follow their lead, they will recognise there is a need to empower their staff, and to increase mobility and flexibility within their firms. As Verity Jackson-Grant, Director of Business Development at The Judge, highlights: “I see investment in talent and diversity and a keenness to make it work. If there are failures it won’t be for want of trying.”

Enabling the next generation of lawyers

What of the students who are now studying law? Is enough being done to help them? These points were raised, in the context of technology, funding and preparing them for the realities of practising law.

Whilst technology could have the potential to transform legal services in some areas, not all of our influencers perceived it as a game-changer, there was concern that students may not be getting the right technological training, especially with the advent of lawtech and the UK government’s investment in digitising the legal services industry.

The debt that students incur as part of their route to qualify, particularly at the bar, and the impact of this on the wider system, should also be addressed more fully, according to Doerries. While the return on investment can be significant if graduates land the right job, if students face the prospect of high debts, the law may not remain an attractive career.

Holding on to the crown

Overall, it was agreed that the UK legal industry is working to address the concerns of talent recruitment and retention, but the group was concerned with the extent to which it could continue to make positive moves in light of Brexit. “Whether new talent will be able to come and practice here was an issue that felt tinged with uncertainty,” says Doerries.

However, there are feelings of positivity around the future of the UK legal industry, despite current political uncertainty. As Doerries put it: “Change is the theme and some is inevitable. The adversarial common law system mustn’t be taken for granted. We need to stay true to that at the centre, invest in the long term and build ambassadors for our future."

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References

  1. Undergraduates and graduates in law, The Law Society, 2017
  2. Financing international student mobility, Grant Thornton UK LLP, 2016
  3. London's legal eminence will survive Brexit, LCJ insists, The Law Society Gazette, 2017
  4. Dubai: The gateway to the Middle East for international firms, The Lawyer, 2017

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