Tony Brooke’s view: the NQ legal jobs market in February

I’d like to begin this month’s instalment by thanking those readers who made contact with me after my first blog. Feedback is everything in recruitment so that input has been appreciated, and is always going to be welcome.


The good news is that, at the moment, everything is pretty much going as we’d expect market-wise, so that is reassuring in many ways. It is a cycle that tends to follow the same steps annually, albeit at slightly different times depending on the economic climate. The bad news is that right now the majority of September NQs are starting to get focused on their future, and with that focus comes worry.


So, what market trends have I noticed in February?


Mid-tier firms are setting the pace…

There have been more commitments made in February. I know of firms in Leeds and Newcastle who have made their internal offers, including some 100% retention rates, which is a tell-tale sign of firms being worried about a talent drain and so prioritising their second-year trainees. Corporate, CDR, Commercial, Insolvency, and Private Client have all been allocated so it is a nice spread of confident departments, though it is too early to spot any patterns.

Refreshingly, the firms who I know that have committed are all single site regional firms in the mid-tier, so I commend their foresight and confidence and dynamism in making a strong early commitment. Often these are the practices which don’t feel they can plan so far in advance and so will lose their people to larger firms- hopefully for them not this year, though I suspect some of those lawyers who’ve accepted offers to stay will still linger in the market, hoping for perhaps another £5K and a step to a Top 30 brand or maybe a move to London.

To mid-tier firms I’d say “you can’t win ‘em all”, but full marks for those who are setting a real pace in the market thus giving themselves the best chance of keeping their home-grown talent. That sort of behaviour will be welcomed by your first-year trainees too and so next year they’ll be that bit less inclined to come into the market, which is a positive. And word will have already got around through the ‘trainee grapevine’ about the offers you have bowled so that’ll drive your stock up as well – it is all positive news and that is the lifeblood of recruitment for mid-tier firms on a short term and also a longer-term basis where you want to be a firm of choice in the market.


The larger firms are not far behind…

The largest firms in Yorkshire (and their trainees who are speaking to us) are telling us that they’ll be concluding their internal processes by mid-March, which is actually respectably early. I know that some of those firms definitely won’t have enough internal qualifiers for the overall number of NQ appointments they’d like to make, and so by this time next month I am confident there’ll be roles flowing into the market for lawyers for the big firms.

Instructions will be inconsistent to start with, but they won’t take long to shortlist given the candidates working with recruiters and waiting in the wings for any NQ opportunity to be released. Candidates wanting to be in the top tier firms: you need to get into the market quickly, because in a couple of months their opportunities will have been released and taken.


What can you expect of your internal process?

I must say that I am intrigued by the internal processes of firms, even of similarly ranked practices. Some are remarkably formal, others are a little less rigorous, but my interest is in the validity of these recruitment processes. Let’s be honest – these second-year trainees have been with their firm for at least 18 months now; they have been mentored, monitored and appraised by experienced partners who are backed by trained HR professionals, and everyone knows by now if that person is working out or if they’re not going to be with the brand long term. As a trainee, your competency has been observed, as has your commitment and your cultural fit for your firm, just in case choosing you several years ago was actually, with hindsight, an error! Mistakes happen, and that’s a two-way thing when it comes to grad recruitment.

As one recruitment manager told me this month, “We ought to know our people by now, but we will still follow a process” – which sounds to me like there’s not so much objectivity behind this sort of thing as much as partners who have already decided who they do and don’t want! Similarly, I come across many candidates who already know if they’re favoured by a department, or if a contemporary is going to get the role ahead of them. Hell, last year in Newcastle I was hearing trainees forecasting who was going to get which jobs in other firms – it really is that connected a market! Whilst a process makes the decision appear fair, it isn’t necessarily a fair process, if that makes sense.


That’s a reasonable point at which to wrap up for this month: with many readers about to go through their internal NQ recruitment process. I hope that a high proportion of you are successful in securing a role in your first-choice field as that would be a great result. For those of you who don’t get the outcome you want then don’t panic – the NQ season is a marathon, not a sprint, and there’s plenty yet to happen. Believe it or not, the more commitments that are made internally the better for everyone, as that will allow the market to settle out and for instructions to flow. Fingers crossed for a busy March for all of us.

Interested in Florit Brooke’s help navigating the NQ legal jobs market? Contact us to find out how we can work together.

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