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The pandemic brought a realisation to the legal sector that a work-life balance, and a successful career in law is possible, and not mutually exclusive.  

I think it’s fair to say that prior to Covid, the majority of practitioners wouldn’t have necessarily believed this to be true. But there has been a very real shift, and it’s something we’re watching play out in real time right now. 

One thing that is crystal clear at this moment in time is that candidates are very much in control in a post-Covid market, and this is evident at every stage of the recruitment process. Previously candidates wouldn’t have asked for inflated salaries, flexible or hybrid working arrangements, and better benefits, however because they are now being presented with multiple options and offers, they have the ability to up the ante, so to speak. It’s a candidates’ market. 

What are candidates looking for?

In a 2022 legal market, candidates want it all. And they’re beginning to get it too. Right now legal salaries in Wales are higher than ever, and it’s because the demand for experienced legal professionals is intense. It’s simple economics – supply and demand. 

Candidates are also demanding a flexible approach to where and how they work. Previously the legal sector operated with a very ‘in office’ culture. However, firms were forced to adapt and a WFH mentality, that would have previously taken a decade(s) to cultivate (if ever), quickly became the norm and, vitally, proved entirely functional, if not more effective.  

Legal practitioners that had previously spent 12+ hours a day in their offices were suddenly gifted more time at home. And so for many, there was no going back to 2019. 

This is evidenced in a recent social media poll in which our candidates confirmed that just 6% prefer an all office working approach, 10% prefer solely working from home and 84% prefer a hybrid approach.  

In addition to fundamentals like salary and ways of working, other key factors influencing candidates decisions include considerations over the quality of work they will be doing, realistic chargeable hours and the requirement for supportive firms that provide excellent benefits. 

Ultimately in this current market, if employers cannot provide all of the above, employees will look elsewhere. 

Are firms responding positively to the evolution of the market? 

Welsh firms are certainly responding to the new reality. They have to. Although these responses aren’t always focused around salary, though these have certainly gone up.  

As a complement to financial renumeration we’re also seeing firms introducing policies and benefits to attract the best talent, including CSR days, mental health days, reviewing holidays to include Christmas lockdown, mental health helplines and free gym membership or onsite gyms. 

Some of the larger firms are also offering increased maternity pay (up to 16 weeks full pay and 16 weeks half pay), increased paternity pay, paid sabbaticals after a certain amount of service, higher pension contributions and the opportunity to buy and sell holidays.

Although in reality these types of benefits are still in the minority in Wales and are more abundant over the bridge in the larger Bristol based firms.  

In fact, we’re seeing Bristol based firms increasingly featured in the media for their proactive energies in addressing work life balance. It’s something Welsh firms are acutely aware of and doing everything they can to counteract the allure. 

How are law firms approaching diversity and inclusion in order to attract talent?

Without a doubt there has been an increase in awareness regarding issues of diversity and inclusion in the legal sector, and an eagerness from many firms to start on this vital journey. This is incredibly welcome in an industry not known for its broad demographic of practitioners, largely due to its high barriers to entry. 

But I should also make clear that there is still a long way to go – but a real opportunity for legal businesses who get it right.  

Firms that are proactively working on their diversity and inclusion policies are employing a range of strategies to make inroads. These include:  

  • Disability confident scheme – Law firms are signing up to the Disability Confident scheme, which supports employers to make the most of the talents disabled people can bring to the workplace. 
  • Business Wales Equality Pledge – The Business Wales Equality Pledge helps Welsh businesses take pro-active steps towards creating an inclusive, fair and diverse workplace, demonstrating their commitment to their employees and the wider community, while offering accessible products and services to all. 
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion statements on job adverts – more and more candidates are looking for evidence of a company’s approach to diversity and inclusion from right at the very top of the entry funnel – the job advert. 
  • Gender equality and parity – We’re seeing many law firms doing work and training to remove unconscious bias in their recruitment process. As well as things like providing far more favourable terms for mums returning to the workplace for example. 
  • Redacted CVs – more firms are making a move towards fairer recruitment practices and mitigating unconscious bias by utilising redacted CVs during shortlisting stages. 

For more information and advice on the type of strategies outlined here, Yolk hosts a podcast called Diversity Champions in which we discuss our client’s EDI strategies, particularly in relation to talent attraction and retention, and offer top tips for organisations starting their journey.  

Where are practitioners going when they leave firms in Wales? 

Ultimately despite the best efforts of Welsh law firms to recruit and retain talent, a significant number of practitioners are still leaving Wales to explore opportunities further afield.

Many end up in Bristol, thanks to higher salary levels over the bridge, and of course a large number are lured to London with the promise of salaries that are inflating at unprecedented rates.  

And whereas previously candidates would have had to either tolerate pretty harsh daily commutes to Bristol, or relocate entirely if the job was further afield, now with the widespread adoption of WFH polices, practitioners can remain living in Wales, and only commute to their English offices once or twice a week – something that is viewed as being an acceptable amount of upheaval for a much larger salary. For example, a commercial lawyer (whether this is contracts, corporate, real estate, employment etc) can look to any UK Top 200 law firm for a new role, and get up to a £20-£25k pay rise and only have to go to the office a couple of days a week, at most. 

Naturally this is causing an exceptional headache for Welsh firms struggling to compete with English salaries. And it’s causing real on the ground issues, with some business critical vacancies remaining open for upwards of six months. 

So, what’s the solution?

Firstly, the flexible working approach is now an absolute no-brainer. Candidates do not want to work for a firm where office working is mandated. That ship has sailed. Flexibility is key. 

Secondly, if as an employer you can increase the salary – do it. If the salary gap begins to close, then the pull of being at a local firm; one which you can visit easily when required, and develop and nurture relationships with your colleagues and senior management team, means that more talent is likely to be retained in Wales.  

As an extension of this it’s important to remember that the majority of candidates still want to have a connection and a bond with the people they work with, and work for, and this is undoubtedly more easily achieved when you regularly and consistently spend time together in-person. Do not underestimate how vital a sense of belonging is for employee wellbeing.  

This very human need is something Welsh firms would do well to harness. And if the salaries can be elevated to go some way to meeting the financial expectations of the market, then the Welsh legal sector should begin to establish for itself a new equilibrium that is currently a little out of kilter.  

Plan your retention resilience with Business Wales

Business Wales has created a new, sector specific approach within its advisory team that are tasked with supporting businesses in the legal sector in Wales. All its advisors have been trained to understand the law practice environment, from compliance to HR needs.

As a result, tailored support for growth and improvements strategies, finance, HR and management strategies is available for law firms, along with its sister project Superfast Business Wales to help with cyber risk, digitisation and technology – to help your law firm facilitate its transformation journey.

Legal Expert sessions

Business Wales has created a series of Legal Expert Sessions, backed by tailor-made ongoing support to specifically to meet the current and future challenges facing the legal sector in Wales.

The sessions are:

  1. Bridging the gap between recruitment & retention
  2. Achieving sustainability through effective business development

To watch either event online, CLICK HERE.

The sessions are hosted by speakers who truly understand the legal sector and those who have overcome these challenges for themselves. The inspirational sessions will be followed with opportunities for law firms to access one-to-one support, mentorship and training, with advice from sector experts and from Business Wales.

Find out more

To view the wider Business Wales support for the legal sector in Wales, click here.

Daniel Mason

Dan Mason

Executive Consultant

Dan Mason is an Executive Consultant at Yolk Recruitment, specialising in the legal sector. He is a former qualified solicitor and former speechwriter to the Shadow Minister for Business and Enterprise at the National Assembly for Wales.