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Associate market bounces back strongly

October 2021

You can’t talk about much these days without COVID-19 getting a mention and it has certainly had an impact on associate hiring levels over the last couple of years.

In the spring of 2020 when we went into the first lockdown, associate recruitment understandably slowed right down.  Some firms cut staff, froze salaries, and cancelled hires that were already agreed.  Uncertainty was sky high and memories of the crunch after the global financial crisis came rushing back. Whilst clearly these were troubling times and the human cost has been horrendous, from a hiring perspective, the downturn wasn’t nearly as bad as expected. At no point did recruitment grind to a halt and for the rest of 2020 there was a gradual increase in new vacancies as confidence slowly returned. Initially hiring took place within dispute resolution, though steadily moved to see more transaction areas.  I would estimate that by the end of 2020 the vacancy levels were at around 75% of what might normally be expected and since then the upward trajectory has continued, to leave 2021 as one of the busiest years for associate recruitment that I can recall for quite some time.

The hiring spree in 2021 has been led by the US firms, who have in many cases seen record revenues in London over the last 12 months. Leveraged finance has been particularly busy, with refinancing and repricing driving the activity. Private equity has also been rampant, with large cash reserves being spent enthusiastically and supporting areas like competition and tax, benefiting from the high workloads. As more financial results come in it looks like many UK headquartered firms have also done well, and most are now in growth mode.  It’s hard to think of many areas of law that aren’t seeing demand and utilisation levels are looking very healthy.

With hesitation amongst the talent pool in relation to moving jobs in the middle of a pandemic, firms are throwing the net far and wide, which has seen healthy levels of overseas hiring. UK based associates are now starting to return to the office and getting used to more flexible working patterns, which will be interesting to observe over the coming months. Employers who can provide long term flexibility will have a competitive advantage and as the war for talent hots up, firms will need to try and keep their best talent as engaged as possible which might be difficult after so long working from home.

Predicting anything is a risky business, but without tempting fate, 2022 looks to remain busy on the legal front and the expectation for the first couple of quarters at least is that hiring, and growth will very much be the order of the day.

To discuss this topic further and/or chat about your future career plans please contact Andrew Smallwood – or +44 7779 781 810

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