Law Firms in Australia and the Talent Vacuum

Written by Marianna Tuccia and Nicholas Brown (Legal Professional, Sydney NSW)

A talent war has been waging over the last couple of years in private practice law firms in Australia. Particularly in that very sweet spot of 2 to 6 years post admission experience.  And especially in the sought after practice areas of real estate, finance, capital markets, projects and infrastructure. Law firms are pouncing on rising stars.

This skills shortage is a result of a number of factors. In the last 24 months, the international market has re-opened its appetite for Australian qualified lawyers i.e. Asia, the Middle East, the US and the UK have successfully recruited first class talent from the major law firms in Australia. Additionally, more and more lawyers are going in-house. According to an article by Matthew Hodgkinson from Eaton Capital Partners, ten years ago only 10% of corporate lawyers were practising in-house; a stark contrast to the 35% that are working in-house now. Another factor contributing to the skills shortage is that lawyers are leaving the profession altogether and going into other fields e.g. business development, journalism, legal editing, policy and government, teaching. A worrying trend is that many lawyers are questioning whether a career in law is for them. Long hours, demanding and unrealistic clients, timesheets, the workplace hierarchy in traditional law firms are contributing to the legal profession loosing talent. These factors are also contributing to the rise in the ‘NewLaw’ firm models. Recent examples of these firms are Hive Legal, Keypoint, Nexus, Marque, Salvos Legal.

Theoretically this skills shortage should be offset by the exponential growth in the number of law graduates vis a vis the number of legal practitioners. According to a November 2015 Australian Financial Review article by Emanuel Tardos, there were approximately 15,000 law graduates in 2015, compared to 11,000 in 2011. These graduates are entering into an industry with just over 66,000 practising solicitors in Australia. Although the number of graduates has increased, this has not converted to a higher rate of employment for law graduates. Additionally, the disruption in the legal profession (which has been extraordinary in the last few years) in terms of technology ie intelligent contracts, E-contracts and E-discovery technology is equating to less and less opportunities for law graduates and newly admitted lawyers. Tasks like discovery and other low level work are being outsourced off-shore and are no longer being undertaken by law graduates.

The question becomes how do law firms overcome this skills gap, particularly at the 2 to 6 years post admission experience level? What can they do to secure that rising star over their competitor? How does a law firm win the talent war?

Trite as it may sound, but retaining your existing talent is just as important as ‘acquiring’ new talent. Managing Partners of the top tier law firms rely on their brand reputation in order to recruit and retain talent.  In a October 2016 article in Lawyers Weekly, Ashurst’s head of HR Asia-Pacific, Richard Knox said that the firm’s key point of difference that allows it to attract and retain talent, is that the “firm is well positioned as one of only a couple of truly integrated global firms that brings to the Australian market a full service offering, with a premium client list that sets us apart from much of our competition … The firm provides them the opportunity to work on clients and matters at the very top end of the market in a supportive and flexible environment. We have found our staff really engage with that proposition.” The efforts of King & Wood Mallesons are different. Newly appointed Global Managing Partner Sue Kench said that, among other initiatives, they had “Design Week – a week with speaker forums, workshops, hackathons and events all focused around designing the firm for the future”.

It is interesting to see what other professional services firms are doing to win the war on talent. In KPMG’s report “Being the Best: Inside the intelligent finance function, Talent Management – Playing for keeps” the financial services industry are facing similar issues. With regards to retaining talent, under the heading ‘Engage and Retain’, their advice is to manage performance through 360 degree feedback, and reward innovative strategy. Moreover, KPMG prides open and honest communication in order to make sure that their talent feels valued.

It is, therefore, of vital importance that law firms put talent management at the top of their strategic agenda. Law firms need to work hard to improve their recruitment and retention strategies if that gap in skills is to ever be overcome. The question “Why would a talented lawyer want to work here?” must always be at the forefront of every Partner’s mind. If the answer is not compelling, then more thought needs to given to the improvement of the firm’s workplace culture and practices.

Extensive training strategies, internal learning and development programmes as well as more on the job training by Partners will also assist in overcoming the skills gap. In some instances, the answer to overcoming the skills shortage may be right on your doorstep – retrain the underutilised and under-challenged lawyers already in your law firm. Additionally, law firms need to think creatively and outside the box when undergoing the recruitment process. If that wish list cannot be entirely fulfilled then time and resources need to be spent to upskill candidates.  On the job training by Partners and more Senior Lawyers ought to come into play more often than is presently occurring. You just never know how much a candidate will develop and grow into the role within 6 to 12 months’ time.

The war on talent will only intensify. Quality lawyers only want to work at quality law firms – law firms that are emulate agility, cultural cohesion, diversity, open communication and true collaboration. Law firms that do not emulate such qualities will eventually fold.




Graduate recruitment is already under way for most law firms. Large national and international law firms have a very precise process for choosing their graduates, and it is a very stressful time.


If you are fortunate enough to land the all important graduate position (and remember sometimes it is a matter of good luck, rather than good management), there are some important messages you need to take on board.


For example, I met with a client recently, the HR manager of a large national firm, and we got to talking about the summer clerks who had been through the firm over the last eight weeks or so. She sounded exhausted and was shaking her head a lot. She told me that while for the most part the clerks were grateful for the experience and threw themselves into it, in the feedback from the summer clerks, a few had given negative feedback about the nature of the work they had been given, the practice groups they had spent time in (as not being of interest to them in their careers), and the lack of time with partners.


I was dumbfounded – knowing how much time, money and effort goes into the summer clerk programs, I was astounded by this feedback. My colleague said: “I don’t know where they get these expectations from, about what work they will be doing as a summer clerk – I mean, do they let medical students operate on patients for work experience?”


And of course we had a good laugh but it made me think – in the rush to impress and learn as much as you can, accelerate careers and climb to the top (whatever that means to individuals), your expectations as to the level of work you will get may be unrealistic.


It is important to remember these things:


  • Every piece of work you get is a learning experience – no matter how small
  • You need to build up expertise in order to be involved in large matters
  • You are of course perfectly placed, when you have mastered a piece of work, to ask to be involved in a different type of matter
  • Sometimes developing expertise comes from simply watching and listening – for example, how a senior lawyer acts in a negotiation or with a lawyer on the other side of a matter
  • If you have down time, read a file from start to finish, read recent case law, write a CLE paper – all of these things will add to your expertise
  • Show a willingness to get your hands dirty – if there is a big matter on the go, and a lot of stressed people around, there is no harm in offering to help in small ways, even if it collating documents. That willingness will be remembered and you will be surprised what may come out of a simple act like that
  • Get involved in firm activities – developing relationships across the firm is vital so that you are known outside your own work group.

Good careers are not built in a day, a month or even a year – they take many years of dedication, hard work, and a willingness to learn.



It is THAT time of year for law students – applying for graduate positions. Don’t panic. It is very important not to panic. Your CV and covering letter must be the best work of art you can create with a document. It is your written personal marketing document – remember this when writing it.

Here are out top tips for your written application:


Covering Letter

A covering letter is an introduction to you and why you are applying for a role. You do not have to write a novel, and certainly don’t need to repeat all of the information that is found in your CV. Do not go over one page.

  • Proof read it. Several times if necessary. Make sure you are applying to the right firm and person. So many people copy and past the text from one letter in to another, forgetting to change the address details of the firm, or the salutation, putting in the wrong name of the person who will be reading it. Adopt a ‘four eyes’ policy – get someone else to read it too in case you have some blind spots
  • Remember with bulk recruiting, HR staff are likely to receive more CVs than they need – they will be looking for a reason to exclude you from the process, and if you make a mistake indicating that you do not have attention to detail you are making their job easier.
  • Set it out in a simple way
    • brief introduction explaining who you are and the position you are seeking
    • brief summary of why your skills are relevant to the position
    • brief paragraph of why the firm to which you are applying is of interest to you (i.e. why you can add value, and what interests you about the firm – do some research and show that you know something about the firm)
    • A thank you for considering your application



Try and keep your CV to three pages at this stage of your career. It is not necessary to include your experience at school unless relevant – e.g. leadership positions, or teamwork, as long as you show how that is relevant to the current position.

  • Again – spell check and proof read the whole document and get someone else to read it
  • Keep the layout simple – readability is important. Large chunks of text do not make it easy for your CV to be visually ‘scanned ‘ for relevant information.
  • Use lots of headings, in bold, and bullet points
  • List your skills, not just your experience. If you have not worked in a law firm before, draw out the skills that are transferrable – e.g. teamwork, leadership, communication, and customer relations.
  • Use reverse order for your work experience – most recent experience first
  • Make sure you tailor your CV to the position – think about the firm and what they need
  • Do not exaggerate your achievements – experienced HR people know to look out for expressions like ‘ involved in’ when referring to transactions and will ask about the level of your experience.

Good luck!




There has been a lot of depressing news of late about job prospects for law graduates. I decided to do a little digging to see if I could find a crystal ball. And I found one….big-services-graduate


The Australian Government publishes statistics in jobs outlook ( and they hold very promising news for law students, recent graduates and junior lawyers.


As well as telling us that the unemployment rate for solicitors is below average, the great news is that for the next four years, to November 2019, employment prospects for solicitors is expected to grow significantly after moderate growth over the last 5 years, but strong growth overall in the last 10 years.


In terms of actual numbers, the number of employed solicitors across Australia in November 2013 was just below 57,000 – this number is expected to grow to almost 69,000 by the end of 2019, with job openings across all sectors (private practice, government, and corporate) expected to be above average.


I do wonder, however, what happened to the 15,000 lawyers who disappeared between 2013 and 2014!


The statistics also show us that lawyers work longer hours than the average person (no surprise there), and that 36% of the profession is under 35. I expect this number will increase as more and more universities open law schools.


What does this mean for you? For employees it is good news, in that after years of only moderate job growth, demand for lawyers looks set to increase. But (there is always a but, isn’t there?), it also means that you have to work hard to develop your expertise and networking skills, as well as think outside the box in terms of where you might look for your next job.


For employers, I hope this means that the expected increase in lawyer jobs means that this is as a result of increased demand from clients. When recruiting, the vast majority of people you see will be very young, but don’t dismiss the idea of recruiting someone more experienced.


You can read the statistics here for solicitors, and here for barristers.