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Where have all the lawyers gone….?
       Elvira Naiman          Aug 20, 2014

During boom times there is a chronic shortage of good Corporate, Construction and Finance Lawyers. There were periods throughout 2005-2007 where demand for this talent would never have been met by the available pool of candidates. The US pinched from the UK and Canada, the UK pinched Antipodeans- leaving us in some part, to source from South Africa and India.

Come 2014 and we are faced with a dissimilar economic picture but an increasingly familiar “talent shortage”. Many are baffled- where have all the good lawyers gone? The reality is they haven’t gone anywhere- nobody has trained them, to put it blankly, they haven’t been created.

Let me explain…

The GFC hit our shores more or less in Q3 2008, since then a large number of firms who have traditionally taken great pools of graduates, trained them, nurtured them, mentored them- thus creating a pool of well trained, pedigreed candidates- have in large part decreased their graduate pools considerably. This in itself is enough to cause long term structural issues in the legal industry, but what happens when, of the lucky few who make it into a graduate training program, they then never “settle” into Corporate, Finance or Construction because the need for junior talent in those practice areas has diminished partly because there is just less work to go around, and there is increasingly conservative economic market and anxious corporate clients demanding partner involvement at every step.

The result is that if I want a corporate, finance or construction lawyer with 2-5 years PQE – they would have had to commence a Graduate program with one of the firms in 2009-2012- not great years for settling lawyers into transactional groups and not good times for mentorship. Sadly, even of those few lawyers who settled into the named groups during this time- many were starved of good quality work and/or provided with very little quality mentorship which would in the long run make them into great lawyers.

Whilst economically we may never get back to the Halcyon days of 2005-2008- the demand for highly skilled, highly competent transactional lawyers has started to build globally, and will likely keep picking up over the next couple of years. With more and more law firms seeking these 2-5 lawyers- the question we should all be asking is- who has been training these lawyers over the last 5 years? The way law is structured, unlike a number of other disciplines, even if I have a university medalist on my hands- I still can’t make him or her into a 4 year corporate lawyer unless, they took a graduate-ship, eventually settled into a transactional group, got the right matter exposure and the right mentoring, and at the 4 year pqe mark haven’t decided to go in-house/overseas/into merchant banking/study architecture/teach Tango in Argentina etc etc

Perhaps part of the problem will be fixed with low level and rote work like corporate due diligence being outsourced to places like Asia and elsewhere, thus eliminating some of the need for junior lawyers- but the problem still remains that you need to put enough lawyers into the “funnel” at the top- that we have enough talent being fed into senior roles both in private practice and in-house (whose talent pool comes almost entirely out of private practice trained lawyers). Unfortunately too many lawyers leave the profession and never return; to have families, because of depression and other issues and those who just decide “the law is not for me”. As an industry, what do we do when the funnel runs dry?