It has now been six months since the national lockdown was announced, during this time the legal recruitment market in London has changed significantly.

To truly assess the impact on the private practice recruitment market we conducted a detailed analysis of active vacancies from January 2020 to August 2020 with a view to comparing activity levels at specific times. This analysis has included a range of contentious and non-contentious practice areas such as Corporate, Real estate, Construction, Employment, Commercial Dispute Resolution, Financial Services, Funds, Commercial Technology, Data Protection,

Pre-lockdown – mid-January to mid-March

 During the busy period leading up to mid-March, levels of recruitment and hiring patterns were along the lines expected in a buoyant market.

A significant proportion of our vacancies (43%) arose were with large international and UK Top 20 firms.

All of the Magic Circle were very active, and other UK Top 20 firms had a similarly large appetite with multiple vacancies across several departments.

UK Top 50 firms (excluding the Top 20) and Top 100 firms (51st to 100th by revenue) and smaller/boutique London firms were equally enthusiastic, accounting for 21% and 36% of our vacancies, respectively.

Ongoing Adjustment – Mid-May to Mid-July

From mid-May to mid-July, as businesses gradually adjusted, as best they could, and the economy slowly started opening up again, the legal recruitment market picked up marginally.  Compared to the start of the year, less than a quarter as many vacancies arose week to week, but this was still a massive improvement on the period immediately following lockdown when the country seemed caught in inertia.

Relative to their recruitment appetite pre-pandemic, the larger firms seem to remain amongst the most cautious.  Whilst they released twice as many vacancies as the period mid-March to mid-May, that’s still 85% less than at the start of the year.

UK Top 21-50 firms, on the other hand, appeared more prompt to start hiring again, with activity levels already standing at 44% relative to the baseline provided by the pre-lockdown period.

Top 100 firms (51st to 100th by revenue) and smaller/boutique London firms, that had almost entirely ceased hiring resumed a bold return.  Relative to the start of the year, they now released nearly a quarter as many new vacancies.

Areas such as Data Protection, Contentious Construction, Commercial Litigation and Insurance have started to stand out as in-demand areas, as to be expected in a market where work-from-home heightens cyber risks, building projects encounter logistical difficulties, and firms ready themselves for an increase in disputes.  Commercial Real Estate and corporate vacancies remain almost absent from the list.

Immediately Post-Lockdown – Mid-March to Mid-May

Following the lockdown announcement for two whole months there were scarcely any new vacancies.

Firms of all shapes and sizes gradually started to announce cost cutting measures such as temporary pay cuts (sometimes with an accompanying reduction in hours/days, sometimes without), delayed or cancelled bonuses or reviews, NQ salary reductions or freezes, trainee deferrals, adjustments to partner drawings and distributions, and furloughs for many staff as well as some fee earners.  Pay freezes across the board were to be expected in the light of these other measures.

During this two-month period, our new job-count from larger firms (Magic Circle, international UK Top 20) plummeted by 92% compared to the previous two months.  The vacancy tally with UK Top 50 firms also declined by 84%, and there were barely any new London roles with firms ranked 51st to 100th by revenue or smaller/boutique London firms.

Whilst Real Estate transactional roles had represented 10% of the roles, there were no longer any new roles.  Corporate roles were down 88% on the previous total over the same duration.  Other transactional, advisory and corporate support areas like Financial Services Regulation, Commercial IT and Data Protection were similarly affected, with recruitment activity in these disciplines on hold.

As previously experienced during market turmoil, contentious roles do not immediately pick up and fill the gap.  New role count in Commercial Litigation and Arbitration was also down 91%.

Growing Confidence – Mid-July to August

During recent weeks, confidence has returned. Compared to the two-month period immediately following the lockdown announcement, new jobs have come up seven times as regularly in the month spanning mid-July to mid-August.

Relative to the previous two months, vacancies have arisen twice as regularly at large (Magic Circle, international, UK Top 20) and medium sized (20th to 50th largest by revenue), and Top 100 firms (51st to 100th by revenue) and smaller/boutique London firms have continued their resurgence, with another 167% increase in the volume of new positions advertised daily.

As the larger firms normally account for a greater proportion of the vacancies, despite this recent re-doubling of activity there are still 70% fewer vacancies arising day to day compared to the start of the year.

In contrast, the sustained increase in activity at firms ranked 21st  to 50th by revenue, which bounced back considerably during the previous period, is now only 11% down on its pre-pandemic benchmark, in terms of rate of new vacancies per day.

Whilst litigation roles previously represented less than a quarter of our roles, they now account for nearly a third, as the initial drop off was less severe than in other areas, and the gradual increase month to month has been marginally stronger than in other areas.

Although still at a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels, finally a trickle of transactional Real Estate, Corporate and Commercial Technology roles have also started to come through again, after four months of scarcely any activity.

All told, we are currently seeing 53% as many vacancies arise compared to before the pandemic really took hold, which is a remarkable recovery, considering how the market largely ground to a halt in March and barely moved in the first months that followed.