2021 NQ Recruitment – opportunity

If you are a trainee solicitor qualifying in 2021 this is a valuable guide providing information on the current legal market, qualifying as a solicitor, practicing offshore, the recruitment process and more. This guide offers tips and advice to set yourself on the right path for a successful, long term career in the legal profession.


They say “what a difference a day makes”. Wow, what a difference a year makes. To stop for a minute and consider everything that has happened over the last year is a fairly daunting task.  When I think back to writing the 2020 guide at the end of 2019 and how life was then, it is astonishing the changes in everything we do.

In my 23 years as a legal recruiter, 2020 will definitely be the year that I will remember the most. Personally, I have been incredibly impressed with law firms and their ability to adapt. After the initial “shock and awe” of the first lockdown, firms started to find a way of working that suited clients and their employees. It is remarkable how such a regulated profession adapted so well and implemented such radical changes so effectively.

The demand for legal services towards the autumn of 2020 was fuelled partly by the many government initiatives to keep the economy moving. The residential property market soared in the second half of 2020 partly (probably, largely) as a result of the tax break exempting Stamp Duty on the first £500k ending March 31st 2021. House prices rose by 7% in the year to November 2020. The advent of a raft of new legislation in the employment field with the introduction of the Job Retention Scheme and the entitlements for the self-employed saw demand in this area inevitably rise sharply. Naturally, Covid 19 created a whole new subject to advise on in terms of H&S, risk, compliance and insurance. With the lockdown restrictions creating a wealth of issues in the business world demand in the areas of insolvency, restructuring and contracts was high. Finally, the elephant in the room, Brexit, which has presented the legal world with many new areas to assist UK companies.

With this growing demand, firms found that staff could comfortably work from home, teams could integrate and thrive. Toward the end of 2020 the recruitment market had shifted full circle and Origin Legal received an unprecedented demand for solicitors. Not all of these opportunities are NQ roles but firms remain committed to growing and developing at a pace which, presently, is above average.

We have also experienced a large movement of solicitors defecting to consultancy law firms. Growth at law firms like Keystone Law, Nexa, Bexley Beaumont and Taylor Rose has been very impressive in 2021. Their strategy fits hand in glove with the current pattern of working remotely, whether enforced through lockdown or as part of the new workplace.

With all the uncertainty surrounding 2020, I had expected to find a high number of trainees qualifying without being retained or hired elsewhere, however, this didn’t seem to be the case. Retention rates were high, although not as high as 2019. I encountered far fewer trainee solicitors looking at options, many having decided early to remain with their principal training firm. In the summer of 2020, there was also a decrease in available NQ options both in London and regionally.

*Legal Cheeks retention rates study.

I remain incredibly positive going forward in 2021 for the legal profession. Brexit is complete and I believe once normal life returns the economy will bounce. Law firms have got themselves into great shape for the future and will continue to thrive.

I wish you every success for 2021


First Position is your most important

Getting your first NQ position is really the most important decision of your career. It will set you on the right path and is very much the building block for your future. Shaping your career starts from the training you get post qualification, so it is important to start considering the following points very early:

1, What is my preferred area of law?

2, What type of law firm do I want to be at?

3, What are my long-term career aspirations?

4 Do I have any geographical boundaries?

September can seem a long time away in February, but there are definitely some real advantages to considering these questions and making decisions early.

Many law firms have acknowledged these changes in NQ thinking over the last five years and certainly the process of securing an NQ position has been brought forward. As in previous years, many law firms are increasingly keen in securing their best trainees on qualification as early as possible. Even during 2020 many trainees reported into us that they had been able to secure a position in the spring even with the stresses and concerns of the start of the pandemic.

We have always said if you are able to secure a position in the spring it will provide you an opportunity to influence your final seat and will be beneficial to your new position (whether at your current firm or a new employer).

If you have been successful in securing a double seat in your chosen practice area this should give you a clear advantage during the process of getting your first position. Alongside a greater level of experience, you should benefit from greater technical knowledge and confidence when you start.

If your training firm does offer you an NQ role and you are comfortable that it is the best place for you to develop in your chosen practice area, your decision is simple, but resist the temptation to stay just because it is convenient.  As mentioned, benchmark any offer you receive against the questions above. The early years of your career are vital in shaping your future.

International & Offshore NQ market 

The offshore sector has weathered the inherent challenges of a global pandemic remarkably well, with the ten market leaders continuing to recruit across their international networks. Whilst minimum levels of 3-5 years post-qualification experience are required in the Caribbean and Bermuda, the Channel Islands remain a fertile ground for NQ’s seeking elite level cross-border work and City level salaries, without the drawbacks of life in a City law firm.

Joining a leading offshore law firm in Jersey or Guernsey, you will notice that the culture is relaxed but the standards are every bit as high as any major onshore firm. Junior lawyers can expect plenty of responsibility from the outset and client contact comes as standard, so this is worth considering if you are looking to fast-track your development. In the longer term, experience gained here is prized by top UK firms (should you decide to return home), but many choose to build a career in the offshore world, either within the Channel Islands or further afield in the Caribbean or Asia.

Dubai Marina skyscrapers

You are likely to need good academics and a training contract with a respected UK/international firm including seats in one or more of; corporate, banking and finance, investment funds, financial services or commercial litigation. Starting salaries are around £60k-£65k with 20% tax and all firms offer a relocation and benefits package. The advantages of island life are manifold, perhaps now more than ever, with both Jersey and Guernsey navigating Covid-19 with some aplomb. It is a friendly place, easy to settle and ideal for anyone who fancies a more outdoors, coastal lifestyle without compromising their career path.

As for NQ roles in the onshore world, we anticipate that opportunities will be more limited in 2021 as firms continue to fill international roles internally due to a less heated recruitment market in London. It is inevitable that positions will come up in places like the Middle East, Singapore and Hong Kong, but we anticipate that they will arise late in the process when internal recruitment drives are complete, and they are likely to be highly competitive. Nevertheless, if you have credentials from a top-tier firm, and particularly if you have prior international experience (such as a seat overseas), opportunities may arise so we would encourage you to register your interest.

Contact Jason Horobin if you would like more information about the international market for NQ lawyers. – [email protected]  +44 (0)1206 233500 You can also view our Guide to Building an International Career here

NQ London Market

Despite initial fears in Spring 2020, the pandemic has not led to the widespread NQ attrition a lot of people expected.  This will be of little consolation to those whose qualification hopes were affected at the time but there are signs that with a recovering market that there will be the opportunity for them to get their career back on track.   London has quickly adapted to mass home working.  Although there is no substitution for actual face time when it comes to learning, the class of 2020/21 have also adapted to supervision by Zoom & Teams.  As the vaccine roll out continues, we hope that there will be the opportunity to return to the office so they can also work on business development and marketing skills.

Since summer 2020 the legal sector has picked up significantly.  M&A and corporate activity is busy as well as areas such as litigation, real estate investment (resi and commercial) employment, family and private client.  I hope this will lead to improved retention rates in 2021.  The US firms continue to put pressure on the market with pay rises and this has also seen some of the UK elite firms reverse the temporary pay cuts.  The question remains though, whether they will feel the pressure to review salaries in 2021?

Although not every firm in London runs their qualification process in March and September, the general rule of thumb if you are considering a move and want some advice is to speak to your recruiter 3-6 months prior to qualification.  Most firms run their internal processes about 3 months before qualification and that is when we are in a better position to know what external roles are likely to come up.  It is worth noting though that certain niche sectors such as Planning, Pensions, Construction, Funds are always in demand.  Therefore, if you are certain you want to qualify into a niche area, you can sometimes pay to get a jump on the market.  Predictions for 2021 remain uncertain.  Although early signs are positive, it remains to be seen what impact Brexit may have on certain sectors such as Finance, Corporate, Commercial, IP and Litigation. Therefore, I would encourage any NQs who think their practice area may be affected to get in touch early.  At Origin Legal our aim is to build long term relationships and we believe it is crucial to get sensible and objective advice at an early stage of your career.  Many of our former NQs are now Partners who have gone onto become clients, so if you would like a chat, then get in touch.

In summary:

  • Despite initial attrition in March 2020, the market has recovered
  • Chances of internal retention is good
  • Contact your recruiter for advice 3-6 months before qualification

Contact Stuart Phillips, Managing Consultant with responsibility for covering London – 07725 246 857 or [email protected]

In the words of Karen Bexley and Anna Beaumont, both founders and Co-CEO of Bexley Beaumont:

“2020 saw many lawyers reflect on their career and question what they wanted from a law firm. At Bexley Beaumont we provide the infrastructure lawyers need and are used to but combined with an innovative model which allows lawyers the control, autonomy and financial freedom they desire. We understand that lawyers still want to feel part of a firm, they want to get to know their colleagues and they want to be able to trust them with their clients’ work. Our inclusive and collaborative Team Culture and uncompromising approach to quality reflects what many lawyers are looking for right now”.

September 2021 NQ Timetable:

February/ March

Engage a good and experienced recruitment consultant. Ask friends for referrals; speak to previous year trainees and find out who they would recommend; look for specialists in your market. LinkedIn is a great tool for checking your recruiter’s background if they are unknown to you. Check their online LinkedIn recommendations to see if they have moved candidates similar to you and have experience of your chosen practice area and location. A good recruiter will be able to advise you on the range of opportunities available and the best way of going about securing a position. Try to start the process of making internal applications to the jobs you want at your training firm.

Start thinking about the area of law that you would like to practice and the locations you would like to work in. Also, try and engineer discussions with your training firm about your final seat. Aim to make that seat work for you and your chosen practice area on qualification.

Prepare your paperwork. Work with your recruiter to produce a strong CV that is tailored to the roles and locations you are targeting. Consider including a profile that highlights your motivations and career ambitions. Also, consider who you will use as referees and make sure your academic certificates are accessible in case needed.

April / May

Continue to investigate internal applications. Ensure you have a strong LinkedIn profile which can be viewed by potential employers to support your application. Add a professional picture to your LinkedIn profile if needed and try to ensure you have good, professional content on your page. Your LinkedIn profile is the main access point to your information alongside your CV. It is equally as important.

Try to focus on the geographical areas and specific discipline you are looking for. Make applications and attend interviews in these areas. Hopefully, with some detailed interview coaching and support from your recruitment consultant, you can secure the position you want.


If you have not secured a position in your chosen location/discipline continue to keep a watchful eye on your local market. Also, this is the time to widen the search into different geographical areas or a 2nd choice discipline.


If you are still available in August widen your search with recruiters to ensure you are visible for when those final September positions are released.


Start your new position.

About The Author

Picture of Taylor Day
Taylor Day
Picture of Taylor Day
Taylor Day

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