I have delayed writing a general update on recruitment trends in the planning and environment market as I was interested to see how the first quarter of 2023 settled following talk of an economic slow-down. Although the slow-down is manifesting itself in other sectors such as Real Estate and Corporate * the demand for planning lawyers if anything has accelerated. I believe there are several explanations for this. Fundamentally, Planning & Environment is a niche discipline that has historically been under-lawyered. The reasons for this are that the lure of other sectors has tempted juniors away and the technical nature of it means that those who choose to work in it do so because they genuinely enjoy it. In other words, you don’t just fall into it. In addition, I am told that levels of work continue to grow across all sectors and this is fuelling demand for experienced lawyers.
In the past, supply and demand of candidates typically followed the confidence in the economy. For example, during the financial crisis of 2008/9 many redundancies were made and few trainees were retained. Therefore, when the market began to pick up it was relatively easy to hire. The pandemic didn’t really affect job security for planning lawyers (despite initial fears) as complex projects rumbled on. When workloads picked up at the end of 2020, those who had delayed looking for a move were in a good position as there were a wide variety of roles available in the market. Practices also found it relatively easy to hire. For a while, the equilibrium was good. However, as we moved through 2021 and into 2022, we began to see unprecedented demand for lawyers in this sector as we emerged from the pandemic.
There have been some interesting trends over the last 3 years. Firstly, there has been a rise in the number of In-house roles. The majority of these have been regional locations in the infrastructure sector. Candidates are often attracted by the alternative non-fee earning option and the chance to get under the skin of a commercial business or organisation who themselves are looking to reduce legal spend. Secondly, the Partner and Legal Director market has also picked up with some notable moves in the North and also the capital. Several firms have identified that Planning and Environment are key sectors for growth over the next few years and are investing by laterally hiring talented partners. It is also interesting to note some firms who have previously not had planning functions have been investing in them as well. Thirdly, some of the more innovative firms are embracing new technology as they prepare for the inevitable introduction of AI and the impact this will have on the profession.
So, what does this mean for the recruitment market today? The simple answer is that an abundance of work in a constantly changing market grappling with issues such as ESG, BNG and potential reform of the infrastructure consenting process means it is tough to hire good people in 2023. This is good news for job seekers who are fortunate enough to be able to choose from the roles available in the market and select the type of practice that is right for them. As has always been the case with planning lawyers, it isn’t necessarily about the money. Quality of work tends to be the primary motivation, followed by career progression and increasingly, flexibility.
*In London only
Having said this, money can be a sticking point when London-based lawyers are looking for better progression potentially offered in the regions. The eternal question remains, do you take the short-term hit for the long-term gain?
As things stand demand for mid-level Associates (circa 1-4) remains most intense across the whole of the country. It is also especially difficult to find people in areas such as Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham and Scotland. If you are a Planning Lawyer considering relocating, then now is the time to do so. Barring any unforeseen economic shocks, I predict 2023 will continue this pattern which is encouraging. However, for firms to take full advantage of the work available, being able to hire the right people remains crucial.