Despite fears of a pandemic induced recession, the Planning Law sector has been relatively resilient throughout 2020. The volume of vacancies dropped off understandably during March, April, and May as firms sought to consolidate, but since the summer the number of instructions for new roles has steadily increased as workflows have remained constant. Compared to the 2008/9 financial crisis, I believe the situation is different. The main difference seems to be that the work is there and therefore the only reservation teams have in making hires are related to caution as to what the future holds, or hiring freezes imposed by central management.
So what impact is this likely to have on recruitment and vacancies towards the tail end of 2020 and into 2021? I believe we will continue to see a steady turnover of opportunities. The government’s strategy of streamlining the planning process and focussing on building is leading to more work. This coupled with ongoing infrastructure projects and announcements about commitment to renewable energy means the pipeline of work is increasing and hopefully more work means more opportunities. It is also interesting to see the rise in environmental work. However, I don’t see recruitment across the board. I think firms are only likely to hire once they get an approved business case which could mean new vacancies appear in clusters. The message I would therefore advocate is to seize any opportunities that appear.
To focus on prospects in more detail I think it makes sense to break it down into respective qualification brackets.
Juniors NQ -1
It has been a challenging year for NQs. Working from home has made it difficult for them to get direct supervision and as a consequence, there have been fewer external vacancies this year. However, it is not all bad news. Internal retention was good this year and once lockdown eased a number of firms looked to build their teams. As groups get busier, I also anticipate further vacancies in the spring as the new financial year begins. My advice if you are keen to qualify into this sector is to speak to your supervisor early to assess the likelihood of being retained. If it looks as though you will have to consider external options, then December is a good time to start your search.
Mid – Level 2 – 5 years pqe
This has been the sweet spot for vacancies since the summer as firms are looking to hire candidates who need minimal supervision, thereby freeing up more senior lawyers to project manage and business develop. Vacancies have arisen as a result of staff turnover but also as firms restructure their teams following earlier partner hires. The split between firms requiring development experience and DCO experience is currently weighted towards development.
Senior Associate and Legal Directors 6 +
Demand for senior planning expertise will continue but finding roles for more senior lawyers who have high wage requirements can prove more challenging as firms are watching costs closely. This also needs to be balanced by firms looking to manage the development needs of their teams and ensuring that hiring a senior lawyer above existing staff doesn’t upset the balance. However, one thing is certain, the demand for lawyers who can work unsupervised is there.
The need for partners is always subject to business case but the demand seems to be steady, especially at practices who have identified planning as a core part of their growth strategy in 2021. The current challenge seems to be getting board approval to hire. In my experience, the larger the organisation, the longer it takes and more difficult it can be. It does help if the firm treats planning and environment as a growth sector so identifying firms that treat this sector as such is a key factor. It is also worth noting that the alternative business structure firms are growing rapidly and can provide a genuine alternative to Partners whose business case may not meet the expectations of the traditional model.
For a while now I have suggested that there has been a migration of planning work to regional centres in the UK. I believe that 2020 has also led a number of London based lawyers to reflect and consider long term moves away from the capital. This may be mean there are good opportunities for busy regional firms to hire. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that the rise of remote working means it is now more possible than ever to live in the location of your choice but still be in touch with a more centralised office.
- Workloads remain busy in all sectors with environment growing quickly
- Planning & Environment Law is likely to be part of the economic recovery and therefore likely to see growth
- Caution remains about hiring too quickly, so timescales for business cases more lengthy
- Mid-Level Lawyers are likely to see most opportunities
- Regional opportunities are likely to increase although remote working offers more flexibility.