Post-recession the legal planning market has proved to be relatively robust and in 2013 is showing signs of a sustained recovery with improved retention rates for junior solicitors and an improved recruitment market across the country.
In the immediate years following the recession, planning teams were heavily reliant on work derived from government backed major infrastructure projects including renewable and non-renewable energy, transport and large regeneration projects such as the London Olympics. However, as the economy continues to recover the planning firms that traditionally have a bias toward development work are getting to the point where they can no longer rely on their reduced headcount and are now turning their attention to new hires.
Another significant factor to take into account is that as the legal market evolves and becomes more global the number of firms maintaining real estate as a core area has significantly shifted. Today many former property power houses are significantly smaller as they seek more profitable global work. This has had a direct knock on effect within the planning sector with a noticeable decline in some P&E teams, particularly in large city practices with high overheads to cover. The result of this is that the overall talent pool has significantly reduced leaving the firms who have returned to the recruitment market facing a skill shortage at the 0-4 year level.
In contrast at the senior end, lawyers earning premium salaries but who are not Partners risk redundancy as management teams look to balance the books.
Some practices have been very shrewd in this market and have made significant client gains by offering a full service planning and consenting function by being creative with their charge out rates and migrating work of a less premium nature out to the regions. Although this is not a new concept, these practices are now beginning to challenge the established order.
There will always be the need for top tier planning advice based in the city but now that clients with leaner budgets can see the benefits of getting their work done on a more cost effective basis, then this should be seen as an opportunity for growth for teams looking to establish or cement a presence in this area. This should continue to be sustainable following recent updates in legislation, the announcement on infrastructure spending following the government spending review, as well as the continued need for housing and the potential of shale gas.
Stuart Phillips is a Senior Consultant in the London Private Practice team of Origin Legal.