To quote the late Douglas Adams “Don’t Panic”. While recruitment in the planning sector has slowed down, due to the unprecedented times that we now find ourselves in, most recruitment processes are paused, not cancelled.
The planning sector has demonstrated that it can be one of the most adaptable sectors in the legal profession, with hearings now virtual, Zoom meetings common-place and lawyers quickly adapting to a working from home environment. However, as with any disruptive event something has to give and in the short term this appears to be recruitment. People considering their career options should not lose heart! I believe that this is only a temporary disruption and when things return to the new normal, the work will return.
The infrastructure sector has traditionally been a very stable marketplace and this looked set to continue following Rishi Sunak’s first budget. However, the Court of Appeal’s decision regarding Heathrow makes me wonder if this may have implications for other transport projects which could lead to some uncertainty. Despite this, there seems to be more positive news for renewable energy projects with onshore wind potentially back on the agenda. This may have a short-term impact on recruitment into infrastructure teams and the best advice I can give at this time is to diversify your experience as much as it is practicable.
It appears that it is business as usual in the development sector albeit at a slower pace as local authorities and developers adapt to new ways of working. However, in unprecedented times there is always going to be caution regarding spending, so this is likely to filter down to the legal sector. The implications of this may mean that while pipelines and promised work remains solid, all but necessary recruitment maybe paused until there is more certainty regarding the current situation. However, there are positive signs, as several of the larger firms are already planning ahead for the long-term by beginning virtual processes. Some clients have said to me “it is more of a case of when, not if.”
So what impact is the above likely to have on recruitment in planning? Below is a brief analysis of what I think may happen at varying levels and the best advice I can give at this time.
NQ’s are likely to have the most concerns at what is traditionally an uncertain time anyway. They should take some comfort from the fact that there are usually fewer numbers looking to qualify into this technical sector, and that firms will hire talented individuals where they can, as they know how difficult it can be to hire when competition for candidates is intense. My advice is to pursue any internal planning roles should they become available and we can look at the broader market for you if there is any uncertainty or competition.
It is possible that NQ’s may need to pursue alternative options, such as roles out of their preferred geographical area (although caution is often exercised by clients regarding relocation with good reason), or within the Public Sector. During the 2008/9 financial crisis I advised many upcoming junior lawyers on alternative positions and I am pleased to say that many are now happy in private practice and some are now partners. It’s also worth remembering that this is different from the financial crisis and I anticipate/hope for a sharp upturn in work when we return. I am also hearing some firms are offering to defer qualification. If this works for you financially, then I can see no harm in it and again, I know of several planning lawyers who took advantage of various schemes 10 years ago.
Qualified Associate to Senior Associate Approx 1-6 PQE
Planning lawyers at this level often make the bulk of the moves during a normal recruitment market. Having been through a period of sustained growth and demand for talent, this is the first short term pause in the market we have had for some time. I am keen to emphasise that the market is merely paused at this stage as demand was very high both up to and into March 2020 and I believe developers will be keen to make the most of opportunities when things return to normal. I have been saying for some time that the demand for planning lawyers outside of London continues to grow. Therefore, I can see this as a good opportunity for those firms with a regional presence to use this as an opportunity to attract talent with long-term plans to relocate. As I have already stated, some practices with a strong commitment to this sector are continuing with the processes virtually with a view to hiring in the long-term
Senior Associate/Legal Directors 6 years +
I would say the recruitment market for Senior Associates is less clear at present and we may see the most significant slowdown in vacancy volume at this level. This is likely to be because firms are only likely to hire where there is sufficient capacity and business case. Given the relative high salaries this may have an impact in larger teams. However, where some firms do not have a partner presence, we may continue to see vacancies arise. I also anticipate fewer in-house roles as clients are looking to cut back on their costs. However, there could be some respite in growth areas such as renewable energy and rail.
2019 was a very busy year for lateral partner moves in Planning, so with a lot of those moves still bedding in I believe we may see fewer in 2020. In any case, I suspect practices will be less inclined to take a risk without being very confident in a business case. It could be argued though that now is the ideal time to begin the search, if you are confident that your business plan stacks up. With fewer competitors in the market there is still a need for expert advice especially outside of London, so now could be a very good time to consider regional opportunities. It is further worth bearing in mind that any partner move is likely to take 12-18 months, so forward-thinking practices may be keen to begin processes while others are not.