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Record levels of employment, stalled migration and pandemic-induced restlessness: the perils of post-COVID recruitment.

On the eve of the Federal Election in May, the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced the national unemployment rate was 3.5 per cent – the lowest it had ever been for a monthly survey. “The last time the unemployment rate was lower than this was in August 1974, when the survey was quarterly.” 

Amid the scramble to hold onto talent is the risk, particularly in law firms, that some staff may be promoted prematurely as a means of holding onto them. One discussion point during the Law Society’s Leaders in Law roundtable series was whether there is a need for capability frameworks as the drive for higher salaries collides with not as much experience as would traditionally fill some roles. 

Are some lawyers now being promoted too fast, too soon, due to issues of talent retention? Both as an incentive to keep young people and because so many people are taking heed of ‘The Great Resignation’ and moving on to other careers? 

“You are seeing some employers offering crazy amounts of money to attract staff. It has either meant a false economy starts to generate, where we see some salaries being offered above and beyond what we would usually see for roles … or firms not willing to increase salaries and therefore wearing a heavy caseload,” Law Society President Joanne van der Plaat says. 

Law Society President Joanne van der Plaat Law Society President Joanne van der Plaat

It might be great as a younger lawyer to think, ‘Wow, someone’s just offered me $100,000 after one year out of law school’. But …  that lawyer may not have built up the skills … to know what is expected of them

“The concern for me about that is, it might be great as a younger lawyer to think, ‘Wow, someone’s just offered me $100,000 after one year out of law school’. But with that comes all of the other responsibilities and obligations, and that lawyer may not have built up the skills to have the time and to know what is expected of them if they’re going to be paid that level of money.” 

Many attendees at the roundtable discussion acknowledged there was not a growing talent pool and some hoped an influx of skilled migration visas may assist as Australia settles back into life with an open border. Retention issues go hand-in-glove with problems with recruitment. Some mid-tier firms reported during the Law Society’s second Leaders in Law Roundtable in April that “it is just a struggle to get people through the door”.

The first Roundtable noted the importance helping regional firms with the issue of recruitment, retention and succession, despite an increase in the number of solicitors moving to regional areas. “Although we know this is not just a regional issue, with many of you struggling to find good talent,” van der Plaat said.    

“We are also looking at ways in which we can expand our resources and services to help with business development for small to medium firms. These firms are without dedicated HR or IT departments and often lack the expertise in innovating, creating sustainable businesses or employing staff.” 

While perhaps no CEO has been as vocal in announcing their disapproval of hybrid working models as Tesla boss Elon Musk, who in June announced that all staff must return to the office for a minimum 40 hours (five standard business days) per week or “pretend to work somewhere else”.

Musk, who at the time of making the comments had been in the process of buying Twitter (he is now seeking to walk away from his bid), also hinted at turning the platform’s San Francisco base into a homeless shelter given no staff were using it.

 “In the broader context of legal workplaces, findings suggest members might benefit from help: facilitating remote networking; addressing difficulties developing junior staff during remote working arrangements; and in the area of staff mental health and wellbeing, advice and guidance managing the increasing blur between work and homelife, dealing with isolation, and helping to put downward pressure on pace and workloads during the pandemic.” 

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Is there is a need for capability frameworks as the drive for higher salaries collides with a deficit of experience for younger lawyers?

Business leader Peter Harmer believes the record unemployment rate is stifling retention – after two years of holding onto a role because it was guaranteed income during times of uncertainty, workers are now backing themselves, testing their prospects on a market under pressure. Now, personal needs trump organisation needs.

“I think switching jobs slowed down a lot over the past two years because people were unsure and uncertain, and many were very pleased with the way their organisations responded in terms of flexible working and trying to keep them safe,” Harmer says. 

“All of that now has just become an expectation. It’s just a standard offering, right? It’s no longer a differentiator for firms. And I think as we hit this sort of higher inflation environment, what I’m experiencing across the companies I work with is that remuneration is becoming much more central to the employee value proposition that has been for the last five to maybe even 10 years. 

“We’re going to see businesses under a lot of pressure to pay more. All these other elements of the employee value proposition are just becoming an expectation because we are nearly at full employment.” 

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