Are US law firms raiding City rivals to poach top qualifying talent?

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By Jonathan Ames on

No, it’s all myth, say recruitment experts — the Yanks are now training enough junior solicitors of their own

As announcements of autumn retention rates of newly qualified lawyers cascade from City law firms, rumours abound that money-bags US practices are ram-raiding their top English counterparts to poach young talent.

Legal Cheek’s own comments section has highlighted the issue over recent days with suggestions that not just magic circle and other top English firms fall victim to the tactic. Commentators moot that newly qualifying lawyers at the offices of mid-tier global US firms paying “London” rates are also in the crosshairs of the White Shoe elite in the UK capital.

But is that view just perception, or is the practice a growing reality? Are US law firms behaving like Second World War GIs — seducing English prey with offers of chocolate and silk stockings?

If that is the case, it would seem a dirty trick. Firm A spends tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds in sponsoring, supporting and then training a wannabe solicitor, only to see that investment stroll out the door on qualification, lured by starting salaries at US Firm B that could be more than 30% higher than Firm A’s best offer.

However, London-based legal profession recruitment specialists argue that poaching may be happening more in the minds of trainees and junior lawyers than in reality.

They maintain that US firms were more likely to engage in poaching a decade or so ago, when their London offices were not likely to offer their own training programmes. In those dark days, say recruiters, some Yankee firms definitely would hang about at the school gate on graduation day, whispering offers of all the bubble gum a newbie lawyer could chew.

But those approaches were unsophisticated and unscientific. Then, the managing partners of US firms were tasked with building up numbers and they were content to let the English City firms do the heavy lifting on the training front. However, the Americans still only had a vague idea of what they were buying.

Today, point out the recruiters, the offices of the big US players in London generally offer their own training schemes, with even the likes of Sullivan & Cromwell these days hiring six UK graduates each year. They form the young minds of their future lawyers and therefore it would not make sense for them to take a punt on those trained elsewhere.

It is difficult to see how US firms would identify suitable trainees at rival English practices,” one specialist told Legal Cheek yesterday. “There is a visibility problem.

For Iain Millard of the London office of recruitment agency Chadwick Nott, the relevant issue is not so much US firms poaching young talent, but the ongoing fallout from the financial crisis.

Millard acknowledges that the top end of the City market has recovered fairly well, but there are still issues at some mid-tier firms, which can struggle to retain as many of their qualifying cohorts as they might like.

During the downturn,” related Millard, “those qualifying in September would start getting in touch with recruitment agencies as early as the previous March. They would express concern and doubt over their firm’s ability to keep them on and would want to start casting around for a qualified job as soon as possible. That is still happening to an extent — but not as much.

In any event, the view among recruiters is that while the Yanks are offering a lot of chocolate, they are generally doling it out to their own newly qualified lawyers.