NZ Lawyers… Your Questions, Answered.
This month, Matthew Hart, Sonders Director – Head of Australia was interviewed by New Zealand Law Society’s (NZLS) AYL Committee Member Charlotte Lewis. In the interview, they discussed what overseas legal markets will look like for New Zealand qualified lawyers in the near future.
Matthew was able to shed some light on this topic and provide some key market trends and helpful advice on how to prepare for such a move during the current climate.
In case you missed it, here is the full interview.
Q. Are you able to provide some insight on what overseas (particularly United States, United Kingdom and Australia) legal opportunities are likely to look like next year?
Matthew Hart: The world economy will bounce back, law firms will be busy and there will be opportunities across law firms and in-house legal teams in all three markets. The more difficult questions to answer are around visas / work permits.
COVID has been devastating for the United States, particularly cities like New York. Until the dust settles, it’s hard to predict what 2021 will look like. With travel restrictions and unemployment levels rising, we are anticipating US visa processes to be longer and more complicated. The best opportunities for Kiwi lawyers (unless you have a US passport) are likely to come through internal transfers (i.e. from US firm’s Hong Kong office to same US firm’s New York City office) or through intakes following completion of a Masters programme at a well respected law school, such as Harvard or Columbia.
Despite COVID and Brexit, United Kingdom firms will continue to hire strong Kiwi lawyers. If you are eligible for the Tier 5 Youth Mobility Visa, this is a big plus, but don’t despair if you don’t qualify, as there are still plenty of firms in the market that can and will sponsor lawyers through the Tier 2 visa. If you are between 3-8 years PQE and have big law firm experience, you will have opportunities in London.
NZ passport holders can travel and work in Australia without any trouble at all. Top tier and mid-tier Australian law firms will continue to hire Kiwis across all practice areas. We are expecting increased opportunities for NZ lawyers across the Australian market if travel restrictions make it difficult for European, UAE, US and Asia-based lawyers to move to Australia in 2021.
Q. What, if anything, does COVID-19 mean for Brexit?
Matthew Hart – COVID means more questions than answers, unfortunately. The pandemic has disrupted everything, including world trade and immigration. As Britain moves through the 2020 Brexit transition year, it’s going to be interesting to see whether the added complications around trade and travel, and the economic impact, will call for a longer transition period. Can a new trade deal with the EU be agreed with the added complication of COVID? Can the UK agree to new trade deals with Australia and New Zealand? How will these deals impact work visas? What does this mean for Australian and NZ-qualified lawyers?
This is an unprecedented situation, but despite all of this uncertainty, we are expecting London to long remain a viable destination for Kiwi lawyers. 2020 will certainly be a down year in terms of recruitment of foreign qualified lawyers, but we are quietly optimistic that 2021 will bring with it positivity and growth, leading to an increase in opportunities across the legal sector. This should lead to plenty of job offers for Kiwi lawyers.
A key ingredient to success is getting the process mapped out early and keeping in regular contact with a recruitment consultant that understands the landscape and is in tune with what is important to you in your search and next role.
Q. What can New Zealand lawyers do to compete with those that are already in overseas markets? More generally, what can NZ lawyers do to increase their chances of getting a job overseas post COVID-19?
Matthew Hart – Instead of seeing COVID-19 in a completely negative light, young lawyers can use this time to develop any skills they have that may set them apart from other applicants. For example, if you are looking to work in an Asian market and you have language skills, but you aren’t professionally proficient, can you brush up on these skills over the next 6 – 12 months? If you’re looking to work in New York, can you start looking into the New York Bar requirements?
Even though it may feel like plans have been put on hold, it is important to focus on the now and your individual circumstances. You should be asking yourself the following questions:
- Which market do I want to work in? Do I have alternative options?
- What types of lawyers are in demand in these markets? M&A, banking and finance, restructuring, construction? What PQE level do Kiwi qualified lawyers get to before being hired in these markets?
- Does my current firm have brand recognition and a strong reputation in these markets?
You should always pay mind to the importance of tenure and continuity on your CV. If your top priority is a move overseas in the next 6 – 18 months, you should avoid moving laterally across firms in New Zealand unless there are significant push factors (such as those that are impacting your ability to develop and build experience). Young lawyers should ensure they are challenged and should be asking for access to the most complex matters and for increased responsibility. It is also imperative that you are absorbing everything in relation to your individual tasks / work streams. When quizzing you about particular matters on your deal sheet, foreign partners want to be comfortable that you understood what you were doing, why you were doing it and what you learnt from it.
- Young lawyers should be recording their responsibilities and learnings on paper to insert into their CV / to call on in an interview. For transactional lawyers, this would be a deal sheet, and for contentious lawyers, a list of important matters worked on.
- Consider spending some time on business development and winning business for your current firm. Reach out to any friends or connections in smaller entities or start-ups that may be looking to instruct a law firm in the future.
- Consider working on your personal profile by writing articles and insights on topical issues / implications of recent judgments.
- Be consistent with your approach to the search. Securing a role in an overseas market takes time and energy. It is important you stay in regular contact with your recruitment consultant so that you are across the latest updates on your preferred destination.
Q. Are there any practice areas which will see a peak in opportunities? Similarly, any practice areas where demand will be low and opportunities will be minimal?
Matthew Hart – Restructuring and insolvency practices are extremely busy in every market. It is expected that these R&I groups will continue to grow for the next few years. In addition to hiring R&I specialists, insolvency litigation and transactional restructuring groups will regularly hire lawyers who don’t possess these specialist skillsets, as long as they have transferrable skills i.e., commercial litigators for insolvency and transactional finance lawyers for restructuring.
Investment funds groups are extremely busy, particularly in offshore markets such as the Cayman Islands. There are three key drivers for this:
- Hedge funds are trying to stop clients mass withdrawing cash out of panic;
- Private equity groups are setting up funds to buy distressed assets; and
- SMEs are frantically looking to restructure and refinance to stay afloat.
Investment funds groups in offshore firms will hire Kiwi lawyers who don’t have funds experience, as long as they have transferrable transactional skills (such as corporate M&A) and an interest in upskilling on the funds side of things.
As with any downturn, contentious practice areas are extremely busy. If we take Australia as an example, we are seeing increased levels of class actions with a rising number of litigation funders moving into the market. We are also seeing far-reaching Royal Commission and other regulatory inquiries. As a result, commercial litigation, banking litigation and regulatory disputes groups are some of the busiest in the market.
Construction litigation is also busy with disputes over payment and project deliverables not being met. Front-end construction is mixed and largely depends on an individual firm’s client base. Taking Australia as an example again, construction groups with strong government / public sector client bases are extremely busy with the Government increasing funding for and pushing ahead with major infrastructure projects.
Real estate is the practice area that seems to have been hit the hardest in Australia, and whilst there haven’t been a huge number of redundancies across the big law firms, the majority that we have seen have been within the real estate groups.
Banking and finance and corporate M&A groups are also slower and there are fewer opportunities than what we have seen over the last few years. However, all transactional practice groups are expecting to bounce back in the next 6-12 months. For instance, corporate groups are expecting an uptick in private equity related transactions, with private equity groups looking to purchase distressed assets across the globe. As result, we are expecting to see an increase in demand for private equity and capital markets lawyers.
Q. In the corporate context, do you have any advice for lawyers who may be unable to get ‘big deal’ experience this year?
Matthew Hart – Don’t get too hung up on the dollar figure in the transaction. You should be looking at your experience to date and thinking about areas you can strengthen. Try to take the lead on aspects of smaller deals to demonstrate that you are able to work autonomously or take the lead on an element of the deal you haven’t worked on before.
Have a look at your deal sheet – if you are heavy on the sell side, but you don’t have any experience on buy side transactions, try to get staffed on some of those. If you’ve not worked on an acquisition or sale involving a private equity fund, can you put your hand up for the next one?
Can you get involved in restructuring to diversify your skillset? It is definitely worth looking into if it is an area you are interested in.
Q. Have there been many redundancies in foreign legal markets?
Matthew Hart – There have been some redundancies across all markets, but things are more stable than the media has made it out to be.
Most firms have been thinking about short-term sacrifices to help ensure long term health. Rather than retrench, most firms have implemented measures designed to retain staff for now and into the future. These measures have included deferred pay reviews, hiring freezes, staggered bonuses, pay decreases, reduced hours, and deferred graduate intakes. Some firms have their partners sacrificing most, which is a good message for everyone else at the firm.
Some of these measures, such as hiring freezes and deferral of graduate intakes, are consistent with what happened after the GFC. This inevitably leads to gaps at certain PQE levels. These gaps will, in turn, provide future opportunities for foreign qualified lawyers.
Q. Are there other legal markets that will remain stable or even see growth (markets that young lawyers may have previously overlooked)?
Matthew Hart – There are opportunities for corporate, finance, litigation and regulatory lawyers in the offshore markets (e.g. Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Jersey). Offshore markets are unique in that the vast majority of lawyers are foreign-qualified lawyers (UK, NZ, Aus qualified). As I mentioned earlier, the offshore firms are extremely busy during downturns and they will be proactively recruiting top talent from their preferred markets.
Finance, corporate and funds lawyers with Chinese language skills will continue to see a steady demand for their services in Hong Kong. Similarly, projects, finance and corporate lawyers with Japanese speaking skills will continue to see demand for their skills in Tokyo.
Dublin was a hot market for us in 2019 and the early part of 2020. COVID may slow Dublin’s post-Brexit boom, but we are still expecting to see more growth opportunities in Dublin across construction, corporate, finance, and funds groups.
The first preference for a lot of Kiwis tends to be an international top tier. It’s worth considering top tier and mid-tier Australian law firms across Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Canberra. The national firms have simpler approval processes than their international competitors – i.e. they do not have to get regional and global approval to recruit. We have seen some of these national firms capitalise on this during the last 12 weeks, hiring top of market talent without having to go into a bidding war with several other law firms. These firms have felt the impact of COVID like everyone else, but they are confident that their underutilised groups, such as corporate, will bounce back quickly. Through the strategic hiring of exceptional talent during COVID, these law firms are putting themselves in a stronger position to win major new business when the market bounces back.
Q. I had a couple of friends who either had jobs secured just before lockdown, or who were interviewing prior to lockdown. Have you seen many firms on-boarding new staff remotely?
Matthew Hart – Approaches to remote on-boarding have varied significantly over COVID. It has been done on a case-by-case basis and there are a huge number of factors that go into the remote on-boarding process when it is a foreign qualified lawyer. Some of the considerations that go into it include technology, privacy, tax, and time zones.
We have had some Kiwi lawyers start new roles where they have been on-boarded remotely from hotel rooms in Australia or from New Zealand. Others, including Kiwis and Australians, who have been unable to travel to offshore markets due to airport closures, have had to delay their start dates because the firms have been unable to on-board remotely. Fortunately, these roles aren’t going away – they are just on hold.
Q. Any advice for young lawyers who were looking to move in 2020 – 2021?
Matthew Hart – It is important to remember that this situation isn’t going to last forever. In Australia and New Zealand, in particular, we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. All legal markets will bounce back and resume hiring. It is important to exercise patience and caution when you are looking to make a move overseas. It should be for all the right reasons and not just for any role you can find.