Australian associates: A 2024 market snapshot

At Marsden we are well-known for helping to move associates to, from and within the Australian market. As 2024 gets underway, what is the current state of play and what are our predictions for this year?

Global mobility slowed considerably in 2023 and will continue to be slow in the first half of the year.  The bar has been raised for lawyers moving internationally and in all locations local candidates are the preferred option. As a result of the reduced number of positions available, firms are applying higher standards to recruiting and even when getting to the interview stage. Interviews are also tougher. In the face of increased competition for prized roles, international candidates in particular will have to shine.

We are more optimistic about the second half of the year if markets pick up. We are already seeing some green shoots, but these are firm and practice area specific and not across the board.

International moves are still possible in key areas for those with the right CVs. Firm background, experience and academics—as well as someone’s reasons for making a prior move—will all be examined more closely. The bar to entry has been raised by most firms. Those with jumpy CVs might struggle. For those with strong CVs there are, and will be, opportunities to move overseas, but hiring will be based on strategic needs and employee attrition rather than a desire for growth.

There will still be candidate shortages. Lawyers with strong CVs are in limited supply. It’s a great time to move if you have a stellar CV and first class academics and you are at the right level and have spot-on experience for the role on offer. There will be very little opportunity to pivot.

Some practice groups will be busier than others. In the US right now there is demand for Project Finance, Energy Transition and Energy M&A as well as Banking & Finance (for some firms). In London, stand-out Private Equity, M&A, Projects and Project Finance lawyers are still finding homes with premier firms but competition is stiff. Across all areas, needs are specific and hiring is not opportunistic.

More interview preparation is needed. Whether for a local or international role, interviews will be harder, have a stronger technical focus, and more people will not get through the process. Take the time to make sure your CV is the optimum account of your abilities and experience, and that you know it inside out. You also need to ensure that you are completely on top of developments in your practice area.

Candidates are unlikely to be holding multiple offers. Associates will have to judge the quality of an offer on its own merits and there will be little opportunity to compare offers. Signing bonuses are generally a thing of the past – unless a firm can’t match a current salary in a local move because of internal relativities.

The Australian market has quietened down but there are good reasons to be optimistic for 2024.  Australia has historically fared better than other geographies but the last quarter of 2023 produced strong headwinds for Australian law firms, and transactional  areas are mostly down. We are hopeful that these will pick up for 2024 but for now recruitment is about replacement, not growth.

Recruitment is far less opportunistic and much more strategic. If international markets pick up, there will be more gaps to fill in the Australian market and more opportunities will arise. Until then, Disputes teams dominate and are very busy. Employment and Real Estate teams in leading firms are also active. Most hiring will concentrate at mid-levels, and lawyers with 4-8 years will be in most demand.

Australian lawyers working overseas will always be welcomed home and overseas experience gained from premier firms overseas will be highly valued.  However there will be more bottlenecks for progression and coming home at a senior level does not always ensure a fast track to partner. Expect delays, as there will be fewer partner promotions in 2024.

Australian hiring will be mostly focussed on mid-levels. Very junior and very senior positions will be thinner on the ground. Positions are less likely to be created, even for those with outstanding CVs. Hires will need additional approval from management and a business case from the hiring team. Lawyers with less than three years’ experience are unlikely to be able to move internationally, and lawyers with less than two years are unlikely to be able to move locally.

Patience is the key to progression…but also, carpe diem! If a great opportunity arises, go for it. Your desired personal timing should not get in the way of taking advantage of a fantastic prospect, especially if it’s overseas.

Just as we expect fewer partner promotions, we expect more senior lawyers to jump ship for immediate partner opportunities or for better positioning, where you will have to compete in a less crowded space. This is one of our sweet spots in terms of expert advice.

If you are an Australian lawyer looking to make a move in 2024, get in touch with one of our experienced team: Jonathan Walmsley, Lucy Cullinan, Daniel Hogan, Ben Smith.