Big Law Ramps Up LL.M. Recruitment to Ride Deals Boom

In varied practice areas pay deals are climbing to record highs amid a fierce competition for law school talent

Last summer, law firms were cutting costs to withstand the impact of the pandemic. They reined in recruitment for most roles — save for insolvency, restructuring and litigation. Now, there is a talent war thanks to a period of frenzied corporate dealmaking. And the job prospects for LL.M. graduates are looking much brighter in varied practice areas as pay deals climb to record highs.

“The job market is looking much stronger than it was at this time last year, and we are optimistic that this will result in greater opportunities for LL.M. students who are graduating in 2022,” says Claire Lee, Associate Director of Professional Development for the American Law, Banking and Finance, Intellectual Property, and Tax LL.M. programs at Boston University School of Law.

Tax, bankruptcy, cyber security, data privacy, labor, employment and healthcare are the practice areas that are in the highest demand right now. “We are also seeing upticks in capital markets and IPOs with a ton of demand, especially in the Asian legal market,” Lee says.

From tech to private equity and beyond: hot careers for LL.M. grads

Knowledge of practice areas that are heating up or cooling off, can be crucial for law school graduates’ professional development. Caroline Springer, Assistant Dean for Georgetown Law’s Office of Graduate Careers in Washington D.C, sees strong hiring in almost every area that LL.M. students are interested in.

“Technology law (including fintech and emerging technologies) are hot areas, in addition to corporate transactional work,” she says. “For our Tax LL.M. students, there is strong hiring for executive compensation and employee benefits positions.”

The top tier international law firms have benefited from robust global M&A activity, with private equity houses striking more than $500bn worth of deals in the six months to June alone.

Pay is rising fast as a result. Pay deals and bonuses have hit record highs at the most elite law firms. Amid a frantic war for talent, Linklaters hiked pay for newly qualified lawyers to £107,500, while Slaughter and May raised salaries to £100,000. At the top end, record results from frenzied deals activity has sent pay for partners soaring. Equity partners at Allen & Overy, and Clifford Chance took home almost £2m each on average this year.

At a time of fierce competition for talent, for experienced lawyers who are working or applying to middle-tier firms, it is a good time to negotiate a pay rise. “If during the negotiation, they request to get paid according to their competitors and experience, and the firm doesn’t move towards that direction, then, it would just be a matter of time for them to get contacted by a head-hunter,” says Silvia Argilés, Associate Director of Employer Engagement at ESADE Law School in Barcelona, Spain.

Failing to negotiate can impact a student’s future earning potential and most recruiters expect that a candidate will ask if there is flexibility with a salary offer anyway.

For some LL.M. grads, careers are about more than just salary

Yet pay alone may not be enough for law firms to ensure talent attraction or retention. Lawyers at the top firms have been in high demand for the past 12 months and many have seen their hours increase. And the top law schools say that working culture and wellbeing are an even more important consideration for LL.M. graduates this year.

“There is certainly a greater appreciation for work/life balance issues and flexible work options than there has been in the past,” says BU Law’s Lee.

“Law school graduates can assess and learn more about a firm’s workplace culture through the interview process as well as from alumni working at the firm.”

At the same time, lawyers have been grounded to some extent with less travel and event attendance, but the increase in remote working can lesson opportunities for networking and mentorship, which are important aspects of career development. “Professional development and mentorship opportunities are important considerations for law school graduates, beyond pay and bonuses,” Lee says.

Another change in the legal recruitment market has been the increasing use of technology to interview potential recruits. It can be challenging to interview virtually, however this can also be to students’ advantage, as it gives them the opportunity to connect with people and apply for positions in ways that are more geographically diverse.

The best way for students to successfully navigate the world of virtual recruitment is to ensure that they are still making a strong connection with the recruiter, even if it is through a screen. This means maintain eye contact, ensuring good lighting, and making sure that you are using the features available when in group activities.

“Virtually, the goal is still the same: evaluating whether the candidate is aligned with the company’s core values and has the right motivation and drive for the position,” says Isabel Roca from ESADE’s careers department.

Beyond Zoom interviews and online business cases, the freshest approaches include gamification and the use of artificial intelligence. “Online escape rooms are a great example, helping firms to evaluate core competencies (team work, problem-solving, analytical skills), while offering a different experience to the candidate where it is easier for them to be their authentic self,” she says.

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