Legal recruitment specialist McLeod Duminy gives the verdict on the state of New Zealand’s legal profession, writes Dani Wright

New Zealand has one of the highest ratios of lawyers per population in the world, and competition for graduate law positions is high.

But, when you do land the graduate dream job, as well as a stimulating career, some of the challenges you are likely to face in your future at work will be trying to achieve the elusive work/life balance, as well as potential mental health issues.

In fact, managing mental health in the workplace was the third biggest HR issue for firms, according to the 2019 ALPMA/McLeod Duminy New Zealand Legal Industry Salary & HR Issues Survey, released at the end of March.

"Lawyers are more prone to mental health issues than any other profession," says legal recruitment company McLeod Duminy's director Kirsty Spears. "They are often alpha personality types and perfectionists, so they need to be better looked after in the workplace."

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It's no surprise that while working 12- to 14-hour days consistently may be good for your career, it doesn't leave enough time to connect with friends and family, beneficial for mental health.

"Any disappointment or sense of things not going as planned can be hard on perfectionists, many of whom may not be very resilient when things go wrong," says Spears. "Everyone needs some downtime, so firms need to make sure they provide balance."

Salaries have also stayed stagnant in the industry, despite the No.1 HR issue in the survey being around firms thinking that attracting the right candidates was something they would need to address in the coming year.

"That was a major finding, the fact that salaries hadn't particularly changed for the past year, or even the past three of four years," says Spears. "Firms are not responding with the most obvious candidate-attraction tool."

Staff retention and performance management were the second challenges foreseen by law firms, according to the research.

In a secondary research poll of candidates by McLeod Duminy, professional development and difficulty in achieving promotion to partner level were some of the issues highlighted by lawyers.

Many also felt the legal industry was rigid, old-fashioned and lacking in transparency, yet at the same time the candidates overwhelmingly felt individual law firms were supporting them to achieve their career goals.

"We're seeing a bit more of a recognition of the fact lawyers want different things," says Spears. "Once, it was quite a traditional and conservative profession, but that's not working any more and there needs to be more flexibility in work culture, more diversity and a focus on mental health — hopefully we will see those things more and more in the legal profession."

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And although individual firms seem to be doing a sound job of meeting candidate expectations, the poll suggests that the wider profession is not. Respondents cited bullying "from the other side", indicating that whereas some firms are managing internal behaviour, this isn't extending to all professional settings.

Technology is also seen as a threat, outpacing a traditionally slow-turning profession. The perception also lingers of law as an "old boys' club" replete with old-fashioned structures, despite highly publicised efforts to encourage diversity.

"Despite the challenges, it's still a very strong market in New Zealand and seems to ride out any peaks and troughs in the economy," says Spears. "Demand for good lawyers has been consistently strong and the pressure point is finding the good people; it's getting harder."

She says an ideal candidate will have good communication skills and be able to see a commercial, rather than purely legal, side of things, as well as understanding the emotional realities of clients.

"In New Zealand, there are so many small- to medium-sized businesses," says Spears. "A lawyer needs to realise that it is an emotional, as well as business entity for their clients — it's their baby."

Legal jobs can be quite niche and once you've specialised in one area, it's likely to be hard to change. Spears recommends thinking of areas where an increase of compliance issues is creating a new stream of work.

"Law runs with changes in the outside world, so the past couple of years has seen a demand for employment law following changes to areas, such as health and safety," she says. "Anything that's going to be heavily regulated, such as IT, will be growth areas for lawyers."

In terms of safeguarding against being in an obsolete niche area, Spears is hoping law firms will start to multi-skill their lawyers. For example, having a main area of speciality, then a secondary area of skill.

"Lawyers like to develop and learn, so a secondary skillset would be attractive to them as a learning opportunity," says Spears, who believes the legal profession is still a solid career choice.

"If you're willing to put in the time needed to achieve academic results and work hard in your 20s, the rewards are still there at the other end," says Spears.

"It still offers fascinating work and intellectual stimulation but you need to work very hard to get to a place where doors open up for you."