In his monthly Western Mail column, Matt Southall, Acorn's Managing Director reflects on the first year of the group's successful Legal Division.
Earlier this year, we launched our new legal recruitment division, something that would have been hard to fathom back in 2009, when the recession had started to take hold. Despite being hard hit, since then across England and Wales the legal sector has gone from strength to strength, with a recent report showing that the sector grew by 8 percent from 2014-15 to become a £25.7 billion industry.
The sector had faced some different times and one of the main casualties resulting from 2009 has been property law, with many property lawyers at the time being made redundant, forced to re-train or diversify. In fact, so many solicitors were lost from the property sector that one of the biggest challenges many law firms currently face is finding enough qualified and experienced property lawyers at a time when the construction and property sector has been growing.
In part, the recovery can be attributed to the improvement of the economy as a whole. There is always a knock-on effect and most industries are better off now than they were then.
The improvement can also be attributed to law firms' willingness to adapt and change with the times. There was some widespread apprehension when the Legal Services Act 2007 was introduced, with the goal of encouraging competition and enabling previously non-law firms to compete for some legal business. However, many law firms faced these challenges head-on, modernising the way they worked, embracing new technologies and becoming on the whole, much more competitive.
Another factor, as with other thriving sectors in Wales is the Welsh Government's commitment to encouraging businesses to relocate here. Through the work of its Finance & Professional Services team, the Welsh Government is doing an excellent job of enticing English-based law firms to relocate some or all of their business over the bridge.
The advantages to these firms are numerous, not only do they enjoy the support offered by the Government, staff and living costs are both lower, quality of life is consistently recognised as better, and of course the quality of solicitors here in Wales is compatible with anywhere.
The task for Welsh Government is now, of course, is to continue raising the profile and promoting the Welsh legal sector in the City, so large London-based firms look to move here in Wales to support much of their work, with costs not as high as in central London and the quality of work consistently excellent.
And over time, as many areas of law become devolved to Wales it will be important for non-Welsh-based law firms to engage firms here in Wales to ensure their clients get the very best advice regarding their business activity here.
The knock-on effect of all these changes is that many Welsh firms are growing and recruiting. And while some Welsh law firms had expected the arrival of firms from outside of Wales as being a concern by adding to their competition, the reality seems to be that the sector here in Wales is buzzing.
Mergers and acquisitions are also big news in the Welsh legal sector and show the optimism that there currently is within the industry. A recent example is the merger between ML Cartwright and Hugh James, two well-established, well-respected brands.
Despite the fact things are going well, there are still challenges. One of the major ones is the fact that there are many vacancies and in some cases, firms are finding it's not a quick process to find the right people out there to fill them. There is a huge amount of legal talent in Wales, but we are always on the lookout for more.
One of the options available is to look further afield; over the last year our legal recruitment team has been working on vacancies at law firms across the UK, including most recently in London, Bristol, Derby, Gloucester and so on, where we are also unearthing good candidates for legal positions here in Wales. In particular, in London we have developed a number of strategic partnerships that get us in front of lawyers, who may be Welsh ex-pats, looking for a better work-life balance and higher standard of living. We have found that there is an appetite among many qualified and experienced professionals to relocate in the not-too-distant future, and we're confident that the Welsh legal sector will be able to capitalise on that.
With so many extremely talented law students graduating from Welsh universities, a relative shortage of training contacts is also having an impact on the industry.
Hundreds of students graduate with legal degrees every year but some are reluctant to pursue their LGP qualification because of the costs involved and that there may be no training contract guaranteed at the end of it.
However, an increasingly appealing alternative is to become a Chartered Legal Executive; which is a path comparable to a legal apprenticeship. The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) is the professional association that represents more than 20,000 trainee and practising Chartered Legal Executives, offering access to a flexible career in law.
It is not the traditional route into a legal career but it is becoming increasingly popular and a successful alternative.
There is a huge amount of legal talent in Wales and as we approach the first anniversary of our legal division, I am delighted to see how our efforts are directly supporting the sector here in Wales to continue to grow and thrive over the coming years.