Legal exodus to the provinces

By Sarah Ell

Once it was the bright lights of London or Sydney attracting young lawyers away from jobs in Auckland, New Zealand's legal capital is now facing stiff competition from a slightly unexpected source - the provinces
Young lawyers are escaping Auckland traffic and house prices. Picture / Getty Images
Young lawyers are escaping Auckland traffic and house prices. Picture / Getty Images

Some people are moving because they want more variety of work than they can get in Auckland, where you can get compartmentalised, especially in a large firm. Legal recruitment firm McLeod Duminy reports increasing numbers of candidates, especially young lawyers in their late 20s and early 30s, choosing to look outside Auckland, in search of a more affordable and enjoyable lifestyle. And though this is good news for job-seekers, it's causing some challenges for Auckland-based law firms.

The reasons we are hearing [for why people are looking for positions in the regions] are many, but it's things like house prices, traffic, and a feeling, especially from people returning from overseas, that they can't get the 'Kiwi lifestyle' they want in Auckland
Kirsty Spears

Director Kirsty Spears says in 2014 and 2015 about 10 per cent of candidates were placed outside Auckland or were looking at positions outside Auckland - both lawyers thinking of leaving the city and those coming back from overseas - but this figure rose to around 30 per cent in 2016.

Hamilton and Tauranga seem to be the most popular locations, paralleling the increase in house buyers and investors looking to centres outside Auckland but reasonably close to it to avoid rising prices. Spears says they have also worked with several candidates who moved their families to the Waikato but were commuting back to Auckland, then wanted to move their jobs as well.

"We're also seeing people moving back down to Christchurch again after a few years of it being a bit of an exodus," Spears says.

Spears says the interest in legal positions in the regions seems to be strongest among those with from three to seven years' post-qualification experience (PQE) -- those in their late 20s or early 30s who are starting to consider family and lifestyle factors.

"It's an age and stage thing," Spears says.

"The reasons we are hearing [for why people are looking for positions in the regions] are many, but it's things like house prices, traffic, and a feeling, especially from people returning from overseas, that they can't get the 'Kiwi lifestyle' they want in Auckland."

Spears says though some legal work will always remain Auckland-centric, "there are many firms outside the city that do really, really good work, so candidates are not really compromising on the quality of work they can do. In fact, some people are moving because they want more variety of work than they can get in Auckland, where you can get compartmentalised, especially in a large firm. So it's not quite the career cul-de-sac it once was."

Spears says the pressure is coming on Auckland law firms, who are losing talented staff at a critical point in their careers. "There is also the fact that not as many lawyers were trained between 2010 and 2012 - because of the effects of the GFC, firms weren't hiring graduates - so there is a gap that has followed these people through. That means it's a triple whammy: there are already fewer lawyers in that bracket, and now as well as going overseas they are moving out of Auckland."

Spears says Auckland firms are responding by being more flexible both with work conditions, to attract and retain top candidates, and also on hires, looking at a lawyer's transferable skills rather than putting them in a specific box. City firms are having to take into account long commutes and the inconvenience of traffic, and often flexibility of work hours and remote working. Many are also looking at hiring lawyers from international jurisdictions with similar legal systems, such as Australia, Britain and Canada.

All these factors add up to it being a good time for those looking to change jobs to make a move - whether that's in Auckland or out of it.

"If you're looking to make a move, and you're four to seven years PQE, this is your best time to do it," Spears says.

"When you make a move you really want to have plenty of choice, so you can choose the best fit for you, and you don't always have that kind of opportunity."

However, bear in mind that leaving Auckland for the regions is likely to result in a pay cut. Spears estimates a difference of around 10-15 per cent in salaries between Auckland and Tauranga, for example, but reduced living costs, including housing and transport, offset this. And picture this, Aucklanders: those in the Bay of Plenty are said to get grumpy if their commute takes longer than 20 minutes.

"Employees might also get a car park - the sort of thing a partner would expect but don't exist at the lower level in Auckland."

Unfortunately, though demand is high for these early-career lawyers, the positive effects haven't quite tricked down to new graduates, Spears says.

"It's still tough to get that first step up the ladder, but once you've got a couple of years under your belt, the market is strong and the opportunities are there."

- NZ Herald

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