Coming off the back of an extremely busy 2019, the first few months of the year continued in a similar vein and the status quo between firms looking to hire and lawyers looking to move offshore seemed to remain at an all-time high. Understandably, as the full impact of the COVID pandemic became apparent, travel disruption and concern for future workflow did have a short-term effect on the markets. Hiring slowed and relocation became extremely difficult, if not impossible in some cases. However, after a quieter May, while firms took stock of everything going on, June started to see things return to normal recruitment levels and firms never really looked back. Just as they looked to resume hiring, we also saw a significant increase in lawyers looking to relocate and take advantage of all that the offshore locations have to offer.
The Channel Islands were the first locations to really take advantage of a changing talent pool and throughout the summer firms hired in record numbers across Transactional; Private Client; and Litigation practices. As demand started to outweigh supply, we saw salaries nudge up slightly for most firms as they looked to secure their no1 choices. Given travel restrictions, there was a slight focus on those lawyers relocating from the UK or Ireland initially, but we did see a continued interest in candidates moving over from South Africa and further afield, with Visa’s still easily obtained.
Looking further afield to the Caribbean, the BVI saw a significant amount of internal movement throughout the first half of the year with litigation being particularly affected. Work levels remained steady and firms looked to de-risk any hires by securing talent already on island and circumventing any potential travel issues. This did, however, mean fewer opportunities for those looking to relocate and litigation was by far the busiest area of hiring for the year and left pretty much every firm with a different looking litigation practice from which they started the year with. Transactional hiring was quieter for most of the year although a number of firms did hire within Corporate towards the end of 2020.
Cayman, having come off of an extremely busy 2019, was always going to have a slightly quieter 2020 just given the sheer numbers of people that were due to be starting Q1 before COVID travel restrictions really took hold. Although there was a significant knock-on impact of border closures, firms resumed hiring in summer with litigation; fund finance; and corporate being key areas of focus. There remained a slight preference for lawyers already on the island given the travel restrictions, but most lawyers keen to make the move to Cayman managed to secure a move and had a choice of the established firms and those who are looking to grow their practices on the island.
The key development in Cayman which came very much at the end of the year is the Legal Services Bill which will have a significant impact on hiring requirements moving forward. We are yet to see the Bill’s full impact as it passes through the Cayman legislative process, but it will certainly mean that lawyers will no longer be able to move until they are 5PQE, although the legislation does provide for a wider selection of admittances with the addition of Hong Kong admitted lawyers now being able to secure a visa and admittance in Cayman. It will also have significant ramifications for those firms with large Cayman practices outside of Cayman as the legislation provides guidance on the number of people you have to have in Cayman as a ratio for the number you can have outside.
From a recruitment perspective, the initial effect of the legislation is that firms are likely to focus heavily on securing 4 ½ PQE lawyers who can start when they are 5PQE and maintain as much structure internally as possible. We also foresee a significant interest in Australian, New Zealand and Canadian lawyers where firms have traditional deducted PQE and would further allow them to maintain internal structures. It obviously goes without saying but there will be a significant interest in Caymanian lawyers who are looking to move either on the island or return home.
Looking briefly at the other key offshore markets, Bermuda had a steady flow of recruitment throughout 2020 across litigation and private client and some of the smaller firms made a significant number of hires to bolster their practices. Asia continued to recruit steadily throughout the year but given the ever-developing situation in Hong Kong, it wasn’t at previous levels and there was certainly a focus on partner-level hires as firms looked to cement their practices in the region.
Offshore London was unsurprisingly busy for recruitment as firms took full advantage of people looking to return to the UK, hiring across transactional and litigation practice areas in record numbers. There were both significant partner hires and departures throughout the year and we are likely to see the effects of that throughout the first half of this year with another push on hiring.
What can we expect from 2021?
We have continued to see and hear positive noises from the majority of firms in terms of workflow and have no reason to think that recruitment across all of the Offshore markets will continue in a similar vein throughout the year. We are well versed in dealing with all current travel restrictions and firms are comfortable pushing forward with hiring.
We expect Cayman; Jersey; and Hong Kong to be particularly busy as the flow of candidates continues to be at an all-time high. The Legal Services Bill will certainly have an impact on Cayman in the longer term, but we don’t see any reason why it would have an immediate impact on recruitment. It will, however, disappoint a number of lawyers who were waiting till they were 3PQE to make the move and from our initial findings, it looks as though those lawyers will be refocusing their search on the BVI and Bermuda.
It is inevitable that as competition for hires becomes even higher salaries will increase – we are expecting, and have seen already, noticeable increases across the Caribbean and Channel Islands.
Obviously, the continuing impact and developments in relation to COVID will in some respects dictate the recruitment landscape for the year. Yet, firms are certainly in a much better place to make decisions on hiring and relocating lawyers compared to March / April 2020 and on the whole, remain very keen to move forward with their hiring plans for 2021.