First legal hires – how much experience do we need and what will it cost?

I have been working in recruitment for a decade and in the last three years I have recruited more first legal hires than in all of my time at Michael Page put together. With increased regulation and a better understanding of how in-house legal resources can add value to a business, growing companies in varying sectors are recruiting a dedicated legal resource for the first time.
The first question that most of these companies ask me is – how much experience do we need and how much will it cost? The answer is that there are two options. The first is hiring candidates who have at least four years’ experience and who will be entering their first senior or in-house role. These candidates fall in the £70-90k bracket. The second is the somewhat more daunting £90-125k bracket.
The advantages of the first are clear; a cost effective solution to reducing and managing legal spend. Paying a little extra can however, have a disproportionately positive effect on productivity. The more senior £90-125k candidates are likely to have worked in-house previously, in a senior position and are therefore experienced commercial operators able to deal with anything that’s thrown at them. They proactively identify areas in need of improvement that a company may not have recognised, contribute effectively to strategic negotiations and will often be looking for greater longevity in the role. Nevertheless, many businesses are cautious about the level at which they choose to hire someone. In an attempt to address some of these concerns, I have explored some of the typical reasons why businesses might hesitate before spending more.

‘We don’t want a lawyer with too much experience, they would get bored.’

  • Being experienced doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate wants to consistently deal with greater levels of complexity. Sometimes the move into a new industry and getting to grips with it can provide sufficient challenge in itself.
  • Roles change and in the future the company is likely to either grow or restructure. A more experienced hire will mean you are prepared for this.
  • It is very common for an experienced lawyer to grow their role quite quickly by adding value in areas the employers had not anticipated or considered. Boredom is rarely an issue.

‘We need someone who is prepared to role their sleeves up and do the basics.’

Most lawyers at any level and in any business have to deal with everything from the mundane to the ridiculous. The right candidate recognises the importance of even the most basic agreements and will happily leave their ego at the door. It is appropriate to add however, that particularly if coming from private practice, some candidates may have had the luxury of administrative support and therefore it is important to be clear about the lack of this from the start.

‘We can’t bring someone in on a salary that is comparable to those of our senior management team.’

Lawyers cost money. They train for a minimum of six years and the brightest are highly sought after. As a result, a newly qualified lawyer in the City can command a salary of up to £90k. Relatively speaking, in-house basic salaries are slightly less but they remain significant in this well paid industry. A company in London must expect to pay a lawyer of five years’ experience c. £70k, plus bonus and benefits. However, someone with twice the experience need not cost twice as much. In fact, the salary curve does tail off considerably and expectations will depend on the role and the industry. The question to ask is how much is your current legal spend and how much more it could save?

‘They must be able to deal with all levels of the business from top to bottom.’

At board level, candidates with previous in-house experience will be more confident in giving firm recommendations with the business in mind, without having to waste time covering off inappropriate options. These candidates will be skilled in rolling out company policies, carrying out training and seminars to all levels and are experienced at offering simple and pragmatic advice.

‘They won’t be managing a team.’

The right candidate will be content with getting under the skin of a multitude of legal issues. In reality, in-house legal roles which involve much management are very rare. That said, companies should remain open to the possibility. On more than one occasion, the introduction of a first lawyer and the extent of the work uncovered have led to the recruiting of a second and third, at which point true external spend savings are made.

‘Someone with too much experience may impede business rather than facilitate it.’

One of the key objectives of a successful in-house lawyer is to work well with the business. An experienced in-house lawyer will quickly identify the business priorities and have the confidence to drive commercially pragmatic decisions.
These are just a few questions and concerns that my clients have had in the past but there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration too. Taking on a lawyer is a significant and potentially costly step for a business which can sometimes take some persuasion internally. It is crucial to get it right first time round.
If you are currently contemplating hiring your first lawyer and are keen to explore what the right profile and budget would be for your business, contact Katherine Jackson, operating director at Michael Page Legal.
T: 020 7269 2413