While international uncertainty has slowed the flow of lawyers from Perth to the more lucrative centres on the east coast and overseas, there remain inherent difficulties in attracting good lawyers to WA.

p Catie Low

THE steady movement of lawyers from Perth in recent years in search of bigger opportunities in the eastern states and overseas has created a unique legal resource vacuum in Perth.

But a soft global economy and the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11 have sparked a shift in the market, as uncertainty infiltrates the legal industry in Australia.

TMP legal recruitment consultant Anne-Marie Lowry said that, in the past three to four months, there had been a shift in the legal jobs market overseas and on the east coast of Australia.

“There’s a nervousness coming into London, the US, Melbourne and Sydney, which will slow down the trend (the legal brain drain in Perth), if not reverse it,” Ms Lowry said.

“There are strong activity signs in WA and I’ve had an increasing number of inquiries from good law firms over east and overseas, (with people) looking to come to Perth.”

And a strong market for corporate and commercial lawyers and opportunities in the resource sector might prove very tempting to lawyers interested in relocating to Perth or returning home.

“Native Title is the bridge between resources and mining to litigation, and in fact a lot of negotiation and mediation is required,” Ms Lowry said.

“We’ve just employed two Brisbane people into senior roles in Perth in Native Title.”

A senior counsel position at Chevron Texas has attracted interest from all over the world

“I’ve had a huge response, maybe 50 applicants, and of those 49 aren’t kidding themselves in thinking they’re qualified enough for the job,” Ms Lowry said.

There remain inherent difficulties in attracting qualified lawyers to Perth, however, with some of the larger legal firms in Perth having been burnt by overseas lawyers who have left positions after finding it difficult to overcome cultural differences.

A flow of legal professionals back into Australia and Perth will have little impact on the dearth of litigation lawyers in the local industry, however.

Ambitious young Perth lawyers have chosen to specialise in areas such as commercial and corporate law, making them more attractive to firms in the UK and the US.

Commercial and corporate law is seen as a passport to overseas work for many young lawyers.

This has resulted in a lack of litigation lawyers, who are more dependent on a strong local profile for work.

The shortage of litigation lawyers is forcing human resources companies such as TMP to look to applicants from the eastern states to fill local positions.

But despite the best efforts, legal firms in Perth sometimes have difficulty attracting top legal professionals to WA. On the whole, the salaries are not comparable to opportunities in Sydney and Melbourne.

WA’s relaxed lifestyle is a major factor in a lawyer’s decision to relocate to WA.

To attract people back here you have to go on the lifestyle, according to IPA state manager Western Australia Carmel Norris.

“Firms in Perth have difficulties filling positions of a professional nature,” Ms Norris said.

And despite a number of opportunities in Perth legal firms, there doesn’t appear to be much movement between firms.

“We have a very large law division and our Sydney and Melbourne offices are very active. What we tend to do is work in conjunction to try and attract those candidates back to Perth or attract them to Perth in the first place,” Ms Norris said. “It (Perth) tends to be a little unique in the legal field. We have the jobs, we just need to find the candidates.”

But global security concerns might just provide an answer, and while firms in the eastern states are starting to feel the pinch, the local legal fraternity might see some new faces.

Freehills senior manager human resources Sandra Gibson said there was talk of a change in the market for lawyers on the east coast, but such change was not as noticeable here.

“The market is more positive in that I’m being presented with more clients than at any other time,” Ms Gibson said.

“It suggests that people might be looking around in Perth rather than overseas.”

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