General Counsels – finding your next role after COVID-19

James Franklin 08.04.2020

When the dust settles and normality resumes, the senior end of the legal market will once again be buoyant - now is a good time to think about your next move.

Most General Counsels will be staying put for now

The discussions I have been having for the past three weeks during the UK’s lockdown have centred on how we will return from the economic and personal damage this virus has brought. Most businesses have thrown their budgets and 2020 forecasts out of the window; the damage has been done and the furloughs are starting to take place.

Prior to the first week of March, I was increasingly being contacted by General Counsels and Heads of Legal across the market who were considering their next move. Indeed, I sat down and met with many lawyers at this level to discuss what they believed post-Brexit UK would look like and finally we had some stability after the General Election in December 2019, releasing the deadlock. It felt as if the work these senior lawyers had been doing over the last three to four years had reached its threshold and consequently change was required in their careers. My advice at the time was that, due to the number of senior lawyers looking for a change in role, we should expect positions to become available in 2020 as the merry-go-round starts. One person moves, a position becomes available, and so on.

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As of April 2020, many senior lawyers and GCs have had to turn their attention to the erosion of the businesses they are working for. Often, as part of the senior management team, the recent conversations have been around which staff should be furloughed, associated legal employment issues and managing and mitigating all commercial risk. In some sectors, the lawyers have been working day and night as key businesses such as global technology, groceries, transit and freight and utilities have all been in negotiations with suppliers, customers and the government. No one is looking to move at this level right now… why would they?

The hiring bounce-back will come...

Optimism, which I am all for, would hope for a bounce in Q3. Those senior roles which were frozen, will come back to the market – particularly with large organisations. However, the outlook for the SME market and the fear of a new landscape may mean that the General Counsels who were looking for their next role may just stay put, if they can - meaning the merry-go-round is less likely to happen. 

Whilst there will be some roles on the market with large listed companies, the probability of seeing Heads of Legal roles and General Counsel roles in 2020 has been diminished. As a senior lawyer within a business, once we navigate our way back to normality, opportunity will be forthcoming. I think it is certain that those who contribute and make sacrifices during our current situation will be rewarded by those businesses who they have been faithful to. This would lead to a delay in posts becoming available as lawyers remain in their companies through loyalty and collective spirit. But when the dust settles and these times are forgotten, the senior legal market will be buoyant again.

Whilst I personally do not have a crystal ball and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 was a different scenario, legal recruitment at the end of 2009 and the start of 2010 was extremely buoyant. Many businesses came back with a vengeance towards the end of 2009 and consequently more in-house lawyers were required to deal with the growth and commercial challenges they faced. Both my mild optimism and having recruited in 2008, makes me believe that these senior roles will be back towards the end of this year and into 2021.

So let’s keep in touch and discuss what your ideal General Counsel / Head of Legal role might look like in advance of the market returning to a post-Brexit, post-COVID-19, post-2020 era.

James Franklin's picture
Head of Legal, UK
jfranklin@morganmckinley.com

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