Hong Kong Legal Jobs Market Update Q3 (2017) - legal and professional support staff
The second part of our 2017 review of the legal jobs market covers legal support and professional support staff in Hong Kong, namely:
1. Business Development & Marketing
2. Legal Secretaries
3. Human Resources & Administration
4. Accounting & Finance
5. IT Services and Support
Information in this report contains the following:
- Job market trends over the course of 2017, based on internal Star Anise data
- Aggregate of actual personal accounts direct from our consultants
- Analyses specific to the Hong Kong jobs market for the above functions
To view the 1st part of our report relating to trends for qualified legal jobs and company secretary jobs in Hong Kong for 2017, click on this link.
1. Business Development & Marketing
Despite a lot of changes on the global economic and political front, the recruitment of Business Development & Marketing professionals in law firms has remained fairly constant. As has been the continuous trend over the past few years, candidates who stand out the most in the market are those with bilingual pitching skills (which remains the biggest advantage for candidates actively seeking new opportunities), followed by those with experience dealing directly with partners and other stakeholders across regional offices.
On the junior end, Law firms have been increasingly raising expectations for entry level staff, and only considering those with existing law firm experience. Past summer time, we have met many fresh graduates on the market with genuine raw talent, who have a keen interest on joining Law Firms in the BD/M space, yet are missing out on opportunities for interviews as they are disregarded for their lack of experience.
On the mid-to-senior end, we have been receiving a lot of interest from candidates who indicate that they would like to move away from law firms into other professional services as a result of ‘reaching a glass ceiling’, or there being a lack of career path.
Law firms have been evolving on the fee-earning side when it comes to developing retention strategies, but this is yet to happen in the BD/M teams. On the other hand, such developments have been quickly developing in other professional services.
In particular where addressing ‘the millennial phenomenon’, where it is of growing importance to have a line of sight between individual performance, contribution, and career development opportunities, law firms should consider developing a clearer more tangible pathway for this group of professionals before they start seeking out better opportunities in other industries.
2. Legal secretaries
Legal secretaries are an essential resource for law firms, and for mid-size international law firms, demand for legal secretaries with between 2 to 4 years of experience remains the most in demand.
We have seen some law firms are now more open to candidates from local law firms, particularly from the well known commercial law firms. Fluency in English is always necessary, as secretaries need to work with English speaking colleagues in both Hong Kong and in offices overseas. And with many firms having offices in China, a good command of Chinese Mandarin is an important skill set to have.
Vacancies for in-house legal secretaries risen, especially in the banking industry. Financial institutions, unlike law firms, tend to hire more senior level secretaries, ie with more than 5 years of experience, preferably gained in law firms and with an in-house legal department.
3. Human Resources and Administration
Throughout the year there has been a strong demand for junior level HR officers and HR assistants, as firms are keen to broaden their hierarchical base and bring in new talent to develop. Throughout the year typical roles have been in the 1-4 years’ experience range.
The early summer and late summer period of 2017 has turned quite active for the mid-senior level HR roles, including HR general, talent acquisition, and HR operations.
Other than the occasional office manager role, positions have remained fairly stable in this area. By the same token, there is a ceiling that many office managers are reaching in terms of salary levels, and more office managers are taking on a more pro-active role in taking on human resource functions in order to widen their skill sets.
In talent acquisition, several notable and long term attorney recruiters have left the law firm industry as they use their talents in different industries, suggesting that law firm talent acquisition functions are challenging, or there are limits as to how far they can take the role.
In all cases, a high level of fluency is required in Cantonese and English (for the effective functioning around the office), whilst for those with mainland offices, fluent Mandarin is often preferred.
4. Accounting and Finance
a. Mid-senior accounting positions
Accounting teams in law firms had been relatively stable at mid to senior level for the first half of 2017. However, recent months has seen a surge in demand for manager grade finance professionals, both as general financial managers, and some with a focus on working capital.
Candidates with accounting backgrounds who have never worked in law firms before are often puzzled by job requirements including the need for law firm or partnership experience (e.g. working in-house in accounting firms) being high on the list. In many cases over the years, we have seen senior candidates with broader industry experience who have worked in far more complex business models than the typical time-sheet recording/work-in-progress regiment of a law firm take on law firm roles with great success, whilst those at managerial level and having specialized in one area struggle to adapt to a broader finance manager role in private practice.
Quite often, it’s not so much the accounting professional struggling with the work nature, but lacking the prior experience and confidence in building relationships with key stakeholders in law firms, ie the managing partner and departmental heads, often being daunted by their suggestions being challenged (inevitable, given that they are dealing with lawyers, after all), or lacking a strong understanding of the tax regime (both from a corporate perspective and supply of services perspective) on the mainland.
Fluency in Cantonese and English is an essential requirement for all roles that have appeared, and from mid-level accounting roles, fluency in Mandarin is mandatory in most, if not all, cases.
b. Junior accounting
For junior level accounting, law firms are usually seeking for someone who is able to assist on a wide range of accounting functions, including billings (producing, recording and collection of bills), payroll and payments. It is becoming a necessity for every law firm especially for those small to mid-size firms which do not have a separate billing department.
Where the firm has critical size to hire dedicated specialists, demand for accounts receivable (AR) and accounts payable (AP) officers remains at its strongest at the junior-mid level end.
5. IT Services
Law firms are tending to hire more junior to mid-level candidates to handle IT support - candidates with 2 to 5 years of experience are the most in demand. Candidates with law firm experience is not necessary at this level. However, relevant IT knowledge, and the ability to troubleshoot quickly and effectively, is. A good level of English is also required as there will be a lot of internal communications among the team and often regionally with other offices. Additional Microsoft certifications will help set very strong candidates apart.