Top-tier firms still want top marks from candidates

by Hannah Norton10 Jun 2015
New Zealand top-tier firms remain “rigid” in their hiring of candidates only with excellent academic qualifications, a new salary survey has observed.

That’s despite a strong economy generating high levels of transactional work, particularly around residential property, commercial property, construction and corporate venture areas, according to the 2015 Hays Salary Guide.

The survey found there had been a slight increase in salary levels across the board as firms compete to attract top candidates and retain existing employees.

“Candidates remain confident when changing roles and demand is high for legal professionals with experience dealing with high-end clients across various industries,” the guide said.

“Despite these positive conditions, many of the top firms remain rigid in their hiring practices and will only consider candidates who have excellent academic qualifications as well as experience in firms at a level similar to the role they are seeking to fill.”

Team manager at Hays Legal Josh Chapman said all top firms still required job applicants to send over academic transcripts, and people who had failed several papers were unlikely to go forward to the interview stage.

However, he had noticed a trend in the last few years of top tier firms starting to look for more “well-rounded” graduates; taking into account things such as community and sports involvement, rather than purely straight A students.

These sentiments were echoed by Simpson Grierson human resources director Jo Copeland.

“Good grades are always a key part of our selection process, but it is important to look at the other qualities people bring like diversity, achievement in their local communities or on sports teams, awards they have received and any relevant work experience.

“And we recognise that grades don't always indicate that the person will be right for the job or organisation.”

So, for example, one of the things the firm does different as part of their initial application process is to use cognitive ability test, which tests in areas such as verbal, numerical and logical reasoning.

“This allows us to create a more balanced view of applicants' capabilities. Organisational statisticians will tell you that the results on these tests are far better predictors of on the job performance than university grades.”

Bell Gully human resources director Louise Alexander told NZLawyer the firm’s process hadn’t really changed compared to previous years.

“We’ve always looked for well-rounded individuals – it’s a key component to the culture of our firm that it’s not based solely on grades.

“But, grades are still a really important part of that picture. So we do absolutely take grades into consideration, but I think the cut-off we use is actually lower than people realise – our people aren’t all straight A-plus students.”

Instead the firm looks for people who have solid grades but who could also be holding down a part-time job while studying, or be involved in different community activities or sports. 

“All those different things provide a little more depth and colour to a person.

“Culture is such a critical thing for us in our firm and people are more than just good grades.”

What good grades did show was a level of dedication and hard work, Alexander said.

“Also it’s a pretty good line of where someone’s at in terms of their understanding.”

As an aside, Bell Gully offers an academic scholarship programme for high-performing law students.

It is very much marks-based, with scholarship students generally obtaining an average between an A-minus and an A-plus, she said.

Skills in demand

The Hays Salary Guide outlined areas in which there was most demand for lawyers in New Zealand.

In large firms, corporate commercial candidates with skills in M&A, banking and finance and construction were highly sought, a trend which Hays anticipated would continue.

Skill solicitors with good general commercial and commercial property skills remain in the highest demand from medium to large size firms.

Litigation recruitment was relatively slow in the first part of this year, but by the financial year end it had increasing dramatically across all areas, Hays said.

Particularly in demand on the litigation front were those candidates with experience in construction, employment and commercial work such as insolvency and receiverships.

Family lawyers were said to be still in demand, however changes meant that candidates needed strong relationship property skills.