Paper boats - different directions

The top six Australian firms collectively lost more 2-4 PQE talent than they gained in 2021

The Insource platform shows that in 2021 only one of the top six Australian firms[1] hired more lawyers with 2-4 PQE than they lost. 

The Insource platform shows that in 2021 only one of the top six Australian firms[1] hired more lawyers with 2-4 PQE than they lost.  With the biggest number of lawyers exiting to in-house roles and a number still going overseas.

It’s the end of another (long) year.  And with Australia finally emerging from extended lockdowns, it is an ideal time to get a little nosey and see what’s happening in the recruitment market. 

There is a vast amount of data that could be analysed on the Insource platform.  But to keep it simple, this insight just reviews the movement of lawyers with 2-4 PQE at the top six Australian firms in 2021.[2] This PQE bracket is highly sought after and is a good indicator of what the overall recruitment market is doing.  

A startling find was that for every lawyer hired in this category, there were 1.57 leaving.  

New Hires

This year the top six firms sourced their 2-4 PQE talent predominately from other top 50 firms in Australia (63%), with 20% coming from the other five top six firms.  They also sourced their talent from in-house (18%), firms outside the top 50 (11%), and overseas (5%).

It’s interesting that there were more new hires from in-house roles than new hires from other firms outside the top 50.  However, overall, where the top six sourced their 2-4 PQE talent is as we would expect.   


While the new hire statistics are interesting, it is where the leavers are going that makes the most interesting reading. 

In 2021, the top six firms lost their 2-4 PQE talent to in-house (46%) (14% were to roles within government), other top 50 firms (25%) (12% to the other five top six firms), overseas (18%), and firms outside the Top 50 (10%).

In short, the firms:

  • sourced 126 candidates from other firms but lost 90 candidates to them.
  • sourced 30 candidates from in-house but lost 116 to in-house.
  • sourced 8 candidates from overseas but lost 45 candidates to distant shores.

Overall, the top six firms lost on average 23.2% of their 2-4PQE lawyers in 2021.[3]  One firm lost almost 30% of their cohort.

These findings show a couple of things.

In-house is still an attractive option

Approximately, 46% of the lawyers analysed for this insight left the top six firms and went in-house.  That is a concerning statistic for firms, especially given how early in their career these lawyers are leaving private practice.

It is notoriously tricky to come back from in-house, especially when lawyers enter it so early in their careers, and if they’re in-house for an extended period.  Private practice and in-house roles work quite differently (from lifestyle and client drivers’ perspectives) and have similar but different skill sets.  In addition, senior in-house lawyers have not developed a client base so aren’t as attractive to firms later in their careers. 

Although, with the current state of the legal recruitment market, now is the best time for in-house lawyers to make the jump to private practice.  Beggars can’t be choosers and all that.   

Another way to read these statistics is to say that some 86 lawyers (on balance given the new hires from in-house this year) have now exited private practice.  Although, it is difficult to say that categorically.

Lawyers still went overseas in 2021

There also continued to be a strong proportion of 2-4PQE lawyers heading overseas.  45 lawyers (18%) within the 2-4PQE at the top six firms were enticed away to distant shores, with most heading to New York.  It’s interesting that candidates still moved even with the general uncertainty of COVID-19, border restrictions and ongoing (and in some places stunted) vaccine roll-outs.  

However, Insource considers that there is still an even greater number of lawyers waiting to head overseas.  There is likely a large section of lawyers who put OE plans on hold when COVID-19 hit and have been waiting for almost two years to go.  With the uptake of vaccines across the world, and the acceptance that maybe this is the ‘new normal’, it’s probable that an even greater number of lawyers will head offshore in 2022.

Closing thoughts

There is a strong trend of lawyers going in-house.  Law firms therefore need to start considering whether they can provide some of the things that makes in-house so attractive.  Could their Employer Value Proposition (EVP) do with some work?[4]  Offer more client contact?  A variety of work?

There is also clearly a need for law firms to innovate and consider afresh their recruitment strategies going forward.  There is a shortage of good talent, even with talk about the ‘Great Resignation’, and there is also changed expectations of where career sits in terms of importance with candidate’s overall life goals.  Insource has previously written about this in our Pipelining Insight, and have recently commented on candidates’ expectations around flexible working.

The Insource platform was developed to assist firms in this very type of market – no (or very little) active pool of talent and a need to pipeline.  It is designed to give law firms control of their recruitment and up to date lawyer profiles.  Insource is pre-populated giving law firms visibility of all practicing lawyers at the top 50 law firms in Australia, and assists firms to proactively recruit, pipeline and assess data analytics.  The data firms can access allows firms to assess trends, likely sources of talent, gaps and opportunities for growth within their firm’s talent composition (i.e. PQE structure, expertise etc).  Insource wants to help connect great people with great firms and opportunities.  So please get in touch for a free demo of Insource – recruitment technology for law firms.

[1] Allens, Ashurst, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills, King & Wood Mallesons and Minter Ellison.

[2] The time period covered was from 1 January-30 November 2021.

[3] Based on the total number of lawyers in the 2-4PQE bracket as at 30 November 2021 for each firm.

[4] An Employer Value Proposition (EVP) is a firm’s core benefits that make up their wider employer brand.  What can a firm and it’s culture offer a candidate, in exchange for their talent, skills, and experience.

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