Salary & Market Advice

Market Advice


Private Practice in 2016 - 2017



Law firms are pressuring partners to perform, and offering less leeway in the case of a bad year. On the flipside, firms are eager to reward successful partners to retain them and ensure they are not poached by another firm. In the aftermath of the Herbert Smith Freehills/ White & Case partner poaching and subsequent litigation, the current partner market is turbulent. Movement continues at individual and team level.

On the ‘push’ side, the motivation is usually one or more of these factors: 

  • dissatisfaction with centralised management;
  • lower-than-expected partner draws;
  • co-efficient inequities;
  • lack of recognition (financially or otherwise) of exceptional performance;
  • conflicts (where ‘their’ client loses out).

On the ‘pull’ side, partners are attracted by:

  • a more nimble environment;
  • a new international entrant that offers genuine prospects of global collaboration;
  • the opportunity to make their mark without ‘baggage’;
  • exposure to better clients, bigger deals;
  • more money in the short or long term.


The trend of trimming equity points continues this year: moving equity partners to fixed draw or salaried partnership, moving partners to consultant or counsel status or moving them on. Despite these efforts to cut costs and secure the pie for remaining partners, partner income has generally flattened or fallen this year, particularly in the smaller global firms, who struggle for a place between the big name global firms and the lower overhead mid sized and boutique firms.


Some notable ‘bulk’ movement occurred this year, with the Herbert Smith Freehills projects team in Melbourne and related partners in Sydney and Asia moving en masse to new entrant White & Case.

Another trend was the recruitment of one or two partners for carefully considered strategic reasons such as:

  • boosting skills in key areas such as mergers and acquisitions and projects;
  • offering a different choice to clients in terms of style and approach;
  • adding clients in new industries;
  • enhancing Asia Pacific service delivery.


Increasingly, firms find it difficult to engage their senior employees as partnership prospects fade. Many senior associates remain in the firm, not necessarily from a desire for partnership but because prospects for movement are limited.

Nevertheless, partners themselves are more willing to try their hand in a new firm or explore options outside private practice. Desire for change tends to outweigh opportunity, although some high profile partners have moved into general counsel and ‘general counsel plus’ roles this year, with a seat at the executive leadership table and responsibility for more than the legal function.

As more foreign firms with deep pockets enter the Australian market, resident firms are looking for innovative ways to retain highly valued partners. Strong leadership from the managing partner is more important than ever.

Private Practice Lawyers


Firms continue to compete for commercial work, with mid tier firms (including the smaller global firms) finding it harder to compete with the big name globals, new entrants from the US and nimble firms that are offering more innovative fee structures and service offerings. There has been rapid growth and development in the legal services market throughout Asia and Australia.

Firms report that client loyalty is harder than ever to win and retain and that in-house lawyers are doing work that once would have been referred to the firm. Companies are more likely to look at alternatives. They are willing to approach smaller firms, as well as new law firms with lower overheads, and are showing a tendency to ‘unbundle’ work. As such, competition remains fierce among private practice firms.

‘New law’ firms are no longer novel. More large law firms have opened contract hire subsidiaries, with some applying senior lawyers to these ranks to achieve better utilisation. Firms are increasingly reluctant to provide secondee lawyers to their corporate clients, although demand for these remains high. A firm’s contract hire offshoot can assist in this regard.

Within the firms, the path to partnership is slower than ever. Many solicitors and senior associates are disillusioned by the lack of prospects and look to move to an in-house or non-practising role. Most senior associates in the very large firms have no practice to take to another firm (and in any event partnership prospects at the new firm may be equally dire), and can be too expensive or too experienced for an in-house role.

On the bright side, a few major firms have recruited senior associates without a practice in areas of great need such as finance, mergers and acquisitions, funds/financial services and construction.

Fortunately, opportunities have opened up a little for senior private practice lawyers seeking a change. Increasingly they are regarded as highly attractive candidates for non-executive directorships, CEO and senior government roles. Management consulting, participation in start-ups and quasi legal roles also attract many lawyers.


A key driver for sophisticated law firms is innovation and more thought, time and money has been spent this year on this strategic focus. While much innovation is linked to technology, innovation as an objective is more nuanced now, and often includes strategy, culture, profile, competitive positioning, client service and employee satisfaction.

The appointment of ‘innovation managers’ and teams is growing, as are innovation projects, ‘design thinking’ experiments, and collaborative research and development exercises. Larger firms aim to inculcate their culture with an innovation theme, to involve lawyers of all levels in innovation workshops and online ideas boards, for example, and to make innovation a normal part of working life for their staff.

Innovation is adapted to suit the culture, strategy and purse of the law firm. Client needs (and sometimes client involvement) is top of mind. Testing of hypotheses, measurement of outcomes, and continual improvement – concepts that are not new to other industries but may be strange and new to the legal profession – are increasingly being applied, often led by innovation professionals from backgrounds outside the law.

Effective innovation is adapted to the practice area: process improvement , for example, will be different for a highly commoditised practice compared to, say, complex litigation or transactional practices.


Most firms have applied increases of CPI or slightly above. The average national increase is 3.5%.

Bonuses tend to be linked to billings over budget, although exceptional performers may receive a bonus of up to 20%.

Some lawyers with 3 to 6 years’ post qualification experience in the larger firms enjoyed increases of 7–10%.High-achieving senior associates in similar sized practices were awarded increases of up to 10%, plus a bonus.


Areas of demand this year have centred on construction and infrastructure (especially front-end), property, competition, IT, banking and finance, wealth management and general commercial including business structuring and trusts.

Skills shortages mean that New Zealand qualified and interstate candidates are more readily considered than in other years, although property is still one area of law where local (state) experience is usually regarded as essential. Recruitment of overseas qualified lawyers has diminished as visa rules have tightened.

Demand remains highest in New South Wales and Victoria with other states stable (Western Australia, Queensland) or declining (South Australia).


Lifestyle is still an important driver for law firm employees. Smaller teams under a partner in the larger firms are feeling more pressure and are less attracted to the ‘carrot’ of partnership than ever before. On the plus side, the quality of work tends to be higher at an earlier stage for solicitors in lean teams with plentiful work.

There tend to be fewer levels of seniority between partner and junior lawyer so direct partner and client contact can also come earlier. Against this, some clients only want to deal with the partner, and competition for clients and deals mean that most firms will oblige. One US firm commented that its terms of engagement with a corporate client specifically state that ‘junior lawyers will not be charged for.’

Vacancy rates for junior to mid level lawyers remain high, with particular demand at the 3 to 6 years’ post qualification experience level. Firms find it hard to differentiate their value proposition to persuade these lawyers to join them. Mid level lawyers are sceptical about firms’ points of difference and are reluctant to change unless they are unhappy with their current firm. Many ‘stay to become SA’, keen to achieve the status and pay increase that comes with promotion, before making a change.

At this level, solicitors are inclined to try their hand in an in-house role, seeking more predictable hours, no budget pressure or time sheets. Others seek experience overseas and find that high quality Australian lawyers are still attractive to employers in the UK, Middle East and Asia.

Law firms are increasingly offering benefits to retain lawyers at these levels. Flexible work hours, four-day work weeks or a nine-day fortnight are more common, although flexible work arrangements usually need to be earned. Availability of part time roles is very limited without a history of service with the firm.

Corporate in 2016 - 2017

Corporate Lawyers

The Market

Momentum remained strong in 2017 with companies increasingly recognising the value of in-house legal support and the benefits of lawyers who can partner with the business.

An in-house career is still the most popular option for most lawyers, and corporate teams are growing. Demand for lawyers to join in-house teams is strongest for lawyers with 3 to 6 years’ experience, and general counsel roles have increased.

General counsel are increasingly becoming part of executive management teams and are seen as business strategists. More general counsel are reporting to the CEO and board and assuming broader responsibilities that may include risk and compliance, audit, insurance and company secretarial. In particular, we observed an increase in very senior strategic roles and in the compensation offered.

2017 was the year that cost containment, efficiency and value were on the minds of most general counsel. To this end, general counsel are using innovation and technology to enable their legal teams, and investment in this area is often greater than the external legal spend. There is also more partnering and collaboration with external legal providers to drive efficiencies.

Legal teams are now better resourced and more strategic, and a larger proportion of high quality legal work is handled in-house. Transactions are frequently split between an in-house team and an external law firm, with outsourcing and technology mostly used for lower value commoditised work.

Cost containment, efficiency and value

General counsel must now manage legal demands while providing value to the business. They are more open to alternative forms of staffing and different ways of working, hiring and monitoring staff. General counsel are also creating efficiencies by redesigning and streamlining internal processes (including those for project management) and managing external legal spend. As a result, general counsel have reported improved lawyer utilisation, cost containment and overall greater efficiencies.

Many in-house teams are now staffed by a mix of permanent, part time, casual, contract hires, secondees, graduates and paralegals. General counsel are also hiring specialist lawyers to form centres of excellence able to provide services as good as those obtained from specialist law firms. Several companies have also set up their own contract hire registers to form a pool of skilled legal staff to draw on as needed. By making some of their fixed overhead costs variable, these companies can better manage budgets in volatile business markets.

While contract hiring is a cost-efficient option, contract lawyers complain about a lack of visibility within the business and a lack of control. If contracts are constantly renewed contractors may become frustrated with being a fixed term employee, which can lead to a lack of engagement with their principal and an erosion of trust.

General counsel are now also more likely to consider graduate hiring and training and have increased the use of paralegals to better resource teams, and to develop a pipeline of talent.

Innovation and technology

General counsel are looking for innovation within the legal function and from their external providers as a way to enhance client service, improve business processes and manage costs. This innovation frequently involves the use of new technologies.

In working with external law firms, general counsel seek collaborative business partners, tailored business solutions, and pricing and staffing options.

Disruption within the legal services market means that all players now work far more collaboratively to achieve efficiencies. This includes sharing analytics and resources, and advising on aspects of business transactions.

Stakeholders know they are just one part of a solution with several other providers and that this is the new way forward. Interestingly, a major Australian listed company collaborated with a leading law firm and ran workshops over a period of weeks, which involved lawyers brainstorming innovative ideas.

As a result, the need for meetings and reports was significantly reduced.

Many general counsel reported that technology investment surpassed their budget for external legal spend. Technology is generally being used for pricing and outsourcing, namely, to assign and unbundle work to providers.

Technology is also used to manage documentation and to manage compliance, litigation and due diligence for transactional work. New technology can speed up service delivery, particularly in discovery, document review and data gathering as well as the reading of legal documents via new PDF readers/ annotators.

Managing external costs

Although many companies again reported an increase in external legal provider hourly rates this year, general counsel were still able to reduce legal spend, largely by keeping work in-house, pursuing alternative fee arrangements and unbundling work.

In managing costs, general counsel usually work with the procurement team to purchase legal services. They prefer fixed and flat fees, are more likely to opt for lower rates and will prioritise this over any previous relationships with trusted legal advisors.


The trend of outsourcing continues to grow. A number of overseas service centres in diverse locations such as India, Ireland and South Africa are linked to law firms such as DLA Piper and Herbert Smith Freehills. These centres typically handle low value, commoditised work, although their service offering is growing.

General counsel as business strategists

2017 saw an increase in the number of general counsel reporting to the CEO and board, and joining executive leadership teams.

Eighty-nine percent of general counsel reported that more senior executive leaders viewed them as ‘trusted advisors’. This highlights an increasing reliance on general counsel’s strategic business and leadership skills by management and marks an emerging shift in management thinking that recognises the impact of the legal function on the bottom line.

This view and the growing number of roles at this executive level have served to increase general counsels’ overall compensation.

The broader role

The role of general counsel is becoming broader. They are managing larger teams, including non-legal ones such as company secretarial, risk, compliance, government relations and human resources teams.

The expanded role enhances a general counsel’s profile among senior management and allows them to further demonstrate value. The broader role also offers career development and advancement possibilities beyond a general counsel’s traditional remit.

General counsel and their teams also enjoy greater geographical responsibilities, with most legal teams being responsible for their company’s Australian and New Zealand operations. Other general counsel may have further reach to Asia, the Middle East and Europe. This trend will continue as businesses expand, particularly given the regulatory issues and risks involved in operating in multiple jurisdictions.


Remuneration reviews in 2017 remained flat with many candidates reporting increases of just above CPI (2.1%). The average national salary increase was around 2.7% compared to 3.4% in 2016. Remuneration increases have been conservative for a number of years and many companies increasingly rely on bonuses to reward and retain staff.

Sixty-two per cent of lawyers reported that they received a bonus, up from just over 60% in 2016 and 55% in 2015. Many who were entitled to a discretionary bonus or a structured short-term incentive received little or no bonus because their company did not hit threshold targets. Many lawyers did not see their bonus component as bankable.

Typical bonus potential is around 10–20% of salary. On-target amounts tend to be around 60–70%. These bonuses are only payable if an individual is still employed at the company on the date they are paid, not when declared. This year more lawyers sought a sign on payment from their new employer as compensation for the bonus they would forgo in their move.

Contract remuneration continues to be in line with permanent remuneration, pro-rated to the period of employment.


It was an active year for the in-house market. General counsel continued to expand their teams, hiring specialist lawyers to build their capabilities and better service the business.

Areas of demand in Sydney were corporate/ commercial law, compliance and regulatory law, competition and marketing law, financial services, infrastructure and project law, property, construction, employment/industrial relations and health and pharmaceutical law. The areas of demand in Melbourne were construction law, property, corporate and commercial law, technology, media and banking and finance. There was also a steady demand both in Sydney and Melbourne for lawyers with company secretarial skills.

Sydney and Melbourne were the most active markets, followed by Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. Lawyers with 3 to 6 years’ post qualification experience (PQE) were most in demand in Sydney and Melbourne, followed by lawyers with 5 to 8 years’ PQE as companies are now busier, have less time to train new staff and need lawyers who are able to work autonomously. These roles were both new and replacement roles.

When a senior in-house lawyer leaves they are often replaced by a more junior employee. Reasons for this are cost, as well as using the hiring opportunity to bring in juniors to create a hierarchy and career paths. Due to the demand for mid level candidates the market is relatively tight for good quality lawyers. Strong mid level candidates seeking an in-house role may have multiple opportunities to consider at once. So far this has not put upward pressure on salaries, but it may in time.

Diversity and gender balance

There has been a greater emphasis on gender-balanced shortlists as a way to achieve diversity in the workplace. Senior managers now recognise that diverse hiring practices not only bring the competencies required for a role but also the people who can help the organisation grow by challenging approaches and processes.


Retaining skilled and valued staff is a priority for general counsel. As in-house teams grow and there are more lawyers, bottlenecks occur.

The increased use of contract lawyers, secondees and outsourcing also reflects that linear legal careers are no longer static or assured. These trends, combined with stagnant salary reviews, mean that general counsel must rely more heavily on their company’s employee value proposition (EVP) to retain staff. The EVP may include offering better work-life balance (especially working from home), bonuses, long-term incentives, and non-financial benefits such as opportunities to attend conferences and development courses.

In order to attract and retain good junior and mid level lawyers, general counsel may allow them to participate in business ‘think tanks’ on innovation and the use of technology to improve legal services and processes.

This can be done as part of hackathons or even in workshop situations. This has proved particularly popular with ambitious creative lawyers keen to be at the cutting edge of legal developments and interested in new ways of working.

Staff development and career path planning are also key retention strategies. Training programs, mentoring, secondments, embedding lawyers into the business and treating them as genuine business partners, are all ways to develop and engage. Other strategies include opportunities to move to other offices (nationally and internationally) in more senior roles as well as into commercial roles.

Additionally, general counsel are offering more responsibilities to senior in-house lawyers who operate in a flat structure as a means of developing and retaining them. Typically responsibilities involve compliance, company secretarial, governance and corporate affairs. Other development opportunities include training in project management, influencing and communicating, financial and business management and presentation skills.

Some in-house lawyers pursued a career outside of law in 2017. There was increased interest in opportunities such as non-executive director roles, management consulting and roles with start-ups.

Job satisfaction

While most lawyers are satisfied with their career, many believe their career paths and advancement opportunities are uncertain.

In-house lawyers reported working longer hours in 2017, and feeling that they could not achieve work-life balance. This was a growing concern for many in-house lawyers.

Flexibility in many companies has increased alongside the introduction of activity based work. The trend toward flexible work arrangements has improved job satisfaction, with more lawyers working from home and/or another office location. With video messaging, email and the company intranet to keep them connected these lawyers do not feel isolated from their company or their team.


The in-house market will remain active as general counsel continue to respond to the changing regulatory environment and the complexities of business. Legal teams will continue to grow and lawyers will enjoy a broader scope of responsibility beyond traditional siloed roles.

Embedding lawyers into the business and utilising their skills more broadly is now ingrained in corporate culture. Lawyers will broaden their roles and skills in compliance, regulatory and risk.

General counsel will keep looking for new ways to develop and retain lawyers. New areas of development will include training in areas such as innovation and technology, project management, influencing and communicating, financial and business management and presentation skills.

The drive for efficiency and innovation will ensure legal service delivery is dynamic, extending beyond connectivity to enable a variety of work, enhance project management and to provide better analytics around legal services generally.

Company Secretaries

The Market 

In 2017, company secretaries faced cost pressures and demands for greater efficiency while taking on broader roles and handling ever-increasing workloads. While in-house legal teams grew, the company secretariat remains a relatively lean function in most companies.

There are still ambiguities in company secretarial roles, with overlapping legal, compliance and risk responsibilities. In smaller companies the company secretary often has a dual role, which is typically part of the general counsel purview.

There is a greater reliance on company secretaries to offer advice and assistance in navigating the regulatory environment. This, along with the complexities of business and the associated risk, means that the company secretary now has greater visibility and influence within the senior management team.

Technology continues to play a big role in creating efficiencies in the company secretarial area and resourcing demands are often met by automation rather than hiring. This keeps the demand for company secretaries reasonably controlled.

Company Secretary Roles

In 2017, company secretaries in major ASX listed companies looked to increase their teams. While most roles were for candidates with around five years’ experience (ideally obtained in an ASX listed company), there was also a steady stream of roles for candidates of around 8 to 12 years’ experience.

Demand for company secretaries to lead teams was more subdued as there is generally less mobility at this level.


Although it is difficult to assess the contribution of a company secretary, there is greater understanding and respect for the role given the complexities and risks of the regulatory environment.

Average national salary increases were around 2.7%, and some 75% of company secretaries received a bonus based on both individual and company performance. These increases are in line with recent years and are dictated by factors such as the size of the company, whether it is publicly listed, the scope and responsibilities of the position, the level of experience and qualifications of the company secretary, and how the role is perceived by senior management.


Company secretaries in 2017 were more active in the market with a small increase in the number of roles from previous years. Most roles were for senior level candidates to join teams or replacement roles.

Generally, company secretaries are more conservative than legal professionals when it comes to career movement. They stay longer on average in one company and seek career development from within rather than moving to a new employer.

As company secretaries take on broader roles they seek greater development opportunities to increase skills and advance their careers. These opportunities include additional training in governance, compliance, finance, business, project management and business presentation skills.

Other retention strategies include paid study leave, flexible and remote work and opportunities to work on strategic projects and opportunities.