In Industry Insights

By Adam Spencer – AJ Fox Compliance

What do candidates on the market want?

The first part of any good recruitment process is understanding exactly what you are looking for and how you are going to quantify it. You might be amazed to hear how many clients we work with who have no predefined criteria for assessing candidates at interviews and are, to all intents and purposes, making gut judgments. The two main risks with this approach are missing out on fantastic candidates whose technical abilities have not been suitably interrogated during the interview, and conversely, hiring candidates with technical skill sets lower than you would need for your team.

Understanding exactly what you are looking for and how to assess it in isolation provides you with a very important advantage. Namely, it gives you the ability to hire talent quickly from a very competitive and fast-moving pool. Large parts of what risk and compliance professionals do may be deemed niche, and so our clients are often coming to us asking for skill sets that are relatively niche on the market. Even mainstream risk and compliance skill sets may become more challenging to obtain based on specific levels of experience required, specific combinations of experience required, or specific scope of role. For example, there is a waning population of conflicts professionals who are happy to continue working in solely complex focused roles. Therefore, whilst the conflicts skill set is in and of itself not a niche skill set, hiring for a conflicts-only professional is to a large extent, a niche hire.

This means that you may be hiring from a small pool of candidates, thus removing the ability for a comprehensive benchmarking process. Consequently, benchmarking becomes slow and incomplete and can often risk or result in you losing the best talent on the market.

The ability to assess candidates in isolation allows you to hire from small pools of available talent confidently. This alone will see you out-compete the rest of the market who traditionally struggle in this scenario.

Sell yourselves

Too many clients of ours have high opinions of the firms in which they work. Whilst these opinions may well be warranted, it is often forgotten that most of the reputation of a firm pertains to its private practice profile. Whilst it would be fantastic if all firms with great private practice reputations also have fantastic risk and compliance teams; this is, by no means, the case. Risk and compliance functions across firms with similar private practice profiles vary enormously. Candidates will be very interested in understanding the inner workings of your function and how that affects their potential progression, the exposure they will receive, the training they will receive, and the overall experience they will have working within your business.

Even if you are a magic circle law firm, you cannot rely on this to ensure candidates are excited to work for you. Some firms will sell the opportunities within their risk and compliance function incredibly well and you cannot afford not to be one of these firms.

Development – what does your team want and need?

Development is a very substantial factor for holding onto your team in the world of risk and compliance, but what does development mean? The candidates we speak to generally want to increase their level of exposure and responsibility during their time in a role. Candidates in narrow positions typically are looking to broaden their exposure. So if we are talking about business acceptance professionals and AML Analysts, one wants more exposure to conflicts and one more exposure to AML. In terms of responsibility, this ultimately comes down to decision-making and taking responsibility at a higher and higher level.


Many firms we work with are starting to invest in professional qualifications for their risk and compliance team members. The most common of these are ICA qualifications (the AJ Fox network gets a 10% discount on all ICA courses) but there are other courses available.

Having spoken to various Heads and Directors of Risk and Compliance, there seems to be a difference of opinion as to the value of these courses concerning how they deliver useful and valuable skill sets to your team members. However, to focus only on this is to miss half of the entire puzzle.

The vast majority of risk and compliance professionals we speak to have, to some extent, fallen into this career. Many of them have legal backgrounds and therefore will have spent many years focused on what a journey as a legal professional may have looked like. Having now discovered this new career path in the world of risk and compliance, coupled with a passion for this type of work and driven by a desire to progress a long-term career in this space all contribute to many professionals we work with loving the concept of a certain qualification next to their name. 

This may to some extent symbolise their decision to progress towards a career in risk and compliance.  Those professionals we work with who are offered ICA qualifications feel more invested and supported and will likely be more loyal as a result of this time and money investment. The impact on personal fulfilment and job satisfaction should not be understated.


The structure of law firm risk and compliance teams varies enormously from firm to firm, and whilst some will have multiple layers of management, others may have very different management structures. We come across individuals managing small teams, individuals managing large teams and groups of individuals combining functions.

However, the number of professionals we speak to who have been given the opportunity to gain management or leadership education is woefully small. Many of the senior professionals we work with struggle to manage large teams but equally will feel uncomfortable delegating work to their current number two who they do not perceive to have management-level capabilities.

External recruitment is then often undertaken which may, in the short-term, resolve issues of management level skills but is consequently at the detriment of more junior team members who see the opportunity to progress stymied, and ultimately that the business would rather turn externally for management level recruitment.

This can then result in a loss of talent, which further exacerbates the problem. We see very few firms invest deliberately in future leaders and management-level professionals. If the decision is based solely on whether completing management-level courses means an individual will succeed, then it’s important to realise that this only captures part of the picture. The wider positive impact of the optics of senior-level management investment should not be underestimated and may have a substantial positive impact on the retention of more junior staff, even if the senior team member is ultimately not promoted into a management role.

Retention – how do you hold on to the best on the market

A large part of the retention puzzle has been addressed above in that professionals in this space are looking for both technical and professional development. One huge opportunity to guarantee attrition is to pair significant promises around training and development at the interview stage with a significant lack of either in reality. Candidates want to hear about positive progression and development stories during interviews, but these should be tempered in line with the realities within the business.

Beyond development, other factors that will help retain the best staff in the market include:


Firms vary enormously in whether they do or do not pay for overtime, however, it can be a useful tool in increasing productivity within the risk and compliance function, especially for large international firms with significant business acceptance units. This is another area where a simple profit and loss analysis can easily miss the real value of this benefit.

Whilst overtime may add additional costs per head onto your business acceptance function, it can be a significant factor in aiding retention. Those professionals who invest significant additional time into undertaking their duties will be rewarded accordingly, and external opportunities on the market may have a less appealing to ultimately minimal or non-existent pay rise.

Flexible working

The world has changed post-COVID and flexible working is now the norm, but even since this change we see a strong differentiation between two or three days working from home or even 2.5 days versus three days. Additional flexibility can allow your team a better work-life balance and provide more reasons to stay.

Running an effective flexible working scheme should require carefully considered and adapted assessment of the deliverables allowing you to assess the value and input of your team with objective measures.

Career planning

The vast majority of candidates we speak to are given no clear or defined career path within the firms they work within. Candidates will have aspirations of additional exposure and involvement but the timeline and parameters for this are unclear.


Be generous with titles. There are an extraordinary number of different titles for the same roles within this space and similarly, the same title is often used for extremely different roles. Any candidate’s expectations around title can vary, as you would expect in this environment, but one of the key factors is to reserve assistant titles for individuals at the very beginning of their career journeys.

Too often we are asked by clients to find professionals with two to three years of experience for assistant-level role consideration.  Candidates with this experience have usually already surpassed the assistant title and may be called analyst or senior analyst, officer, senior officer or one of the other myriad of non-assistant title roles.

Consider the impact of titles on the ability of your risk and compliance team members to undertake their own roles. We appreciate that there are often complicated internal politics, especially in larger firms, but we regularly speak to senior-level professionals operating on a global level without a global title which can cause challenges when interacting internationally.

Champion risk & compliance and the value it can bring

Whilst many of the professionals we work with are responsible for changing the perception of risk and compliance across partnerships and senior leadership teams, or even across the fee earner population, there are still many professionals working in environments where the buy-in across the wider firm is poor.

This can be incredibly demoralising,  demotivating and ultimately is a significant factor when it comes to retaining top talent. Individuals who are capable of making a significant impact on your business will leave if they are banging their head against a wall trying to implement change.

Whilst a large piece of the puzzle is the risk and compliance team themselves selling risk and compliance to the wider business, the best firms we work with have champions for risk and compliance outside of the immediate risk and compliance team, for example, managing partner, senior partnership, senior leadership team, chief operating officer, etc.

If you want to build, develop and retain the best risk and compliance functions in the market you need to demonstrate that you believe in their value from the very top of the business.

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