Top London law firms risk being stymied in their search for the best international talent under government proposals to restrict economic migrants from outside the European Union to a maximum five-year stay in the UK, the Law Society has warned.

John Wotton, president of the Law Society – which represents solicitors in England and Wales, who billed around £15bn in the last fiscal year – told the Financial Times that plans for all but the most exceptional workers to leave after five years in the country would deter incoming staff from Asia and the US.

“People will not relocate across the world if they feel they can only spend a few years in London,” Mr Wotton said. “If this was the only aspect of immigration policy that has been raised that might be manageable, but it’s just one in a series of measures that are making the UK less open to business, and it’s affecting the growth potential of one of the country’s most important sectors.”

The Home Office has already imposed a cap on the number of work visas issued each month, and ministers will now consider responses to their consultation on settlement, which closed at the beginning of the week.

The key proposal was to reclassify the path of economic migrants into the country as temporary, in an effort to break the so-called “automatic link” between entering the UK for work and staying indefinitely. The policies are part of a drive to reduce net migration from the most recent figure of 239,000 to less than 100,000 by 2015.

But Mr Wotton said the government was sending “mixed messages” to the legal sector after Ken Clarke, justice minister, had promised earlier this week to help UK law firms export legal services abroad. “The Home Office position on immigration is not helping to maintain the market-leading position of London firms,” he said. The Home Office indicated it would not comment on an ongoing consultation.

Meanwhile Neil Carberry, director of employment at the CBI employers’ organisation, said that while a tougher settlement test was entirely reasonable, a “universal bar” of five years was not.

“Our evidence is that people come for around five years and don’t tend to stay that much longer, but they may have work to finish, and business timetables don’t necessarily run alongside political ones,” he said.

Julia Onslow-Cole, global head of immigration at PwC, said that the visa cap, which began in April, was already hurting businesses.

“Our clients are certainly telling us that the cap is having an economic impact, as organisations have had to delay hiring key individuals and consider relocating roles overseas,” she said.

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