As both a qualified commercial lawyer, and an experienced Leader, Facilitator and Executive Coach, Chris Sweetman, Director of Sweetmans and Partners, offers some thoughts on attracting and retaining talent, and how culture can support strategy. This insight has been created in association with Business Wales.
Competition for talent has always existed, and it has only intensified over the last two years. Many firms now believe that recruitment and staff retention is becoming their main barrier to growth.
This was backed up by a survey my firm ran last year in partnership with Legal News Wales, which revealed that 1 in 3 firms saw recruitment and retention as major obstacles to overcome.
This trend cuts both ways, of course, with nearly 1 in 5 seeing the opening -up of the recruitment market as a major positive of their pandemic experience.
The realisation that work is a thing you do not a place you go, has enabled all employers to spread the recruitment net more widely. Firms in larger cities have been able to attract more talent from the regions by offering people the opportunity to work from home for part of the week, but with the same salary you’d get if you were living in those cities.
More in-house roles and the rise in freelance lawyers, has also given talent at all levels more choice.
And although smaller firms may still be able to claim that they offer a better work-life balance, this argument isn’t as compelling in a remote-working world. So, if you can’t match the salaries of larger firms and the work-life balance case is harder to make, what can you do to attract and retain talent?
At a macro level, there’s an opportunity for firms to work collectively to develop a sector-wide approach that all firms here can benefit from.
If we focus, for now, on steps that individual firms can take, I’d like to offer 3 ideas:
1. Highlight the potential for accelerated career development opportunities
Lawyers in larger firms might work on client matters “with more zeros”, but their roles are usually further removed from the client, or they’ll work in a discreet area.
Smaller firms typically offer their junior lawyers more responsibility, and more client contact. This approach can accelerate career plans, which can appeal to those with fast-track ambitions.
From a firm’s point of view, there’s also the potential to charge out their junior lawyers at higher rates in recognition of their additional experience. Admittedly, this talent could leave further down the line. But there’s always a chance of this anyway. And it could be reframed as a success story which itself can be as a selling point when recruiting.
2. Highlight the benefits of being close to an office and being able to work remotely
Not all talent has fast-track ambitions however, and not all firms want to only attract these candidates. This is where other factors come in including support, supervision and training. Just over half of the firms in our survey said that ensuring effective supervision has been one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic. This has been of particular concern for more junior lawyers who’ve missed out on the opportunity to learn from watching, and listening to, senior colleagues in action.
If your firm can offer staff the option to work at a nearby office, the additional learning opportunities that this can provide can help differentiate your firm from those whose offices are less accessible.
If you’ve identified that you do have a genuinely supportive and inclusive culture, that could help attract those who are looking for a sense of belonging after such a long time working remotely.
Living, and working, in the firm’s geographical markets also makes it easier to build networks and raise one’s profile – factors that are particularly important for lawyers in certain practice areas, especially those with partnership aspirations.
3. Build on existing wellbeing initiatives
There has been lots of debate about the changing expectations of the generation of young lawyers who are more likely to take a holistic approach to work and their choice of employer.
Wellbeing is a key part of this, of course, over the last two years and LawCare’s recent ‘Life in the Law’ report has helped underline this. Many of the firms we work with took fantastic steps to support the wellbeing of their people. And whilst some of the challenges around wellbeing are sector-wide and systemic, there’s an opportunity for firms to build on the great work they’ve done to demonstrate a longer-term commitment to this area.
The LawCare study found that workplaces that actively commit to supporting mental health, and enable people to thrive, are “better able to attract and retain a diverse, valued, and experienced workforce, giving them a competitive advantage”. So the business case for doing so is strong.
How can we identify and nurture the firm’s future leaders?
The abolition of the SRA’s mandatory Management Courses has arguably left a gap at junior and associate level with firms having to shop around and make a conscious choice to invest in this area. This appears to be borne out in LawCare’s Life in Law study where less than half of participants who worked in a position of management or supervisory capacity said they had received leadership, management, or supervisory training. Where training had been provided, 89.4% said it was helpful or very helpful.
A good starting point is to quantify what you’re looking for in terms of future leaders. This can be done in a number of ways depending on the size of the firm and the leadership team.
This can range from simple steps such as documenting the non fee-earning aspects of a leader’s role (e.g. in a job description), to more involved exercises, such as developing competency frameworks as part of career development plans. The next step would be a “gap analysis” exercise to raise self-awareness and ultimately support individual development plans. 360 feedback exercises (which are crucially development, rather than performance based) and appraisals are just some of the tools that can help here.
Those individual development plans can include a range of steps such as:
- Taking up Non-Executive Director roles to build experience and develop and observe key leadership skills and behaviours. If this can be done in target sectors or organisations, it can result in spin-off benefits in terms of marketing and business development.
- Management development programmes – these can be delivered in-house or on a consortium basis through organisations like LawNet, and by people with legal experience, to ensure they are tailored to your audience and the context in which they work. Building in non-directive forms of learning such as coaching and action learning can also quickly accelerate the capacity and capability of your rising stars, as well as their confidence.
- Delegating more responsibility and authority on management, as well as client, matters – as in client work, this can start with areas that are less controversial or lower stakes, and can involve limits on decision-making while people build up their confidence and while you build your trust in them. If there are opportunities to delegate tasks that involve a lot of your time or headspace then all the better as this can free you up to spend your time differently.
How can clarifying the firm’s culture help us as a firm – now and in the future?
Whilst culture has always been important to many law firms, recent events have brought it more sharply into focus.
The first was the pandemic, which required firms to spend more time thinking about ‘how’ they work, not just what they do.
Another thing that’s pushed culture up the agenda is the SRA’s recent Workplace Culture Thematic Review, and the associated guidance, which sets out the regulator’s expectations on firms, which they ‘may have regard to when exercising their regulatory functions’. PI insurers are also taking more of an interest in firms’ culture as they see it as a way of reducing the number of possible claims.
We’ve also noticed a trend among clients for seeing culture as a means of supporting their strategy and business plans. This has involved bringing the values to life through a set of behaviours that are key to delivering the strategy, and then investing in the ones that are seen less frequently.
Bringing values to life in this way also helps avoid suggestions that values are ‘just words on a wall’. As an Exec member from one of our clients recently said: ‘Our behaviours, as a senior team, have to match the rhetoric’.
Other clients have also found their values to be a useful tool during the pandemic to navigate complex decisions at such an ambiguous time. Their values have acted as a useful lens to inform their approach in certain situations.
Clarifying culture through values and behaviours can also be a useful succession-planning exercise for departing partners who are keen to leave their firm with a lasting legacy.
It can also support with recruitment and retention, especially among candidates for whom culture is important.
The SRA’s Culture Review found that firms who are striving to create a positive culture report a number of benefits. These include improved employee retention, a more diverse, productive, and motivated workforce, and a better client experience. So, again, there are clear business benefits of investing the time to cultivate a strong and clear culture.
The pandemic has clearly posed significant challenges. But it’s also presented new opportunities and has helped firms accelerate many of their longer-term plans. The opportunity now is for firms to build on their successes and create an exciting vision for the future for both new recruits and existing colleagues.
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