Over the past five years we have looked specifically at these areas, tapping into the experiences of a number of UK lawyers at differing levels of experience and in varying law firm sizes. In a forthcoming series of short articles we assess the key challenges of retention, performance, well-being and gender diversity, and offer some solutions.
Here, we look at retention.
A third of the lawyers we asked reported being unsure about how long they planned to stay with their current law firm. Just under a third of senior associates reported an intention to leave within three years, with even wider variability among associates. Unsurprisingly, the more senior the lawyer the longer they planned to stay. The fact that younger, less experienced lawyers at earlier periods in their careers are more inclined to move around at this stage is not surprising or even undesirable, especially for them. It can however present the firm with a problem - this constant need to replace lawyers at this level of experience, usually after considerable investment in their recruitment, induction and training can be a challenge.
As firms face a near universal need to cap salaries and bonuses (at least to some degree) and increase utilisation and fee income, this creates tensions in the markets with some firms struggling to recruit suitable people.
So, what can be done to achieve a desirable level of retention? Keeping your 'best people' begins with their identification - who are they, where are they and what is their value and contribution? In our experience, firms vary widely in their response to this. Some utilise comprehensive systems of talent spotting or more organic knowledge flow to ensure these questions are well answered, while others are at best patchy or non-existent in either a formal or informal capacity. As a first step then it is essential to ask 'how do we identify our best people?' (Depending upon your firm's level of developmental maturity a suggested second question might be 'what steps can we take to develop those who do not yet fall into this category?'). Once you have targeted them, what next?
What about pay? Clearly pay needs to be equitable and fair and seen to be so. If your lawyers are unhappy about their level of remuneration, attention to the other areas will be time wasted. But equally, addressing this alone will not address a retention problem.
Being valued and recognised: Unsurprisingly, the impact of feeling undervalued or unrecognised is generally negative. Whether this is in terms of an intention to leave, lack of confidence, motivation or commitment (and therefore performance), or disruptive activity, it presents a problem, both for the firm and the individual. We found that a quarter of men and one-half of women lawyers felt poorly valued by their firm. That represents a big opportunity for problems to arise. What is being valued and recognised?
Having an appropriate job structure: Providing a structure that supports each person to perform at their best reaps big rewards but is challenging. The lawyers we asked significantly valued flexibility in their work and a degree of autonomy over it. Among younger lawyers this is an increasingly expected feature. A preference for flexible working practices, including the ability to work from home on occasion or to flex the hours worked are commonly reported and many firms do support this. The recent change in working practices caused by the coronavirus pandemic has driven new working from home policies. But what will happen on the "return to normal"? What structures are needed to support each person to perform at their best?
In a theme that we will return to when we look at performance, gender diversity and well-being, we consider that the solution to each of these areas is significantly less complex than is often thought, albeit often difficult to implement. Understanding the answers to each of the highlighted questions is critical and each answer will differ according to the specific individual needs of each lawyer. In other words managers/team leaders/partners, as well as HR, consultants and coaches, need to be having effective management conversations with their lawyers to ensure they understand and can respond to the specific needs, motivations and aspirations of each lawyer. Where these conversations take place effectively and result in personalised approaches, these retention needs will be largely met, (and the wider differences concerning age, gender and seniority will cease to be such significant factors).
So, managers need to be asking their team members, "within the framework of what is possible and desirable within the firm, what do you need in order to perform at your best? What is challenging for you? How do you aspire to be valued? What level and type of recognition for good performance do you respond best to? How can we best structure your role to enable you to meet the needs of the client, team, firm and yourself?"