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Law firms: how to attract and retain the best talent

The legal industry is notoriously difficult to break into as an aspiring lawyer. Even after securing that crucial first job, progressing up the ladder in a law firm can also be an arduous journey—while reaching the partnership realm comes with its own steep challenges.

Amongst a crowded and competitive market space, firms also face a tough job in recruiting the right candidates from the industry’s elite talent. But in a period of uncertainty, with firms operating in an increasingly tumultuous environment—compounded by Brexit—it is more crucial than ever for firms to attract the best talent to lead them through such challenging times.

Although, how can a firm ensure it is an appealing choice among candidates? Can a firm afford to rely merely on its reputation? Perhaps a big salary will be enough to attract the best? Or, alternatively, are there other factors at play which carry more weight than ever before?

The answer: probably a combination of all the above. However, in recent years, other factors have indeed come to fore, and are central in alluring top talent to the firm. The most important factor is “the firm’s culture”, says Susan Bright, Regional Managing Partner at Hogan Lovells.

Bright believes that while “great client relationships, deep industry knowledge, cutting edge regulatory experience and a focus on innovation is attractive”, so too is a healthy working environment. “A culture that enables diverse teams to thrive and give off their best will help a firm to attract and retain the best talent. We do that by providing world-class training and experience for our lawyers”, says Bright. “Being part of a team in which every individual is encouraged to fulfil their potential is one of our most attractive offerings as an employer. That also means ensuring that diversity and inclusion (D&I) sit at the core of who we are and how we do business”.

The principle of building an open, honest and supportive culture is now high on the agenda for many of the UK’s largest law firms—vying to champion flexible working; sponsorship; training; mentoring; and ambitious D&I initiatives.

However, establishing such a culture is not always easy. Law firm life can be fiercely fast-paced, and often very pressured, and therefore embedding new practices to advance a firm’s culture can easily drop down the priority list. It is this reason alone, though—coupled with the incentive of attracting and retaining top talent—that only emboldens the necessity of placing such culture initiatives higher up the pecking order.

That’s what Hogan Lovells has done for some time, and has subsequently scooped a slew of awards, including the Disability Progress Award 2018 for its progressive recruiting processes, and has been ranked in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers Workplace Equality Index for eight years running. “Those types of rankings help us to demonstrate to potential recruits why we are the right place for them to progress their careers”, Bright says.

A voice at the table

Further, having a leading strategic role in the firm is a top requirement for some partners who are seeking their next move. According to Darryn Hale, Partner, Practice, at legal recruitment firm Taylor Root, “buoyant partner candidates” are often in search of opportunities that will allow them to contribute to the strategic direction of the firm. If such power is not on offer, or has slipped from the grasp, it can sometimes be a driver for partners wanting to move on.

“We see this with our most buoyant candidate source at a partner level from firms where there has been a multi-firm merger—where a partner suddenly sees him or herself at a firm which is much larger than what they’re used to or a firm where suddenly the axis of power has shifted to the US or other jurisdictions, and therefore less able to influence strategy from a London base”, explains Hale. “Partners want to feel they have some influence over strategy”.

However, while associates still widely aspire to gain the coveted partnership status, many are looking to other careers paths—and firms need to offer a variety of opportunities to attract the top talent. Business strategy, knowledge management, HR and the emergence of innovative technology roles are among some of the more favourable destinations for some associates, and the “never ending stress” of being a partner is, for some, becoming less of an appealing option.

“It used to be that every associate of quality aspired to be partner,” says Hale. “I do not think that is true anymore. I think they are more conscious about looking up to partner level and seeing that the stress never ends, with the pressure of billing; delivering £1.5m or whatever is might be, which doesn’t go away.

“So, it’s about being able to offer that career path [partner] to the people that want it, but to always have defined alternative career paths as well”.

Keeping the talent

Retaining the top talent in the firm can be a tricky job, especially if a partner or associate is excelling in their field, they instantly become hot property. A decent salary, generous incremental pay bumps, and bonuses certainly carry some weight in regard to staff retention.

Though, there are a plethora of reasons why people decide to move jobs. However, in uncertain times for the legal landscape and indeed, the business sector, keeping the top talent is imperative.

And while offering diverse career paths can be a big incentive for many candidates, a big challenge for firms is keeping staff perpetually engaged with a stimulating workload, and clear scope to progress—and, crucially, develop skills—within the organisation. “Ultimately, when I ask people why they have decided to stay and build their careers here, it often comes down to the quality of work and the culture of our firm. The two are intrinsically linked”, says Bright.

“Feedback is also key”, she says, adding that adequate skill development needs to be nurtured—something which is a key focus at Hogan Lovells. “Gone are the days of a set piece annual appraisal. We are investing in our “Pathways” programme, which facilitates a more meaningful, forward looking and continuous flow of feedback to help our people to develop and hone their skills,” says Bright.

Firms seeking to attract and retain the top talent will be well-positioned to do so by offering diverse career paths, representative of the evolving legal market—but, importantly, within a progressive working culture that enables staff to thrive and develop.

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