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How law firms can retain their best people

BY EVE DULLABH

Firms who want to grow and sustain a good reputation, should keep on board staff who are trusted and who deliver results.

There’s a very compelling business case for retaining your best people. It’s they who have the knowledge, experience, vision and people skills to satisfy clients and to create repeat business. An ill wind blows for organisations that too easily let their finest staff slip through their fingers.

Nurture

And yet, it is often difficult to create a nurturing culture (in effect, the petri dish of retainment) in a profession where the working day often stretches into the working night and work-life is fierce, competitive and sometimes unforgiving. What’s good for the client tops the to-do list, what’s good for the lawyer’s wellbeing drops from priority. It can be a false economy: good lawyers are the cornerstone of good client relationships.

The standard, historical tools of staff retention have been:

1. Salary – but it’s easier for some firms to “splash the cash” and it’s not a retention elixir by any stretch of the imagination

2. Dangle the partnership carrot – but not everyone can or wants to make it to that level, and many firms are creating flatter structures with fewer management tiers.

The culture vultures

Recent wisdom is to view the creation of a strong law firm culture as being fundamental in the drive to retain staff. But – beyond that general idea – how does law firm culture help retain staff? Which of these aims is foremost?

1. To create a “sticky” culture that makes employees look forward to the next day within it

2. An environment in which the individual can thrive

3. An environment in which the team can thrive

4. An environment in which the firm can thrive

5. Creating a nice place to work

Pitfalls of the status quo

Quite often a combination of B,C and D is assumed to be the answer, simply because “Individual + Team + Organisation = Success” seems self-evidently true.

In fact, it’s not always true. One of the pitfalls of this way of thinking about organisation culture is that it can lead to a point where managers avoid the hard work of creating a nurturing culture. The temptation is to think, “because we like individuals and teams and we’re a great firm people will want to work here and stay here”. And that’s it, the status quo will suffice…

And if the status quo suffices, all you need is to re-state the mission statement. For example, “We believe in great client relationships, deep sector know-how, leading edge legal knowledge and a passion for doing things differently”. You’ve got to be the place to work, then! Do your competitors make similar mission statements? Bet they’re great places to work too!!

Another tricky situation is where management feels that the firm’s culture is open and transparent, however their talent has not really seen this in practice.

It is proven that staff would rather look for a new position than request a pay rise, more training or a shot at management. This can be because of shyness, fear of rejection and lack of experience in asking for what you want.

When management gets the email reference from a competitor for their staff, they can find themselves completely surprised, as, in their mind, they considered the door always open for their team to come to them and ask for what they need to stay with the firm.

This is, however, usually not the case, so it is important for management to have frequent talks with their key team members ensuring they have what they need in order to thrive within your organisation and, most importantly, to stay!

This, of course, needs to be balanced with the firm’s resources, creating a precedent for the rest of the team and weighing the pros and cons of keeping certain talent.

The TWO Rs

Firms should also spend time on A and D, creating a genuine, pleasant and “sticky” environment that obeys the two Rs:

First R – provide some RESPITE from stresses of the job.

Second R – provide ROOM for people and teams to grow as individuals. This could literally be a pleasant physical space in which to do creative thinking, or head space, or permission to challenge orthodoxies, or a career structure tied to a competencies framework that recognises and rewards all manner of strengths and specialisms.

Initiatives that support TWO R thinking include:

  • Sabbaticals and/or staff research-unpaid extended leave to allow staff achieve non-work personal ambitions or, if paid sabbaticals are possible, to also undertake extended CPD.

  • Secondments with clients – deepens knowledge (and a change of scenery can be as good as a rest).

  • Genuinely delegating
    decision-making and responsibility
    – so long as it’s supported.

  • Using an alumni talent pool – a community/extended family of good people who may have moved into other industries or who have retired but who also have the capacity to occasionally get involved in the firm. This indicates the firm places a genuine long-term value upon its people.

  • Diverse staff, diverse social activities – because cloning is not allowed.

  • Aim for client work that your staff feel is meaningful. Encourage pride.

  • Throw all unnecessary admin on the bonfire.

  • Praise, praise and praise whenever it’s warranted. You can’t praise or thank staff enough. And it’s free!