Attract the best staff and keep the poachers at bay

Given the current shortage of skilled IT staff and the subsequent flood of poachings among law firms it is becoming increasingly difficult for firms to hold onto their staff.

So how can firms build and maintain effective IT departments? Perhaps firms should first take a look at the role of their IT director. Historically the IT partner has had the strategic authority and the IT director has implemented the changes.

More recently steering committees have allowed IT to be represented at specific times at partnership level. This is not enough. Investment in IT is increasing and the projects are getting larger.

Having recently worked with a number of medium to large law firms, I can say that current investment for major implementations ranges from £350,000 to £1m per project. In the scheme of things that is a very significant amount of money.

It makes good sense then for firms to have a strategist with the level of technical understanding to ensure a return on such heavy investment.

It is vital for an IT director to have full board status. By raising the profile of its IT director, a law firm also increases its chances of attracting quality staff.

One of the most important attractions to a prospective employee is strong leadership. An IT department wants to feel valued, supported and invested in the long term.

Another way of holding on to staff is by providing them with a leading edge environment. There is nothing that drives a technician more than the opportunity to develop his or her chosen skill further.

Within their chosen field law firms must be seen to have the best technology. The latest technology is not necessarily the best, but having the soundest document management system capability or seeing the importance of the Internet and international Web sites will always help attract staff.

Providing staff with a promotional path ahead of them is also important. This is a much-neglected area, but as IT departments take on more responsibility so their size will increase.

This increase in numbers, if well managed, should provide more scope for advancing the careers of staff members and providing them with the opportunity to develop new skills.

Key individuals need to be challenged and a good director needs a good structure in place to support him or her.

As far as salaries are concerned, never think that people are driven more by job satisfaction than financial reward the two go hand-in-hand.

I know of at least three IT directors of major City firms who have won pay rises of up to 25 per cent as a direct response to the threat that they may defect to rival firms.

The Lawyer reported recently that average salaries of IT directors ranged from £50,000 to £80,000 for small to medium-sized firms and £80,000 to £100,000 for the top City firms. This figure will continue to rise should the skills shortage deepen.

Additional benefits such as longer holiday entitlements, profit related pay and private health care are expected by most employees, but bonus payments linked to performance, project completions and other work-oriented targets will also attract the better candidate.