Don’t burn bridges – build them

Leavers: a powerful tool or a thorn in your side? It’s your choice by Roly Walter

Reputations, good and bad, are made by three interdependent factors: technical ability, marketing and people. Typically, law firms are good at the first, getting better at the second and are awful at the third. Firms need to take people strategy and the development (as opposed to technical training) of their employees far more seriously.

However, people strategy is not just about current employees. How many times have you formed an opinion, good or bad, of an organisation through what you have heard from someone who used to work there? Is there any reason to suppose that law firm clients, prospective clients and potential recruits might be any different? No.

In this context, it is staggering that law firms do not make greater efforts to ‘gruntle’ (as opposed to ‘disgruntle’) their alumni – an army of individuals, growing in number every year, with something to say about their ex-employer, either good or bad. Whether they opt for the former or the latter is, with limited exceptions, in the hands of the former employer. Does the firm make efforts to: understand why leavers leave?; collate and analyse that information and respond to issues raised?; and incorporate leavers into a broader firm ‘family’ – promoting the firm, its philosophy and abilities to the wider world?

All too often, they do not. If exit interviews do actually take place they are frequently conducted by junior or disconnected staff with often no real understanding of, or interest in, the issues. Even where well-run interviews do take place and vital data is extracted, more often than not that information is then simply filed away in the HR department or in a partner’s bottom drawer. It represents a wasted opportunity to identify and analyse common trends.

When it comes to incorporating leavers into a broader firm ‘family’, most law firms have a lot of catching up to do. No one will promote your firm and win work as well as someone who understands your organisation and the players within it, whether or not they currently work for you. The power of alumni to do good for your business should not be underestimated. Nor should their power to do bad. The secret to ensuring the former and avoiding the latter is to put in place the right kind of alumni architecture.

The nettle needs to be grasped at two key points. First, on departure, the idea that leavers are being ‘disloyal’ simply has to go. The market has long since changed. Lawyers now see their firms as suppliers – of salaries and, more importantly, development. If they do not like what is being supplied, then they simply move on. Law firms need to understand this and embrace and manage departures as opportunities. The McKinseys, Harvards and Microsofts of this world do just this.

Second, once the individual has left, a carefully orchestrated inclusive approach is needed on a continual basis. Drinks once a year are typically as good as it gets at the moment. It may be a start, but is nowhere near enough to leverage real value from this powerful network. Individual contact, news and information-sharing, as well as some kind of ‘return’ for the alumnus (no matter how intangible) is what is required. Each leaver is a potential client and a potential referrer of recruits.

Ultimately, the question each firm and every individual within it needs to answer is: are departures a threat, to be dealt with punitively or dismissively, or an opportunity to be leveraged with care and attention? Glass half empty or glass half full? The choice is yours.

Roly Walter is a director at legal market management consultancy Couraud Consulting