Employee power: how to use it wisely

Law firms are currently battling against a high staff turnover. Employees, particularly at associate level, are beginning to question the advantages of loyalty to one firm. Increasingly, they realise that working for a top law firm may not always be as satisfying as they had expected. But how can associates ensure they are reaching their full career potential? Should they remain at one firm while they wait interminably for promotion? Or should they move on quickly to the next career opportunity?
The traditional structure of a law firm may be changing irreversibly. Hard-working associates are growing disillusioned with few opportunities to become a partner. With many US firms expanding aggressively in London, associates have seen opportunities to work for firms where the salaries are substantially higher than their UK counterparts’. Moreover, the US firms are starting to address the need to promote associates to partners more quickly in their London offices.

As the legal market becomes increasingly competitive, frequent moves out of firms are becoming increasingly more acceptable for associates. Long hours, salary competition and highly pressurised environments have all contributed to staff exits. Most law firms accept that this is the norm in the industry and turn their attention to recruiting the next big hire. However, in a skills-short market employees can be more demanding than ever before, and law firms need to adapt to accommodate their needs.

High staff turnovers can be halted if law firms are prepared to admit that there is a problem and consider carefully how they recruit and manage their talent. Some firms have tried to counter this employee movement by providing employees with incentives to stay loyal to the firm, such as more holiday entitlement and the opportunity to take a sabbatical. Other firms are ensuring that the bonus scheme takes into account not only rewards on annual performance, but also the length of time spent at the firm.

While they are becoming more acceptable, there is still a stigma attached to too frequent moves, which may damage an individual’s ultimate career progression or, in the case of partners, their client following. A cogent reason for the move is needed to ensure credibility is not eroded in the eyes of future employers and existing clients. Moving firms because you wish to relocate geographically, or for a change of direction or a merger by your firm which severely impacts your team, are respected reasons for switching jobs. There is also no harm in starting at a small firm and then moving upwards every couple of years in the calibre of firm. And moving with a partner who changes jobs to take up a better position at another firm is also acceptable.

Even when the ‘candidate is king’ in a buoyant recruitment market, employees run the risk of sabotaging career aspirations and prospects by moving for moving’s sake. Switching from one firm to another similar firm in the same location to do a similar role is likely to be questioned by future employers. It is easy for associates to be flattered by headhunters or offers of more money, but if there is no genuine career enhancement value in accepting a new job, it would be wise to stay at your firm and re-evaluate your career progression.

The tide is changing, and length of service at a particular firm is no longer the most credible asset to an employee’s CV. Law firms are now looking at the type of experience a candidate has. In the current market, candidates are moving firms to take on more challenging work and more innovative clients, with the possibility of greater responsibility earlier in their careers.

While a magic circle or large law firm will always have a certain amount of kudos and offer good rewards, employees are increasingly weighing this up against a possible better quality of life and swifter career progression at niche firms. Employers would do well to take into account that their staff are less prepared to persevere with jobs that do not fulfil their aspirations. But lawyers should not act impetuously; rather, they must make considered decisions about when, where and how to change jobs.