HR and training take centre stage as law firms enter interesting times

HR and training take centre stage as law firms enter interesting timesThere is an old Chinese curse that says: “May you live in interesting times.” And if the topics discussed last week by delegates at The Lawyer’s conference on talent management and graduate training are anything to go by, most of the legal industry’s HR managers seem to have fallen victim to it.

The fallout from the credit crunch is becoming harder for HR and training managers to ignore. This was in evidence when Patrick McCann, head of training at Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) and chairman of the conference, led a spirited round-table discussion on how to deal with under-utilised lawyers.

With redundancies on the agenda, but only as a last resort, many delegates were looking at alternatives to the deal-based working structures in place at present. These included secondments to clients and busier offices of the firm, as well as offering flexible working schemes to lawyers.

Martina Doyle-Turner, HR manager at Midlands firm Browne Jacobson, argued that attrition should be kept to a minimum despite the downturn. With some recruiters charging a 30 per cent finder’s fee for top laterals, the cost of losing talented individuals is high.

“The very good people are locking down at the moment,” said Doyle-­Turner. “They’re not looking to move from their firms in the ­current climate.”

She added that putting in place mentoring schemes and targeted coaching for top performers reduces the chances of a firm losing its good people.

But the mood at the conference was far from being all doom and gloom.
Earlier in the day, McCann unveiled his plans for career development frameworks at BLP. He said staff had taken to the new plans, despite initial scepticism from lawyers and secretaries alike, adding that the frameworks gave employees a clear structure to their day, detailing exactly what tasks they should be spending their time on. McCann stressed that this sort of clarity was essential during a downturn.

Meanwhile, Jill McMillan, head of leadership and development for investment banking at Merrill Lynch Europe, gave one of the most successful talks of the day – and without once mentioning the credit crunch.

She drew parallels between the career path of an investment banker and that of a lawyer, pointing out that the move from senior associate to partner, or senior vice-president to managing director at a bank, was often accompanied by a ­crisis of confidence.

In her experience, she said, the successful candidates, finding themselves out of their comfort zone, went through a dip in performance immediately after ­promotion.

If training and development managers were not quick to react with a mentoring scheme then the new bosses may never adapt to the increased responsibility and eventually leave.

“Being in an investment bank is not dissimilar to working with lawyers,” said McMillan. “We’re good at promoting on past business performance but not so good at identifying the ­people who will excel in the future.”

One trend was clear from the conference – that HR and training will grow in profile as a support function as law firms continue to come to terms with the ­credit crunch.

SECRET SEVEN HR TIPS TO GET THROUGH CREDIT CRUNCH

It’s not easy being an HR ­manager during an economic crisis. But with enough ­preparation and flexibility in the HR strategy, you can ­minimise the damage from a downturn. The following tips are courtesy of delegates at The Lawyer’s recent talent management conference.

1. Don’t panic and
start ­firing people ­indiscriminately
During the last recession many firms made panic cuts and fired too many lawyers. In the subsequent upturn they were left with hefty recruitment bills as they frantically tried to hire them back. Remember: this too shall pass.

2. Use international offices if you have them
If you have offices in booming economies such as the United Arab Emirates or China, now would be a good time to talk to some of your less busy lawyers about relocating.

3. Deal lawyers will have extra time on their hands – use it for training
The sheer amount of lucrative deals available in the years before the crunch means that today’s senior lawyers have been able to put off training, using client deadlines as an excuse. Now that chargeable hours are down you can at last book them on to that ­delegation skills, advanced Excel or anger management course.

4. Now is the time to put in place flexible-working ­packages
Those lawyers who timidly came forward with plans to go part-time during the boom will finally be able to realise their dream. Draw up a list of candidates who you think may be happy to move to flexible hours.

5. Use client secondments to build relationships
You might still be paying the salary of the secondees, but they will return from their stint away with closer ties with the client than ever and improved commercial ­awareness. Just when you need it most.

6. Do not drop your firm’s partnership standards
The market for lateral partner hires is weak. These days the top candidates are more likely to sit out the credit crunch at their current firms. Resist the temptation to promote senior associates into roles they are not ready for.

7. Get your big guns out and pitching for business
In-house counsel will use the financial turbulence as an opportunity to renegotiate their panels and drive down fees. Make sure your firm is at the front of the queue for new work with training on pitching techniques for promising associates, under the guidance of top partners.