HR and training take centre stage as law firms enter interesting times
29 September 2008
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There 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.