Staying competitive in the regions

As the partner promotion season reaches its height, many senior associates, and indeed salaried partners, will be considering their options and possibly career moves.

As Helen Mead, a partner at ASB Law, recently highlighted in The Lawyer (23 April), many a disenfranchised City solicitor will be keeping a wistful eye on the regions as people are attracted by the quality of work and favourable changes in work-life balance.

Like their City counterparts the top regional firms are involved in a battle to recruit and retain the very best staff. The lure of top-drawer work conducted in a far more agreeable working environment is a powerful one. Who would not want to reduce the time they spend commuting to have more time with the family or on the golf course?Life and work in the regions have changed significantly in recent years as clients have woken up to the benefits of engaging City-quality lawyers at regional prices. The nature of the work carried out by regional firms has changed dramatically: blue-chip clients are no longer the exclusive preserve of the City firms.

For some lawyers this is not all good news: anyone looking to leave the City in the expectation of a quieter, more leisurely working life at a good regional firm is likely to be disappointed.

Hence the question that vexes many regional managing partners: how do I ensure that lawyers coming to us from the City remain motivated and productive, without undermining their original reason for joining?Unfortunately, the answer is not a straightforward one. Some firms might seek to address this issue by formulating lengthy HR policies about flexible working and other lifestyle matters. The problem with such an approach is that it is divorced from the realities of fee-earning work and well-intentioned management rhetoric can become meaningless.

No matter which firm you work for, you will still have the corporate client who wants the contract yesterday, or the employer who drops a grievance matter on your desk at 5.30pm on a Friday afternoon.

The solution is to foster a culture within the firm whereby a work-life balance is central to the way the firm operates, but is blended with a firmwide commitment to, or even an obsession with, client care.

There is a key point of difference between firms that take such an approach and those that, maybe unintentionally, breed (or at least fail to combat) a long-hours culture that drives associates and partners.

An environment where peer pressure and machismo are rife can be counterproductive. It is in such firms that you will see the ‘first in, last out’ games being played, where the appearance of working hard becomes more important than the work itself. Clients will notice things such as this. They will also spot when the lawyers they are working with are being inhibited by stress.

While it is easy to talk about cultivating a more positive culture, the question remains about how to achieve this in practice.

Fundamentally, as a profession we need to change our attitude to work. We need to be less fixated with excessive chargeable hours and become obsessive about providing first-class client care instead. The billing will soon follow.

One means by which to do this is to introduce initiatives whereby staff are given firmwide recognition when they go beyond the call of duty.

Staff will feel that their hard work is valued and that, by going the extra mile, they have attracted the plaudits from management for their results rather than by virtue of politicking or game-playing. This is when people respond best.