Keeping career structures up to date

There has long been a healthy debate within the profession about the most appropriate career structure for firms, often boiling down to a stark choice between an ‘up or out’ policy or one that incorporates ‘plateaued’ senior managers. Inevitably different firms with different cultures and different business models require different staffing structures, but the changing attitudes of associates has certainly intensified the debate.

Whether for lifestyle reasons or the ever-increasing expectations and demands of the role, for many partnership is no longer seen as the attractive proposition it once was. Across the industry there are currently high levels of dissatisfaction among associates in relation to existing career structures. The evidence is clear from the wide range of external research and associate surveys undertaken over the past 18 months. One inevitable conclusion is that the ‘one size fits all’ approach is no longer appropriate – if indeed it ever was.

Dissatisfaction focuses on three critical areas. An area of primary concern is partnership prospects and the view that attaining partnership is both a lottery and increasingly difficult to achieve. Added to that there is a strong feeling that firms perform poorly when it comes to open career communication: the route to partnership is ‘shrouded in mystery’ and associates are neither given clear targets nor a clear indication as to whether or not they are ‘on track’. And, in the eyes of associates, what makes matters worse is that there is a lack of any attractive alternative within private practice.

So how should firms go about tackling such fundamental issues?Inevitably this will be different for different firms, but a clear goal, strategy and implementation plan are all essential prerequisites.

At Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) our goal is clear, if somewhat aspirational. We want to provide a rewarding career for everyone at the firm by taking account of the diverse aspirations and unique contributions of individuals.

In relation to associate career paths, we identified five factors that were critical to achieving this goal: involvement and engagement; clarity and transparency; flexibility and choice; attractive alternatives; and development and support.

Of these we felt that involvement and genuine buy-in was a vital starting point: associates had to see it as their solution, not a solution imposed on them. More than a third of our lawyers took part in focus group meetings and one-to-one sessions in order to gather their feedback and the data necessary to produce a career development structure and programme unique to BLP.

As a result we now have a ‘best lawyers profile’ framework, with clear roles, responsibilities and targets at each stage of a lawyer’s career. We have a clear, transparent path to partnership that is published and available to everyone from the day they join. We have a fully integrated ‘cradle to grave’ training and development programme, incorporating our LPC+ initiative and a series of residential management courses at key stages in their careers. There is also an enhanced coaching and mentoring programme that incorporates both internal and external individuals for maximum impact. In addition, there are now clear alternative career development options, including the new associate director role, with nine senior associates recently promoted into the role.

The associate director role provides an opportunity for individuals to have involvement in the management and development of their practice groups in areas that they really enjoy and excel at, thus matching the role and responsibilities to the particular talents and interests of the individuals. The role is neither a stepping stone nor a block to partnership, it is simply another option for associates to consider at the appropriate stage of their careers.

We hope it will provide rewarding careers and enhanced job satisfaction for a highly valued group of lawyers within the firm.