Nurturing talent will bring key clients

The business school rhetoric of ‘people are our most important asset’ is tired. In most organisations people are expendable. Most businesses don’t rely on the retention, motivation and behaviour of people for their differentiation; they rely on technology, product design or distribution networks.

This isn’t true for law firms. We compete by the performance and technical knowledge of our people. If we don’t attract the best graduates or retain our top performers, clients notice and financial performance suffers.

In today’s market, firms that place people management and leadership at the top of their agendas win. They worry as much about losing star performers as about losing key clients. They go to equal lengths to prevent either.

Management and leadership are two distinct activities. Both are needed, but law firms are commonly overmanaged and under-led. We have to get the balance right.

What’s the difference? Broadly, management is about coping with complexity; leadership is about coping with change. Our partners must act as managers and as leaders, both with our clients and our people.

Leadership potential features in selection and succession processes for our senior roles. As part of our leadership development programme, our senior people attend learning centres and we are supplementing this with a leadership course.

On recruitment, our task is to attract as many high-potential candidates as we can at all levels: graduate, assistant and partner. We are successful at converting offers to acceptances, but we need to attract more people in the first place.

This means raising our profile with key universities and in the legal employment market, standardising and updating our selection processes to recruit the best candidates and ensuring that our recruitment activity is driven by our business strategy.

People stay in organisations for various reasons. A competitive salary and benefits package are just the start. Professional staff want to learn, are good at learning and enjoy learning. They know that learning increases their value. The education they want, and the one we have to provide, has to be practical and marketable.

They want career options; solicitors don’t automatically see their first firm as their only employer.

People value affiliation, teamwork and leadership. They like to work with likeminded individuals to know that their work is making a difference and that they are appreciated.

Our statistics show that lawyers who train with us generate more income than those we recruit after qualification. This creates two challenges: to retain as many as possible of those who train with us and to improve the fee generation of lateral recruits.

Feedback from our lawyers suggests that they understand and support our remuneration philosophy, but they can be confused or even suspicious about how the performance element of their pay is determined. So do we agree about what constitutes good performance and how to reward it?Our performance management and appraisal process needs to be simple to understand, transparent in its intent and capable of being adopted across the firm consistently. Differences in appraisal processes across a firm create ambiguity, which is harmful.

Look at any great professional service firm. Which came first, the client or the star performer? It’s always the star performer. Firms become great by attracting, motivating and retaining good people, who attract and retain good clients, who attract more star performers, and so on.

We aim to differentiate ourselves by our approach to client relationships, management of our people, teamwork and personal development. The war for talent is more acute than ever. The challenge is to become as well known for how we look after our people as we are for how we look after our clients.