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As more and more lawyers move firms, personnel departments are employing the services of independent careers consultants in a last-ditch attempt to retain staff. Alison Clarke reports
There was a time when it was virtually unknown for lawyers to leave the firm where they trained and even more unusual for them to leave the profession altogether. Not any more. Every week, the pages of the trade press are filled with news of partners and other qualified lawyers moving from one firm to another. Some give up law completely - in one case to open a holistic yoga centre. That is not to say that the profession is in crisis, just that it no longer offers the same certainties of the past.
Enter the professional consultancy firm offering advice on everything from career management and performance to outplacements (helping staff find a new job elsewhere).
These organisations are generally the preserve of the bigger law firms (not least because of the cost involved, which can be anything from £3,000 to £6,000 per person). But the agencies report that an increasing number of small partnerships are also prepared to put their hands in their pockets.
The main advantage, according to Clifford Chance's head of personnel Alistair Dawson, is the consultant's independence. "It can be useful for employees to talk with an individual from outside the firm, someone who is neutral. For instance, if someone is having difficulty in terms of performance or is not certain whether they want to continue being a lawyer, they can get their problems aired with a consultant. As a result, they may change their behaviour and perhaps stay with the firm where otherwise they would have left."
CMS Cameron McKenna's director of human resources John Renz says that this is the whole purpose of the exercise. Agencies can be used to provide career counselling and guidance as opposed to an outplacement service, although one may lead to the other.
Although the services of the agencies are open to everyone in the firm, more senior staff can expect a more comprehensive service. Cue the pilot project at CMS Cameron McKenna for senior assistants (five to seven years qualified) to give them the chance to "manage their careers". Renz says that the idea is to allow people to take stock of their lives and think about where they want to go. Assistants can choose a counsellor from a panel of external consultants for up to three confidential sessions, and none of the consultants are from the normal agencies used by the firm (see box).
Despite the emphasis on the use of agencies for career counselling purposes, an employee may, of course, end up leaving the firm - which still picks up the tab. DLA's human resources director Robert Halton has no problem with this. He says that part of the firm's exit policy is to offer the use of outplacement firms to all staff.
He says: "One of the values of our firm is about treating people with respect. You have to treat people decently, not just when you recruit them, but also when they may be about to leave."
Halton believes that the firm's use of outplacement agencies reinforces the message internally that it cares about its staff. "It makes good commercial sense to have a reputation for looking after people. It also means that we retain good relationships with people who leave. We did a retention survey a couple of years ago of people who had left and 70 per cent of those who responded said that they would consider rejoining."
Tim Cole, director of human resources at Freshfields, agrees. He says: "It is a very short-sighted firm that would not provide careers advice just because someone might leave as a result. People like support in shaping their careers, not just because they might choose to leave but also because they might want to reposition themselves within the firm. Access to external career consultants is just part of the portfolio that we can provide."
There are costs involved but he says that it is money well spent, not least because it can help individuals recognise the development opportunities within the firm.
Philip Beddows, a director at BG Careers, says: "Offering career guidance can be a way of retaining staff by offering them the tools to manage their career within the firm, rather than losing them to a competitor."
The agencies' fees can also be offset against the cost of recruiting senior staff. TDA Consulting director Alan Smith says that a headhunter can charge as much as 40 per cent of a senior lawyer's salary in the first year.
Some firms use the agencies only once in a blue moon. For instance, head of personnel at Slaughter and May, Neil Morgan, says that because of the state of the market, it is at least four years since he engaged an outplacement agency.
And he is not the only one to cut back. Charles Glass, managing consultant of Professional Career Management, says: "There is not much outplacement at the moment. People are living with any mismatches because it is difficult to get lawyers, although some of our bigger clients are still sending people. In its place, career coaching that looks at people's performance and how they manage themselves and others has increased dramatically."
All the agencies claim to offer a bespoke service to their clients, which in the case of outplacement, usually runs over a three to six month period. Anna Larcom, a director with BG Careers, explains: "It will probably take longer to place someone in their 50s than a 28-year-old, but we will agree a timescale that is appropriate for each individual. During that time we will see them as much as they want, which could be as often as three or four times a week to begin with."
But not everyone is convinced by the flexibility of approach of some of the agencies. Eversheds director of personnel Margaret Bradburn says: "Often all we want is someone from the outside to sit down with people to get them to think about where they are going, but lots of outplacement firms also offer the use of office space, access to the net, research databases, interview techniques, CV preparation etc and charge accordingly. You can negotiate, but there is a point that they will not go below."
But for employees, particularly those who have fallen foul of internal politics, the offer of an outplacement agency must be hard to resist. Given that someone else is picking up the tab, lawyers on their way out have nothing to lose and just about everything to gain. Larcom, for one, claims a success rate of 98 per cent for her consultancy. She even claims that it will find jobs for that other 2 per cent, meaning that "although it may not be what they originally wanted, they find work by becoming more realistic".