Competency assessment retains talent

To grow and develop as effective practitioners, associates must know what is expected of them. Yet in most firms they are left to figure out for themselves the key to professional advancement. Salaries are generally linked to PQE, so are determined by seniority, with limited reward for skills development until associates are considered for partnership. As a result, associates’ formative years, from qualification to senior associate level, can be filled with uncertainty about how to gain the skills they need to advance and how to take some control over their careers.

As UK firms are no longer permitted to base salaries purely on PQE, they must develop a way to craft a pay structure based on skills. The age discrimination laws are likely to make firms focus more closely on the issue of developing core competencies for associates and instituting training programmes.

Although changing the compensation system may be a huge transition for traditional lockstep firms, the increased focus it places on developing core competencies for associates at various levels will result in numerous benefits for the firms and their associates.

A skills-based scheme defines the competencies that associates are expected to have acquired at each level of their careers. This gives associates the ability to take responsibility for their careers by following a road map for growth, as long as one is provided by the firm. Well-defined competencies can provide a model of performance that firms can use to provide a fair and equitable method for recruiting, developing and advancing talented associates, thus increasing retention of talent.

By defining the competencies critical for associate development, the firm creates an agreed set of expectations. And in an environment where several generations of lawyers must coexist effectively, defined competencies also create a common language among partners and associates for mentoring, career development, work assignments and training. Instead of operating as a ‘we know it when we see it’ performance system, everyone is privy to the terms or competencies necessary for growth and advancement.

Arnold & Porter’s London office is seeking to realise the benefits of this transformation. It is building a skills-based associate development framework that defines the core competencies necessary to grow and develop at the firm. To reward and incentivise skills development, compensation will be linked to the new framework; a move that also takes account of age discrimination requirements.

Associate competencies will include categories such as legal knowledge, analytical skills, communication skills, initiative, creativity, client service, judgement, efficiency, and supervisory and interpersonal skills. Associates will be rated on each competency by the partners and counsel with whom they work. Instead of salary being tied to PQE, there will be a matrix of bands and levels.

The scheme is being developed by the firm’s director of professional development in conjunction with the London associates themselves. Special attention is being paid to associate involvement in the development and implementation process to ensure associates view the new system as open, transparent and fair. To help associates increase their competency levels and advance their salaries, the firm has undertaken the task of further developing their training programme. The programme, combined with the defined competencies, is designed to give each associate a road map and a means to control their own career. This framework will help associates focus on the work experiences they need to grow and target training opportunities to fill any performance deficiencies.