Investing in the future

Talent management is high on the agenda at many law firms. Sue Conder reports

The ability to secure the best people and to exploit the full potential of their expertise and creativity is the characteristic that marks out a successful law firm. Signs of an economic upturn mean that the challenge of retaining good people is becoming more pressing. If a firm is to keep hold of its top-performing staff, it is crucial that HR reviews its employee commitment. Firms offering improved career development and training opportunities will have a better chance of retaining their top staff.

A recent survey by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu found that talent management in the legal sector was neglected compared with other sectors, with few firms having an active talent management policy.
Best practice would see potential partner candidates being identified early, to then be coached and developed through to partnership.
Of the law firms surveyed, only one actively managed its innovation and maximised its return on investment on employees. According to the research, law firms identified the barriers to successfully harnessing staff ideas as workplace politics, poor processes and an environment which does not support the development of creative ideas. The survey also found that talent management was not a key priority for firms. The findings showed that in the last year, training spend for fee-earners ranged from £480-£2,000 per person and for support staff the range was £40-£1,200.

Law firms have a number of key challenges in securing and retaining talent. Most firms now have a work-life balance policy in place, but take-up is relatively low, aside from one or two positive examples.
The poor uptake could be the result of a failure to promote a culture which supports the work-life balance – in some cases, it is simply not feasible for staff to look at these options due to performance pressures.

The magic circle firms in particular continue to rely on their status to attract the best individuals straight from law school, as many trainees are keen to get experience at such a firm under their belt.
However, if the firms fail to focus on their talent management, the associates they have grown may not stay long enough for them to benefit from their investment.

Increased recruitment competition has resulted in many firms reviewing bonus structures, designing schemes that are not based entirely on billable hours. Other efforts to increase the appeal of their working environment include comprehensive feedback for performance management, mentoring for associates and attempts to identify ‘high-potential staff’ at entry level. Even with these developments, there is still a long way for law firms to go.

Any law firm addressing retention needs to look at four key areas: creating a motivational working environment; creating a culture of communication and involvement; investing in continuous learning and development; and supporting, rewarding and recognising excellent performance. That means taking account of issues including whether the firm’s leaders are admired and respected, if the work environment encourages innovation, and if the work-life balance is a reality for associates.

The nurturing of talent through to partnership is critical. Active mentoring and guidance of top talent as well as a formal assessment process that tests both competencies and business case, ensures that promotion is based less on incremental progression and more on demonstration of competencies.

To retain talent, firms need to be more sophisticated in the way that they motivate. High salaries, bonuses and technical challenges are key elements. Increasingly, though, staff are looking for flexibility and broader development.

Sue Conder is a human capital partner at Deloitte & Touche