Two years ago The Lawyer reported that Allen & Overy (A&O) had an associate attrition rate of nearly 25 per cent. Since then, both within A&O and in the market generally, there has been an obsession with how to hire the best associates possible, how to then hang on to them and how to calibrate their work-life balance. All of which are themes generally referred to with the now ubiquitous umbrella term ‘the war for talent’.
A&O’s answer, or at least part of it, was to agree to have an associate sit on its weekly management committee meetings – the first move of its kind within a UK law firm.
It is easy to be cynical about such a step – a case of the firm just being seen to do something. But just how much of a difference can one associate make?
Employment associate Penny Caven, who is now on maternity leave after the June birth of her son, was A&O’s inaugural associate representative at the committee meetings.
“Because the committee deals with day-to-day issues, I’m not sure that I could say that because I was there a particular initiative, which directly benefited the associates, was implemented. But then again I can’t think of any partners doing something specific for the partners either,” Caven says. “I’ve probably contributed more than I thought I would. If an item directly affects associates, I’m the first person to be asked to volunteer an opinion. And my opinion has the same weight as anyone else’s on the management committee.”
The committee is made up of key practice heads, international heads and support function heads and meets weekly to discuss management matters. It is not the same as A&O’s board, which votes on broader strategic issues, but it is a heavyweight collection of A&O stars all the same.
Not that it flummoxed Caven, who says: “In all honesty, barriers aren’t that important at Allen & Overy. It’s very relaxed: associates and partners talk to each other as colleagues.”
However, Caven is not an associate spokesperson. She does not canvas associate opinion on issues prior to meetings and she is not there to voice their concerns. A&O has departmental fora where associates can go to raise ideas or grievances, the firm argues.
The point is rather that, during committee meetings, management asks the opinion of an associate, and that associate has happened to be Caven.
“What we have is a different way of adding associate perspective,” she explains. “Lots of firms have working bodies – as we do, on a team level – but this is different. We contribute to, rather than drive, the process.”
Passing on the baton
This summer saw Caven hand over the reins of associate representation to Graham Knight, a finance specialist. Despite Caven’s maternity leave, the associate position on the management committee has a six-month term anyway – although this might change in the future.
“It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this and inevitably things will change as it’s a pilot year. We weren’t voted in as such, but that might change in the future too,” explains Knight.
Knight and Caven landed the role because they were part of a team that proposed the idea of a representative at last year’s associate awayday. The awayday itself was part of a raft of measures implemented by A&O in order to address associate attrition. Other steps included introducing a competency framework, which in time will make references to the PQE system redundant, and overhauling associate remuneration.
A&O has set the market rate for associate pay by raising its base salary by 15 per cent to £63,250 for newlyqualifieds (NQs) starting in October 2006, as reported on www.thelawyer.com (12 October 2006), and then again in April when this was bumped up to £64,900, as reported on www.thelawyer.com (24 April).
The firm also decided to peg associates’ bonuses to the value of a partner point, which this year stands at £30,800. The firm’s associates can now earn a minimum of £15,400 in a year through a performance-related bonus alone, as first reported by The Lawyer (16 July).
Pay is always headline news, but awaydays have also had their fair share of column inches over the past 12 months. They have become a popular way for firms to poll and assess what associates are thinking. If nothing else, they also show associates that at least management is listening to their concerns. Whether management acts on them, of course, is a different matter.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer followed A&O’s lead and instigated its first awayday in March. But just how innovative was A&O being in the first place?
CMS Cameron McKenna has already had two awaydays for London associates, the most recent taking place in May at East London’s Hackney Empire.
Camerons has also had associate representation within the firm’s staff council for five years. The council meets every other month and comprises six fee-earners, business support representatives and secretarial nominees, as well as managing partner Dick Tyler and director of operations Keith Pearce.
Each practice area has an associate representative who, unlike at A&O, is very much a spokesperson. A representative is voted in for a two-year term.
To run for election, “you need to be proposed by one peer, then seconded by another and then get approval from your line manager to go forward to be elected”, explains Sinead Goss, the corporate representative on Camerons’ council, who has five years’ PQE.
Her reinsurance/insurance peer on the council is Cheryl Gibson. Are they able to think of instances where the council made a difference?
They are vigorous in arguing for just how important the council is on associate matters. Camerons’ NQ pay is now on a par with Freshfields’ and Linklaters’, at £64,000, while the firm also reintroduced a time-recorded bonus, which both women fought hard for at the request of their practice groups.
In addition, since the beginning of 2007 bonuses have been awarded on a quarterly basis to make them attainable to most people, rather than just to associates in the busiest groups.
“It’s pretty much all we asked for,” smiles Gibson. “We had a huge number of meetings to instigate it.”
Making a difference
There are 1,430 associates at A&O, while Camerons has just more than 500. Being a representative, in either A&O’s or Camerons’ mould, surely has the advantage of raising one’s profile amid a sea of peers?
“I can’t think it’s done any harm,” muses Knight.
Caven is quick to point out that “it’s not something other people have to do in order to progress up the firm. It’s not determinative of success.” This is not a point lost on the Camerons associates either.
“It definitely raises your profile,” agrees Goss. “Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on the individual.”
There is little surprise, then, that at a firm full of ambitious and forthright people there is competition for what is now a coveted role.
Goss reports that, when she was first elected two years ago, no one wanted a place on the staff council. She’s just been re-elected after standing against two other corporate associates.
The trade-off, of course, is the responsibility and commitment of being a representative. “It’s a huge responsibility,” says Knight. “We’re the first ones to do it. If we get it wrong it could jeopardise other people’s opportunities.”
In terms of time commitment, meetings last an hour each week, with members being sent an agenda beforehand. Caven explains: “You do need to devote some time to it obviously, but not so you need to change your working day.”
Breaking down barriers
So how empowered do both sets of associates feel? And how much do they feel they can achieve?
“It’s about breaking down barriers,” says Goss. “Sometimes discussions are needed to make management and HR see how associates are really thinking. In one meeting, for instance, HR thought that if you’re in the office for seven hours you should be able to achieve seven chargeable hours, which isn’t realistic.”
It is this concept of a barrier, real or imagined, that has led to associates feeling that they are a group pitted against management or HR.
Caven agrees. “I do think our meetings help break down barriers,” she says. “They’re asking what an associate would think about a particular matter and that’s an important thought process for them to take.”
That in and of itself is a big sea change from the traditional leadership of a firm, where 20 partners might sit around a table once or twice a year to decide what the firm’s priorities would be for the next 12 months.
“There’s been a big shift to consultation in the wider sense,” says Goss. “Generally, the point is for the firm to be seen to be listening.”
Her boss Tyler agrees. “There’s more transparency in the market. Associates are more vocal,” he says. “But what people want hasn’t changed too much – they want straightforwardness.”
It can be hard for firm management to know what associates want. Often the associates themselves are not sure. But the message from these two groups of associates is clear: it is all about communication.
“If you want to ensure a happier associate body then you need to ensure good communication. That’s easier for smaller firms and harder for larger firms like us,” admits Caven. “But the war for talent can be made easier by listening.”
A call to arms if ever there was one.