The human element

The more progressive law firms are finally realising the value of having a proficient HR capability. Matt Byrne and Joanne O’Connor list the 10 best regarded professionals

What makes a good HR professional? The response of many partners until recently might well have been “who cares?” It is only a support department, isn’t it? Not quite a necessary evil, but not the raison d’être of any law firm. Not any more. While HR still essentially remains a support department, its role is taken much more seriously by the more progressive practices.

Taylor Wessing, for example, last month released the results of its long-awaited strategic review. Its approach typifies current thinking, viewing HR as a core part of its new strategy, a crucial player in helping its lawyers understand its long-term goals. A significant portion of the firm’s strategy summary document is focused on HR-related issues. Along with the firm’s financial goals and the industry sectors on which it aims to focus are plans to “invest money, time and effort in recruiting the right calibre of staff: secretarial, business support and legal”.

It goes on to explain how Taylor Wessing aims to “alter radically [its] approach to training”, with more capital invested in this area, and how it hopes to pull out the stops in improving internal communications and develop a “user-friendly knowledge management system” for all staff.

All the above are fundamentally HR issues. Perhaps the fact that Taylor Wessing’s current HR director Jonathan Croucher was, until January this year, one of its employment partners lessens the surprise that it is among the leading firms in the HR push. “Some firms are beginning to see HR as a strategic partner,” says Croucher. “The most visible way is by making the HR director a board member position. That allows them to have input on decisions from day one and makes the HR strategy consistent with the strategy of the firm.”

Continuous professional development
The Lawyer quizzed dozens of leading recruitment consultants to find out who they believed were the leading HR professionals in the UK legal market (Croucher came out particularly well). The titles and responsibilities varied, although not surprisingly, at one time or another, all had a hand in recruitment at their respective firms. Many of the themes, though, were consistent. An ability to communicate was top of the list, reinforcing the increased emphasis Taylor Wessing is now placing on developing this skill. And the worst faults? “Not coming back to us, not giving us any feedback, viewing recruitment consultants as a hindrance or an irritation rather than as an assistance to the HR department,” says Hilary Spicer of recruitment consultants Kellyfield. “You can only be really useful to them if they give you information and feedback.”

Although recruitment may be only part of an HR professional’s remit, it is one of their key roles. Most firms realised long ago that their most important asset is staff, although as Barlow Lyde & Gilbert’s operations manager and partnership secretary Robin Barnes points out, the “inevitable inertia” within many firms means the changed perception of HR’s importance has come slower than in other sectors. “The legal world has always responded to change slower than other markets,” says Barnes. “But there’s definitely now a recognition of the importance of our people and that they’re our most valuable commodity. There’s a dawning realisation that people are essential. We are our people and HR is increasingly regarded as a good way of enhancing that commodity.”

As Herbert Smith’s HR director John Lucy explains below, the first partner went through a 360? review in December 1999. It is now an integral part of a senior fee-earner’s development, which is a reflection of the fact that firms are more willing to invest time in the all-round development of their staff so that they can take responsibility for their own careers. That is the thinking; these are the people putting it into practice.

Robin Barnes, Barlow Lyde & Gilbert
Former criminal barrister Barnes started as the professional recruitment manager at Barlows. He is now operations manager and partnership secretary, with responsibility for internal communications. The firm does not have an HR director, but on 26 November appo-inted HR manager Julie Leeper as head of HR. There is no director on the board. Leeper will work with senior and managing partner and head of employment Gary Freer and four other HR managers.

Two years ago, Barlows changed the way it approached HR. It brought in consultants MRI to review internal communications. This recommended more horizontal communications, so groups consisting of people with similar roles and at similar levels from across the firm were established. The groups have four main functions: purely social; a twice-yearly informal drink to mix with senior management; twice-yearly formal meetings between the groups, the senior partner and the managing partner; and meetings every six weeks between each group leader with Barlows’ seven communication partners to pass on feedback from staff or to raise hot topics.

So how does the firm measure the success of this initiative? “A lot of it’s not measurable – improving communications can be a slippery concept,” admits Barnes. “But the high attendance at those meetings and the participation by staff of all types and levels speaks volumes for what it’s done for communications internally.”

What the rec cons say: “Has the experience and clout to make decisions, such as whether or not the firm is interested in a candidate. He is absolutely superb.”

Tim Cole, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
For the past four years, Freshfields has had a system of ‘embedding’ HR professionals within its practice groups. Each group or business support area has its own HR officer. According to Cole, the firm’s HR director for the past eight years, it ensures that HR “is on the spot and engaged in the commercial activity the group is involved in”.

Cole leads a team of 50 HR staff, divided into four key areas: UK graduate recruitment, learning and development, compensation and benefits, and HR services. The HR director, in common with all directors of Freshfields’ key business functions, has quasi-partner status.

The firm has just completed an exhaustive partner development programme, in which 96 per cent of partners have been through 360° reviews. The development programmes are all HR-facilitated but business-led, says Cole, and managing partner Hugh Crisp is said to be particularly supportive of the initiatives. “The lawyers are your best advocates,” he says.

What the rec cons say: “Very commercial, absolutely strategic and has the utter confidence of the partnership, yet will give you time, is very attentive and he’s a tremendously nice guy. And he cycles to and from work.”

Jonathan Croucher, Taylor Wessing
At Taylor Wessing, HR is a “strategic partner” within the firm. Croucher says this allows HR to input on decisions from day one, making the HR strategy consistent with the strategy of the firm. With the new strategic vision just released, this is particularly topical. Croucher’s team is free to give input on everything. “It means leveraging the maximum return on investment in people,” says Croucher. “Being good at HR means understanding the business and the motivations behind the drivers of the business so that you can input into management.”

Croucher is unique among the top 10 in that, until January this year, he was a partner in his firm (in employment). He has a deep understanding of his firm’s business and strategy. He argues that strategic HR allows the team to shape the agenda, both in the development of associates and in relation to issues such as diversity programmes “We’ve just been working on the role of women in the firm,” he reveals. “A working party chaired by me is looking into how we develop and retain women at the firm. It was set up in November and was adopted as one of our strategic initiatives as part of the firm’s new strategy.”

What the rec cons say: “As a former partner, he completely understands how the firm functions.”

Peter Griffith, Ashurst Morris Crisp
Ashursts’ 24 HR professionals are divided into five sections – fee-earners, secretaries, other support staff, compensation and benefits and graduate recruitment – all of which are handled by self-sufficient teams operating under their own management.

The teams are led by HR director Griffith, who joined Ashursts seven years ago from a six-partner US firm.
Under Griffith, Ashursts has introduced rewards for ‘investment hours’ – ie time spent training or writing articles – and has a system of comprehensive annual partner appraisal.

Griffith says that over the seven years he has spent in the role, he has “made HR an integral part of the business”.

What the rec cons say: “He’s team engendering, open, has good management skills.”

Robert Halton, DLA
DLA’s HR department is lean by law firm standards – 39 work in HR out of a total staff of 3,500 spread across the offices. Halton was the first HR director recruited by Nigel Knowles after the firm’s 1996 merger. Soon after, Halton worked with central management to devise the firm’s values – quality, people and service.

Halton insists that “any HR function has to fit with the strategic imperatives of the business”. True to its ‘inclusive’ values, Halton rejects the idea of a split between professionals and non-professionals in law firms. “Nobody at DLA is a ‘non-fee-earner’ or a ‘non-person’,” he says. “Clients deal with both professionals and non-professionals. They deal with switchboard operators, secretaries and paralegals. Unless you treat these people properly, they will not treat your clients properly.”

Halton has been in HR since he left the navy in 1989. He insists the HR challenges in firms and the navy are the same. “In the navy, people are critical. If you get it wrong, people may get killed. The principals in law firms are the same, although the consequences are obviously not as serious. You have to motivate people and keep them on your side.”

What the rec cons say: “Very well respected.”

Annabelle Lawrence, Cripps Harries Hall
Tunbridge Wells-based Cripps has a five-person HR team led by Lawrence. Head of HR since 1996, she has seen her role expand to take in strategic and business development issues. Lawrence now represents HR at monthly board meetings and works closely with the firm’s managing and senior partners.

HR has had a central role in the firm’s expansion and staff retention – and Lawrence engages in the recruitment of graduates and partners alike.

The training and development function has been handed over to the firm’s know-how and information team. “We decided it would be better to concentrate training and development as part of know-how and information and leave HR to concentrate on other core functions,” says Lawrence.

What the rec cons say: “Consistently good. Stays on track. Also good at using the web to recruit candidates directly – not great for us but it’s impressive. I have great respect for her judgement and she keeps you informed. She also asks pertinent questions about the candidates on their strengths and weaknesses – and she does it with great good humour and without condescension.”

John Lucy, Herbert Smith
Lucy is the doyenne of the 360? review. Since joining Herbert Smith six years ago from Ernst & Young, he has helped increase the firm’s emphasis on partner development, of which the 360? review, which features feedback from peers and subordinates, is an integral part. Now, he says, that approach is “cascading down” through the assistant ranks.

The next part of Lucy’s masterplan for all-round development features one-to-one sessions at the firm’s external development centres. These are also now available for fee-earners from five years’ PQE. Individual development plans are created by Lucy and his team, which focus on softer skills such as client management. “What’s been encouraging is that the vast majority of senior assistants that have been through the process take it very seriously,” says Lucy. “This is one of the changes I’ve seen in relation to HR.”

Lucy heads a centralised HR team of 32. Unlike larger teams, which are broken down into departments, various teams cover groups such as fee-earners, support staff, secretaries, trainees and graduate recruitment. He also has three senior HR directors reporting directly to him covering operations, learning and development, and Asia.

What the rec cons say: “Very pragmatic – there’s nothing he doesn’t know.”

John Renz, CMS Cameron McKenna
Renz has seen some considerable changes at Camerons – the HR director helped guide the firm through its 1997 merger. Today the HR team reports to the head of operations and development. HR professionals are divided among the firm’s practice groups and there are separate graduate recruitment and learning and development functions.

A dedicated information and policy team reports directly to Renz and works to implement legislative requirements and best practice at the firm. Camerons is now moving to implement a structured diversity policy.

Renz started his HR career at the NHS, later moving on to Linklatersbefore joining the pre-CMS McKenna & Co in 1997. Like all directors of the firm’s business teams, he has partner status.

For Renz, the strength of his team lies in its strong links with firm management and other business support units, such as marketing and finance. “We try to provide holistic solutions,” he says.

What the rec cons say: “Renz has both charm and grit.”

Gareth Russell, Withers
At just 34 Russell may be a young gun, but he has seen more than most in the world of law firm HR.

As the HR director at Withers, Russell oversaw the firm’s US merger and a subsequent increase in staff numbers of 10 per cent.

Russell’s team of fewer than 10 HR staff has standardised the system for partner and associate selection and appraisal and linked the HR function with the firm’s business strategy.

Russell has more experience of law firm mergers than most: he joined Withers in 2001 from Linklaters, where he spearheaded the HR aspects of Linklaters’ Swedish and German marriages.

What the rec cons say: “Very creditable, very bright and focused, with enormous potential.”

Anita Tovell, Simmons & Simmons
“My best job,” says Tovell of her position as Simmons’ personnel director. The veteran of stints at Arthur Andersen, Air Products and Grant Thorntonarrived at Simmons in 1995 from Lovells, where she had been since 1989. She is responsible for both HR and training, for which there is no split.

Tovell is a non-lawyer dedicated to HR. “Once you get accustomed to working with lawyers, I don’t think it matters that you don’t come from a legal background,” she argues.

One of the most pressing challenges for Simmons, with 18 of its 19 offices outside London, is international expansion. “There’s an interesting development where some of the agencies are operating internationally,” she says. “One of the problems in overseas recruitment is finding a candidate who’ll fit… Overseas you have to source people often without there being a recruitment consultant. Some of the better agencies in London have spotted the opportunity to work for London firms on this.”

What the rec cons say: “Knows the firm inside out. Anita is very involved in strategy, knows what’s going on in Europe. She remembers everything.”

Honourable mentions also to:

Anita Amies, TWM, Guildford: “Another former rec con that jumped ship. Very professional to deal with.”

Fiona Cass, Weil Gotshal & Manges: “Bubbly, very strategic, pragmatic. Combines handling the basic things with confronting issues with partners.”

Jim Day, Brachers: “Has been in the game a long, long time.”

Donna Flack, ASB: “Good and relatively new. Very good at keeping us informed, especially with regular emails.”

David Fowler, DWS: “The ultimate pro. Has gravitas.”

Malcolm Lewis, Trowers & Hamlin: “A star.”

Morwenna Lewis, Slaughter and May: “Worked on the other side of the fence. Will always chat.”

Chris Robinson, Berrymans Lace Mawer: “Excellent.”

Hilton Wallace, Richards Butler: “Gets involved, carries the ball and doesn’t drop it between partners.”

Julia Sherlock, Dewey Ballantine: “Approachable, accessible, thorough understanding of the practice and has the respect of the partners.”