As political turmoil continues to temper financial markets, hamper international trade relations and exacerbate political insecurity, ensuring client stability and satisfaction still remains of vital concern for all law firms.
In a recent roundtable co-hosted by Scottish-based Morton Fraser and The Lawyer, participants discussed the biggest challenges facing law firms in maintaining client satisfaction into the future. The “war for talent” stood out as an aspect of legal services that firms simply must get right.
Retaining talent through culture
The delegates agreed that it was important to make sure staff felt they were adequately invested in. It was suggested that, in order to achieve this, a firm with a defined culture can create a shared purpose as part of its strategy.
One lawyer said in terms of the culture at their firm: “The younger generation comes with a twist. They demand diversity, inclusion and promotion of talent of all backgrounds. For that younger generation – these expectations are crucial.”
Another participant added that: “Culture has had such a huge impact on effectiveness and productivity. But also, on [our junior lawyers’] sense of wellbeing, their future careers and the decisions they make themselves. As a firm we’re asking [our junior lawyers] to identify what they need and for partners to be much more authentic about what they can realistically offer.”
The quality of a firm’s culture was also seen by some delegates as having a direct effect on the quality of the services delivered to clients, with one contributor stating: “We want to encapsulate quality of work as a key aspect of our firm’s culture. We want to develop the client relationships and not just execute transactions.”
The role of flexible working
The livelier sections of the discussion revolved around flexible working and the so-called “new normal” post Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. The “work from home Genie is out of the bottle” and this poses a challenge to traditional client service delivery models, and to the cultivation of a distinct and attractive culture within a firm.
This has to be carefully and actively managed by law firms to ensure that the correct balance is struck. Many junior lawyers will expect their firm to offer a flexible working policy in one form or another, but that has to be balanced at all times with the client’s expectations and needs in mind. One delegate said: “It’s all about putting clients and colleagues first. If you can be confident that you’ve done that, our people can work how they like.”
Many delegates felt that trust was at the heart of getting this right. Trust in the integrity of one’s colleagues, but also trust as between client and adviser with some delegates opining that it is easier to work entirely remotely with a given client where trust has already been established in a traditional “face to face” and physically present environment. One attendee reflected that, “I think Zoom is fine for established relationships with clients or colleague. That face-to-face human contact creates trust.”
However, some thought that even this initial “face to face” relationship was not always necessary. As one delegate recalled, “I met some people at a conference I was good friends with having only ever conversed in Teams, and realised I hadn’t ever met them in person!”
- Training the next generation
One area of particular difficulty flagged by delegates was training and bringing on the next generation of junior lawyers into senior positions. It was felt that this would require extra focus in the new era of hybrid working, both in terms of technical know-how and day to day on the job learning.
In this context, some felt it was imperative that senior colleagues led by example through their presence in the office so that junior colleagues could learn from them “almost by osmosis, as it were” in the office environment.
One delegate mentioned, for example, dealing with difficult situations in which clients may not be happy, opining that “many [junior lawyers] don’t know how to deal with client complaints and how to come out the other end of such a process with the relationship still intact. We need to be teaching [junior lawyers] resilience as well as pure black letter law.”
Again, client demands will drive the approach taken to a certain extent. One delegate stated that many of his clients actively prefer online meetings and specifically request these as opposed to a traditional “face to face” meeting. That can then make it seem harder to involve junior colleagues in the meeting if there’s a sense of too many lawyers on the call and the client wonders what they are paying for.
Whilst there is no doubt that flexible working presents challenges, the overall feeling was that flexible working is here to stay and is very much part of the “new normal”. How that is implemented in practice and what that means for the day to day lived experience of professional advisers will very much depend on the nature of the relationship with specific clients and the extent to which junior lawyers are keen to progress to the next stages of their careers.
Diversity and inclusion
There was an engaging discussion on routes into the profession as a means of improving diversity and improved client service delivery through bringing a broad range of cultural and societal experience to the cutting edge of the profession. Delegates agreed that it was vitally important for there to be a broad range of entry points into the profession so that it is accessible for people from all walks of life. Clients will benefit from a wider range of experiences within their legal services provider. Bringing a broader and more diverse offering of skillsets and backgrounds within law firms was undoubtedly the future of the profession.
One of the delegates spoke about mentoring an A-Level student through an Oxbridge application process, but in the end the student sought a different route into the law via a six-year apprenticeship with CMS instead. It is important that firms are alive to these different opportunities.
Changing career aspirations
The extent to which partnership is still the “golden carrot” it once was came up as yet another issue for law firms to consider in the “war for talent”.
One lawyer said: “I’m struck by how many associates think the legal profession is not necessarily a career for life. There are several associates who have said they want to be an entrepreneur and are using the law as a stepping-stone.”
Delegates also reported a growing trend for people to move laterally within their careers in the law, staying in the profession but specialising in areas of service delivery that are of more interest to them. One delegate spoke of “…. a member of the team who wanted to become a legal technologist” and how the law firm in question had supported that move thereby retaining a super talent within the business.
A broad and diverse range of law firms was represented at the roundtable event. There were very large UK and US international law firms present which operate across many jurisdictions as well as those UK firms which are more focussed on the UK (in some cases exclusively) working with “best friends” to deliver on cross-border mandates. What was striking was that, regardless of the size and shapes of the firms represented, all are wrestling with the same issues when it comes to client service delivery and the “war for talent”.
This was picked up specifically by Chris Harte, CEO of Morton Fraser, who co-chaired the event together with Matt Byrne of The Lawyer. Chris said: “As a firm involved in a huge range of cross-border client work, it has been invaluable to share views on clients’ expectations of what excellent service looks like, and the role which technology and talent play in delivering that.
“Having the opportunity to speak about these issues with friends from across the profession provides us with a valuable insight into the range of thinking that informs delivery for our clients, our people and the next generation of diverse and talented lawyers.”