There is the GC who is struggling to find ways to reward his team members’ work. There is the head of legal who hired two people remotely and is wondering how to make them feel part of the company. And there are others who are just figuring out ways to keep everyone productive.

The arrival of Covid-19 has disrupted the in-house legal world, including its ways of working and the traditional progression path of lawyers. The pandemic brought about hiring freezes, delays to promotions and more pressure from stakeholders.

On a late June morning, a group of heads of legal, senior counsel and GCs across a number of major banks and financial services firms took part in a virtual roundtable moderated by Ben Williams, managing director of Allen & Overy’s flexible resourcing business Peerpoint. They grappled with the question of how to manage team and career development in a post-Coronavirus world.

If there is one thing Williams has learned from managing Peerpoint, it’s that recruitment is about more than filling a role. The director of the 2013-founded platform found that the effort is more about diving deep into a company’s culture and what it wants to achieve, and finding out how that relates to a new recruit’s character and personal ambition. These two factors drive the retention capability of a business.  At the same time, conversations with Peerpoint consultants over the years showed that the concept of career no longer refers to a race for prestigious titles. A survey conducted by the provider highlighted that junior lawyers consider career development and progression the main factors for staying in a company.

This issue immediately resonated with one in-houser at a major bank. Over the past year the lawyer assembled a team exclusively focused on retail litigation, mostly made of three to nine year PQEs. Now he feels they want recognition for their work, but few promotions and job titles are available in the in-house team. “How can I show them that there is a clear trajectory?”, he asked.

A senior litigator and executive assistant to the GC of a major bank suggested that the attractiveness of the in-house world has always been related to its flexibility and diversity of opportunities, rather than private practice’s partnership ascension. This is also true of career progression. In her bank, a secondment programme for senior lawyers helped expose lawyers to other areas of the business. “People did a great job and their enthusiasm paid dividends,” she said. They went back to their roles and kept looking for other opportunities within the bank. The experience led them to think differently and more broadly about their daily work. “Change is good and change is fresh,” she explained.

This diversity of experience is at the heart of the new generations’ idea of success. It is less about a hierarchy of roles and more about experiences, Williams often found when speaking with in-house teams. Internal secondments expose lawyers to more than a single team and open up new challenges for them to sink their teeth in. “It is really valuable and easy to do if you are inside your organisation. It values the knowledge of the institution as opposed to secondments from the outside,” Williams noted.

This appetite for different tasks is not only typical of new generations. Senior law firm partners are increasingly leaving the stuffy world of law firms for the fresh air of consulting. In many in-house functions, GCs are concocting team strategies that go well beyond going up and down the role ladder. The head of legal of an investment firm turned away from the traditional career vision of his predecessors. He described how he developed a roadmap for the future that takes into account the requirements of internal clients and stakeholders alongside what his lawyers want from their specific career chapters.

Without attention to individual needs, people will eventually leave. A few years ago, Williams’ challenge was building Peerpoint from the ground up. Running the business, creating opportunities and understanding what his employees are after informs the guidance his team provide to clients. “You need to address this issue because you might not have a challenge that suits everybody and hence they go somewhere else.”

The remote working environment has made it difficult to address these issues with the same personal touch. On one hand, it has helped many parents be more present in their children’s daily lives and erased countless hours of commuting. But in-house lawyers at the roundtable voiced a concern that this deprives team members of many points of reference in a working environment. “Office politics often help to understand where to go to get stuff done. That experience might not be developed remotely,” the litigation expert of a major bank acknowledged.

The lack of physical proximity puts lawyers in an awkward position. Suddenly nuances such as stopping someone at the end of a meeting for a chat or interpreting body language during a conversation are gone, and with them a sense of belonging and community.

New team members suffer the most from the vanishing of these interactions. They can’t get to know their managers with a casual conversation, nor randomly chatting with stakeholders in the hallway. “It is much harder for them to have an impact,” the assistant to the GC at a bank said. For instance, the legal counsel at a private investment firm recently onboarded two new people in her US team. Over the pandemic months, they worked well on deals, but she feels there is so much more to a legal function — soft skills, resilience, project management and planning. “My question is: how do I engage them in the team as much as possible?”, she wondered.

The lack of interaction risks generating a sense of isolation. And when this happens, it’s harder to have an overview of what’s going on across the team and to boost performance. It’s an “eternal conundrum,” for one senior counsel at a UK bank. The only way, participants agreed, is to sit back and map out what works and what doesn’t. By assessing what a team is doing, it’s possible to discern high-value work from non-essential tasks. “You need to say if something is not for you,” the senior counsel added, insisting that there is a lot of low-value work that should be delegated to other functions. A weekly check-in session helps to identify what is critical and to prioritise accordingly.

This attitude might go against lawyers’ natural instincts, with their tendency to claim ownership on everything they can until they overload themselves with work. But they need to draw a line and explain why some things fall out of their remit. “Sometimes it is just irresponsible not to push back. If you’re not shy about it and you state clearly that a task is not for you, it helps get the right balance,” one senior counsel suggested. Without this constant assessment of what is critical and what isn’t, GCs risk losing young talent who feel that job is not what they signed up for.

This reasoning applies to both short and long term perspectives. If the strategy is only a passive, reactive approach to incoming mandates, people will get bored and leave. Even giving junior staff a different portfolio of matters and cases can bring a sense of newness into their daily job, one assistant GC found.

But career development means having transparent conversations about the future. Any team leader should explain to colleagues if they are on the team’s succession plan, and what they can do to get on it. GCs can upskill themselves by taking on executive roles to oversee other divisions and meet more stakeholders. “When you get there, it’s no longer just law. It’s about what’s next for the business,” a participant said.

All these elements will be essential to retain team members in coming months. If they are given a high-value array of tasks because their leaders know how to focus on essential work and they feel they are looked after, they will be much more engaged. And if a leader has transparent conversations about their progression, then lawyers will have a clearer vision of their role in the business.

Far from the restraints of a traditional private practice structure, participants agreed, the in-house world is still able to offer rewarding careers that are not bound by a specific role in a corporate pyramid. “You won’t always be able to give everyone exactly what they want,” one lawyer added. “But being in-house allows you to experiment with different things, and people value that.”

Sponsor’s comment: Ben Williams, Managing Director, Peerpoint

Peerpoint is Allen & Overy’s flexible resourcing business, matching consultant lawyers to roles. We’re a ‘lawyer-led’ business, which means we concentrate on the needs and aspirations of lawyers in their professional lives. If we can attract the right people, we know we have attractive solutions for our clients.

This means we listen carefully to what lawyers are seeking, in terms of experiences, skills, working environments, flexibility, support – and the most important aspect is often how to help accelerate or take control of their careers. The traditional career paths still retain their allure for many lawyers, but it’s clear that others are looking for something different. In trying to meet those aspirations we like to know our clients well, to understand the bigger picture, and we love to be able to share our observations, ideas and thinking.

From how to motivate individuals with limited promotion opportunities, to the benefits of softer skills, commercial understanding, the use of technology, and how to really engage a team with a vision. And from immediate questions in these Covid-19 affected times, of how to initiate projects in today’s difficult circumstances, how to on-board lawyers, to immerse them into a team, through to getting creative with working arrangements.

We’d like to thank The Lawyer and all the participants at the roundtable for their openness and enthusiasm for the discussion, from the current client who has instigated an impressive internal secondment model, through to the new leader wanting to develop a team, to the whole group trying to make the best of our current circumstances in light of some very substantial business demands.