If you read any professional practice surveys released in the last five years, you will see straight away that the most critical issue at the front of managing partners’ minds is staffing.
This is not just an issue for firms looking to recruit staff, it can be a struggle for firms to simply retain their existing staff.
However, successful recruitment and retention is a two-way street. There is no shortage of lawyers looking for interesting roles, but finding a high-quality member of staff who can integrate with an established team can be tricky. It is just as important that firms feel as confident when that do not fit. This also applies to the candidates themselves, as it is just as common for a seemingly perfect candidate to turn down a job offer after careful reflection.
When we ask these people why they have turned the job down, we expect at least part of answer to be the money. For a lot of people, that is a factor, but as an industry, professional service firms have a pretty good idea of what sort of remuneration their competitors are offering, and it is unusual that one firm offers anything particularly out of line with everybody else.
So, frequently it boils down to the less tangible factors such as culture. Salary aside, do members of staff see themselves being happy in the firm in the future, irrespective of their role or seniority?
The ‘tone at the top’ plays a big part in how the culture of a firm is perceived. Culture and tone are very noticeable to everybody inside a firm but are commonly the most difficult factors to be able to quantify, meaning that making changes can sometimes be tough. However, professionals talk to other professionals, and how the partners and staff interact will always be the main talking point at social or networking events.
Making sure that the core beliefs and values of the firm are consistently communicated and always applied is vitally important.
There are also ‘semi-tangible’ factors at play here. Things like whether the firm has a flagship office in a nice part of town that people want to be seen to be a part of, what the out of hours social life of the firm is like, what the day-to-day facilities in the offices are like and the quality of the coffee will also be up for discussion.
This focus on the physical working environment raises some interesting challenges for firms as we all start to readjust to our longer-term post pandemic working practices, and firms that were championing flexible working practices long before COVID-19 may find that they have lost their USP.
The majority of firms that we speak with feel that, on reflection, increased home working has had a positive impact on their business. Aside from some of the immediate cost saving benefits, lots of firms cite employee mental wellbeing as being the long-term winner, but it is important for firms to appreciate that what works for one person may not work as well for others. While some people thrive on working from home and find that they work more efficiently and productively away from the office, others need a busy office environment to help them stay motivated.
When we talk with our clients, the biggest positive we hear from increased home working is that the work/life equation has improved, but the same firms also say that there have been challenges to overcome to ensure staff members can communicate with their teams properly.
Working from home can also have a detrimental impact on staff training and development, particularly for new starters.
It is all about balance.
It is really important that individuals also appreciate that this need to find balance exists. The operational needs of the business must come first in any conversation around flexibility to ensure that the delivery of service does not suffer.
Sometimes, what motivates some members of staff to join a firm, or stay where they are, goes beyond what they feel benefits them directly. Firms with well-thought-out, properly communicated policies on corporate social responsibility, environmental sustainability and equality may give themselves the edge over their competitors.
Most of this does not just apply to recruitment. There has been an increase in law firm M&A activity recently, and culture considerations, working practices and management styles should sit close to the top of any agenda for firms considering their succession strategy.